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The New Deal Didn't Cause a Democratic Realignment—World War II Did

The story is familiar.  American politics in the 1930s underwent a historic electoral realignment, traces of which can still be felt today.  The Great Depression toppled the Republicans as the dominant party, a status it had enjoyed in national politics since the Civil War, and very comfortably so since the 1890s.  The New Deal then helped install the Democrats as the newly dominant party for years to come.  But the story is wrong.

Contrary to scholarly consensus, the “New Deal realignment” was not forged during the New Deal or the Great Depression.  Those events, to be sure, led to electoral landslides in 1932 and 1936, as well as some shift in party identification.  But what gave the Democratic Party its overwhelming hold on the American electorate for much of the second half of the twentieth century was the wartime experience and the postwar prosperity. 

It was not until 1948 that the Democrats take a commanding lead in party identification, something which registered in the National Election Studies for the next few decades.  What is more, the generation of young voters with the strongest attachment to the Democratic Party is one which came of age in the 1940s, part of the Greatest Generation, for whom World War II was the defining experience.  While the Democratic Party also benefited from the partisanship expressed by the Depression/New Deal generation, which came of age during the 1930s, gains from conversion of older cohorts prove largely short-lived.  

These findings come from a “real-time” analysis of polls that inquired about party identification between 1937 and 1952.  Over 170 such polls were conducted during that period, all but a few by the Gallup Organization, with a staggering total of close to half a million respondents.  This dataset, which has remained unexplored until now, provides for a far more timely gauge of partisanship during the realignment era than do the National Election surveys.  The latter do not begin probing party identification until 1952, and hence ask a lot about the quality of recall or the persistence of partisanship.

The first probe of party identification, conducted by Gallup in March of 1937, showed a huge advantage for the Democrats. If this lead had been sustained in subsequent polls, it would have supported the view that the Depression/New Deal almost instantly created a new alignment in the American electorate.  Yet the Democratic lead shrank quickly and did not reach the same magnitude for another ten years.  While Democrats did hold an edge over Republicans in most polls during Roosevelt’s presidency, the lead is often quite modest.  At no point during that time does the party recapture the magnitude of the 1936 election boost.  The trend, if anything, points to a diminishing rather than growing advantage for the Democratic Party.

It will surely come as a surprise to most observers that the biggest and most sustained surge in favor of the Democrats occured in 1948.  After all, the election that year was one they were expected to lose, with an unpopular president trailing in the polls.  The surge began in early September of 1948, as Truman’s campaign got underway, and held up in polls throughout his campaign.  The gain gave the Democratic Party a commanding lead in the affection of the American electorate.  This time the lead didn't dissipate soon afterward, as it did in 1936.  Some slippage notwithstanding, the lead was replicated in polls during the 1952 election, and from then on for the next three decades in the party identification probes of the familiar National Election Studies.

What rallied Americans to the Democratic Party was prosperity.  “Happy times are here again,” most would eagerly agree by 1948.  While the end of the war precipitated a sharp contraction of the economy in 1946 (which persisted through 1947) the economy grew by a robust 4.4 percent in 1948, and continued to do so for the next four years.  Any fears that the country would slide back into a depression once wartime production ended proved unfounded.  At the same time, the unemployment rate in 1948 fell below 4 percent after a brief spike from practically zero during the war years.  The postwar prosperity, achieved under a Democratic administration, sharply contrasted with the Great Depression, which struck the economy under a Republican one.  It was a contrast that Harry Truman reminded people of in the starkest terms during his whistle-stop campaign tour.

The fact that the Depression did less than prosperity to move partisanship implies that success is a more critical ingredient of realignments than failure.  The economic calamity that struck the U.S. in the late 1920s probably cost the Republicans some long-term support, aside from the White House and the Congress in 1932, but it was not enough to trigger a surge in favor of the Democratic Party.  The fact that one party gets tarred with the image of Depression need not anoint the opposite one as the party of prosperity.  Although the New Deal had great popular appeal, it delivered at best a limited recovery from the Depression.  Between 1932 and 1936, the ranks of the unemployed shrank, but nowhere close to pre-Depression levels.  And Roosevelt’s second term made no further dent in the overall unemployment rate.  Democratic rule in Washington had fallen short of restoring the prosperity that Americans had experienced prior to the onset of the Great Depression.  It was the wartime economy that vanquished unemployment.  The transition to peacetime, to the surprise of many economists, did not thrust the U.S. economy back into a prolonged slump.  Happy times were here to stay, with unemployment remaining low in the postwar years.  By now, the Democrats had proven to the American electorate that they could deliver economic prosperity.

The fact that that it took until the 1940s to forge the “New Deal realignment” invites some speculative questions.  What if there had been no World War II?  The imminent threat of the German conquest of Britain in 1940 prompted Roosevelt to run for an unprecedented third term.  Absent war, a Republican return to power in 1940 might very well have snuffed out the prospect of realignment.  Likewise, what if the war had been over by 1944?  In that event, Roosevelt most likely would not have sought and won an unprecedented fourth term.  And Republicans might have been in control of the White House during the postwar economic boom.  This would have deprived the Democrats of the opportunity to establish their reputation as the party of prosperity while exorcising the ghost of Herbert Hoover and the reputation of Republicans as the party of Depression.  In terms of electoral alignments, the 1950s might have looked like the 1920s.

Comment by Gil Troy

Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University

This analysis reminds us that cathartic moments occur more in literature and popular culture than in politics—real change, especially change of party identity, takes longer, and goes in fits and starts.  Toast pops easily, history unfolds slowly.

FDR was no Superman, and the New Deal was not a half-hour TV show resolved after one or two short commercial breaks.  The Great Depression was Great—being it was long, drawn out, divisive, as well a source of great misery for millions.  It is helpful to see statistics reminding us that the New Deal itself came in fits and starts and that the reception was rocky, again helping us appreciate the complexity of the period.

World War II, while horrific, was a boon to the American economy—and the American psyche.  The great prosperity resulted from the war more than from the New Deal, and it makes sense that the generation that came up through Depression and fought in the war, which then reaped the benefits of prosperity, would be the generation most devoted to the Democrats.

And while this will be surprising to many, this insight was definitely part of Harry Truman's analysis in 1948 (and among the key insights in the famous Clark Clifford memo) —he ran a partisan campaign, mobilizing Democrats, playing on their gratitude, while Dewey ran the broader, let's all be friends campaign—and failed.