EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Opinion

January 14, 2013

Column: Lessons from the past for today's Democrats

The start of the new year, and also of President Barack Obama’s second term, is a good time to pause for perspective on the sources of the current political constellation in our country. To help understand the recent national electoral success of Obama and the Democratic Party, study Al Smith.

Who?

Alfred E. Smith was governor of New York State and the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 1928. He was also the first Roman Catholic candidate to be chosen for national office by a major party. He was buried in the enormous Republican election landslide that carried Herbert Hoover to the White House, and reinforced that party’s strong grip on majorities in both houses of Congress.

Hoover at the time was the most popular political figure in America. He was a gifted engineer and highly effective executive who got things done. Vast programs of humanitarian relief for Europe in the wake of World War I, and for the Mississippi River valley in the wake of devastating floods in 1927, were overseen by this leader, who was also above reproach in personal ethics.

However, in 1928 Smith won the 12 biggest cities — beginning with New York and ending with Los Angeles — with an overall plurality, reversing previous Republican dominance in these areas. Samuel Lubell, a brilliant journalist as well as scholar, insightfully describes the phenomenon in his book “The Future of American Politics,” published in 1952.

Not surprisingly in that different time, a quarter-century before the modern South began developing, all of the largest cities were in Northern states. Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Miami and other centers of Southern national political as well as economic influence had not yet emerged.

In the North, newly arriving immigrants from Europe had suffered severely from intense ingrained ethnic bigotry. The Irish in particular experienced devastating discrimination by dominant groups.

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