A Regional Party Limited to the South: The Democrats in the 1920s, Part 2

This is the second part of three posts analyzing the Democratic Party’s struggles during the 1920s, when it lost three consecutive presidential elections by landslide margins. This will focus upon the 1920 and 1924 presidential election, when white ethnic immigrants abandoned the Democratic Party.

The last part can be found here.

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

The 1920 Presidential Election

The Democratic Party of the early twentieth century was composed of two bases (both of which no longer vote Democratic). These were Southern whites and immigrant, often Catholic, whites from places such as Ireland and Italy. Southern whites voted Democratic due to the memory of the Civil War and could be reliably whipped up with race-baiting appeals. Immigrant ethnic whites, on the other hand, saw the Democratic Party as a vehicle of defense against the dominant, Republican-voting WASP majority in the Northeast and Midwest.

The two groups had precious little in common, save distrust of the dominant Republican Party. One of the constituencies would often only lukewarmly support the national Democratic candidate (this was usually the immigrant  camp, because without Southern whites the Democratic Party was nothing).

In 1920, ethnic whites walked out of the Democratic Party. The city machines at Tammany Hall and others did not just fail to fully back Democratic candidate James M. Cox; they outright refused to support him.

This was entirely the fault of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. The previous year, Mr. Wilson had delicately stated that:

…there is an organized propaganda against the League of Nations and against the treaty proceeding from exactly the same sources that the organized propaganda proceeded from which threatened this country here and there with disloyalty, and I want to say — I cannot say too often — any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.

If I can catch any man with a hyphen in this great contest I will know that I have got an enemy of the Republic.

The political stupidity of this quote cannot be overstated. The “man with a hyphen” was not just a politically influential constituency; in states like New York, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin he was the Democratic Party.

This, along with Mr. Wilson making the 1920 election a referendum on his extremely unpopular League of Nations, led to the result in the map above.

Democratic candidate James M. Cox lost everywhere outside the Solid South. He got barely one-fourth of the vote in New York City, less than one-fourth in Chicago, less than one-fifth in Detroit, and so on throughout all the great non-Southern cities. In the “hyphen-heavy” states of Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and Minnesota, Mr. Cox failed to break the 20% mark. Even in the Solid South, Republicans broke 30% of the vote – for the first time since 1908, when disenfranchisement of blacks was complete.

All in all, Democratic candidate James M. Cox lost by 26.2% – the greatest defeat in the popular vote, ever.

The 1924 Presidential Election

In 1924, the Democratic Party nominated a man with the distinction of being more conservative than the Republican.

Little known John W. Davis was not just a social conservative who endorsed segregation – that was true for all Southern Democrats at the time – but also an economic conservative. Mr. Davis believed in small government, states rights, and would go on to oppose President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Mr. Davis was nominated as a compromise candidate after one of the longest and nastiest Democratic conventions in history – a bitter fight with immigrant whites from big cities against Southern and Western rural whites. By the time the convention had ended, it was clear that Democrats didn’t stand a chance of winning the 1924 presidential election. After Mr. Davis’s nomination, ethnic whites walked out once again.

In 1924, Democrats lost big again. They lost by more than Walter Mondale against Ronald Reagan. They lost by more than Herbert Hoover against FDR. All in all, the Democratic candidate lost by the second greatest popular margin in American history, right after 1920.

Mr. Davis won between one-fourth and one-third of the votes. Southern whites stayed loyal; indeed, he did a quite bit better than Mr. Cox in 1920 in the Solid South.

White ethnics did not. In 1920 white immigrants had sat out the election. This time they voted for Governor Senator Robert La Follette, who was the only liberal candidate in the race. Mr. La Follette did better than the Democratic candidate in a dozen states.

Everybody else voted for Republican candidate Calvin Coolidge. Mr. Davis lost almost every single non-Southern city, including all five boroughs of New York (the last time a Democratic presidential candidate would lose New York). In Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Francisco the Democratic candidate got less than 10% of the vote.

All in all, Mr. Davis failed to break 30% in more than half the states:

Link to Map of Mr. Davis's Vote

In the aftermath of this election – a second disastrous election in a row for Democrats – it was clear that a change in strategy was needed. For two elections in a row, Democrats had won Southern whites and nobody else.

In 1928, therefore, the Democratic Party nominated the candidate of the white ethnics to run for president. This time it was the turn of the Southern whites to walk out.



Waiving the Rules for Old Glory

We proclaim our oatriotism by waving flags; perhaps we need to do more reading of history and the Constitution.

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Women's History Month: The 19th Amendment

Cross posted at Dkos and EENR. Presented here by special request of kev22262.

Tomorrow, women in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont go to the polls, as they have since just 1920--just 88 years ago--and the story of how they got there is a harrowing tale of fighters like Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, as well as a different kind of 50-state strategy, mass arrests, maggot infested force-feedings, rose wars, and so much more.

The final push for elective franchise for women is one of the most riveting tales in American history. As Harriot Stanton Blatch said after the Amendment was ratified:

All honor to women, the first disenfranchised class in history who unaided by any political party, won enfranchisement by its own effort alone, and achieved the victory without the shedding of a drop of human blood.

Join me below the fold for details along the road to Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, and every state in the Union!

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Obama in 2008: More Like 1912 Than 1932

[Cross-posted from ProgressiveHistorians.]

Daily Kos has recently been abuzz with speculation that the coming Presidential election will play out similarly to that of 1932 -- a dramatic realignment election that puts Dems on top for a generation.  DHinMI advanced this argument in a very good three-partseries last month.  Today, New Deal democrat provides more evidence of this phenomenon by pointing out that economic conditions were similar in some ways then to how they are now.

It's an interesting, if optimistic, argument, but I disagree with one of its underlying assumptions -- particularly if Barack Obama becomes the Democratic nominee.  In that eventuality, I think Woodrow Wilson's campaign in 1912, rather than Franklin Roosevelt's in 1932, is more likely to serve as a useful model for the 2008 election.

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In Search of a Foreign Policy Vision

[Cross-posted at ProgressiveHistorians.]

On September 25, 1919, the day before he suffered the first of a series of strokes that that would leave him incapacitated for the rest of his life, Woodrow Wilson delivered the last and most brilliant speech of his political career.  The location: Pueblo, Colorado.  The subject: the League of Nations.

The most dangerous thing for a bad cause is to expose it to the opinion of the world.  The most certain way that you can prove that a man is mistaken is by letting all his neighbours know what he thinks, by letting all his neighbours discuss what he thinks, and if he is in the wrong you will notice that he will stay at home, he will not walk on the street.

He will be afraid of the eyes of his neighbours.  He will be afraid of their judgment of his character.  He will know that his cause is lost unless he can sustain it by the arguments of right and of justice.  The same law that applies to individuals applies to nations. ...

We must see that all the questions which have disturbed the world, all the questions which have eaten into the confidence of men toward their governments, all the questions which have disturbed the processes of industry, shall be brought out where men of all points of view, men of all attitudes of mind, men of all kinds of experience, may contribute their part of the settlement of the great questions which we must settle and cannot ignore. ...

Unless you get the united, concerted purpose and power of the great Governments of the world behind this settlement, it will fall down like a house of cards.  There is only one power to put behind the liberation of mankind, and that is the power of mankind.  It is the power of the united moral forces of the world, and in the Covenant of the League of Nations the moral forces of the world are mobilized. ...

And what do they unite for?  They enter into a solemn promise to one another that they will never use their power against one anther for aggression; that they never will impair the territorial integrity of a neighbour; that they never will interfere with the political independence of a neighbour; that they will abide by the principle that great populations are entitled to determine their own destiny and that they will not interfere with that destiny; and that no matter what differences arise amongst them they will never resort to war without first having done one or other of two things - either submitted the matter of controversy to arbitration, in which case they agree to abide by the result without question, or submitted it to the consideration of the council of the League of Nations, laying before that council all the documents, all the facts, agreeing that the council can publish the documents and the facts to the whole world, agreeing that there shall be six months allowed for the mature consideration of those facts by the council, and agreeing that at the expiration of the six months, even if they are not then ready to accept the advice of the council with regard to the settlement of the dispute, they will still not go to war for another three months.

In other words, they consent, no matter what happens, to submit every matter of difference between them to the judgment of mankind, and just so certainly as they do that, my fellow citizens, war will be in the far background, war will be pushed out of that foreground of terror in which it has kept the world for generation after generation, and men will know that there will be a calm time of deliberate counsel.

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