After Wilson: The Struggle for the Democratic Party, 1920-1934

By Douglas B. Craig | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

This book is about a political party passing through the wilderness of defeat, and the was in which the Democratic party's organization and leaders were affected by that experience. The Democrats had to endure failure again and again during the 1920s. The policies and electoral strategies of the previous twenty years had to be scrutinized and analyzed in the unforgiving light of demonstrated inadequacy. The national party in the 1920s was faced with problems not unlike those which confronted the Democratic leadership of the 1980s. Had the party lost touch with the pressing concerns of the electorate? Had demographic and economic changes permanently eroded its old bases of support? Was the party wasting away into irrelevance? Unlike the Democrats of the 1980s, however, those of the 1920s could not console themselves with the thought that their performance in congressional elections remained as an indication of organizational vitality. The Democrats lost their House and Senate majorities in 1918 and would not regain them until 1930 and 1932 respectively, and all three of their presidential nominees during the 1920s suffered landslide defeat.

Historians of the party have generally argued that the party reacted to its electoral losses by descending into rancorous cultural conflict. Bereft of the cohesion afforded by national power and patronage, the fragile alliance of farmers, urbanites, and southerners that Woodrow Wilson had assembled fell apart. "The prohibitionist collided with the cockney and the liberal," David Burner wrote of the 1924 national convention in his landmark Politics of Provincialism; "Protestant glowered at Catholic, the East Side jeered the Nebraska spread, and Smith battled McAdoo to a 100-ballot stalemate."1 Burner's ethnocultural interpretation has since become orthodox; in 1974 Peter L. Petersen described the party of the 1920s as an unholy and unhappy alliance of "immigrants and Klansmen, Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists, rednecks and shanty Irish, bosses and antibosses, wets and dries."2

The emphasis of recent works on the party has been to assess the relative importance of these conflicts; whether, for example, prohibition or Catholicism was the main factor in Smith's defeat for the

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