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.
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.
Immigrants found relief through Democratic Party local organizations, using resulting practical leverage to gain desperately needed employment in the fire and police departments, and other city services. Those jobs could be tedious as well as dangerous but brought regular pay, and usually involved some security.
After World War II, the big cities were challenged and then overcome by the rapidly expanding suburbs. Earlier rural-urban divisions faded. In 1960, suburbs for the first time had a plurality of the electorate. By 1992, the suburbs held a majority. Successful Democratic presidential nominees John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton demonstrated strong appeal in the suburbs.
In the 1950s, popular commentaries often casually referred to the suburbs as Republican, but that was not actually true. They were more Eisenhower suburbs — the incredibly popular Republican Dwight Eisenhower carried them as he did the rest of the country.
Suburban residents, however, did not completely abandon the Democratic sympathies of their parents and grandparents.
As reference to Ike implies, individual leaders are crucial. FDR was essential to forging the new Democratic Party majority, combining expanding urban centers and the traditionally Democratic South. Ronald Reagan was brilliantly successful in drawing working people away from their Democratic Party loyalties.
As a result of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover became widely reviled, and was rejected overwhelmingly in the 1932 election. Every post-World War II president except Eisenhower has run into serious trouble during his second term.
Re-elected presidents, and their associates, should remember the adage of ancient Rome — “All glory is fleeting.”
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College.