Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States

By James L. Sundquist | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER TEN
The Realignment of the 1930s

UNLIKE the two great political upheavals of the nineteenth century, the realignment of the 1930s was precipitated suddenly. It was not the culmination of a protest movement that had been growing, steadily or intermittently, for decades. Protest there was, as evidenced in the minor realignments of the 1920s, but it was weak, and in the summer and early autumn of 1929 no polar force of significant national dimensions existed. The political revolution set in motion later in that year was the product of a single cataclysmic event--the Great Depression--that polarized the country. Inexorably, the two parties moved to the opposing poles.

The polarization was not an immediate or rapid process. When the stock market collapsed in October 1929, everyone was caught off guard, radicals and conservatives alike. Neither political party, nor anybody else, had a program to reverse the economic slide. President Herbert Hoover's instinctive response was to call a conference of the country's business and industrial giants and ask them to voluntarily maintain production and employment, a request to which they agreed. He called for a "prudent" expansion of public works and asked for a one-year federal tax reduction of $160 million, which the Congress promptly granted. Then he expressed a cautious optimism and waited for the upturn.

But it did not come, and the clamor grew for more vigorous governmental action. It was in the character of Hoover, a man philosophically committed to the concept of limited government, to resist such clamor. It was in the nature of the Republican party as the country's conservative political organization to oppose hasty and ill-considered change. Perhaps it is the tendency of any responsible incumbent administration, confronted by a crisis where every alternative course of action is fraught with risk, to temporize. In any case, as the demand for energetic governmental policies rose, the Republican party took with increasing firmness a position of resistance. It had a vocal group of dissenting insurgents, but the president spoke for the majority.

The Democratic party, out of power, had an obvious issue to exploit. But it could not do so at the beginning with clarity and force because the

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