The Election of 1936: A Constitutional Divide
In the midst of the Great Depression, a dozen decisions by the Supreme Court invalidated all or parts of eleven statutes enacted by a Democratic Congress to promote economic recovery. For the first time since the Jacksonian era, the Court squarely opposed the defining policies of the administration in power. For the first time since 1860, the Court found itself on the losing side in a presidential election. In this situation, would the Court be the restraining hand of the old regime, or would it quickly align itself with the new? The consequences were unprecedented: (1) the boldest attempt by a president to alter constitutional law by a direct assault on the Supreme Court; (2) the most abrupt fundamental change in constitutional interpretation; and (3) the first steps toward a new role for the Supreme Court in the American political system. The context for this jurisprudential imbroglio was the sudden collapse of the fourth party system and the rapid emergence of the fifth. Roosevelt was not only the third Democrat to move into the White House since James Buchanan departed in 1861; his electoral triumphs inaugurated an era of Democratic dominance in national affairs that persisted, with few lapses, until 1969.
“Onset” aptly describes the arrival of the fifth party system.1 Except perhaps for the Democratic collapse wrought by Lincoln’s election in 1860 and then the Civil War, never has one party’s domination been so rapidly eclipsed as when Democrats displaced Republicans in the 1930s. The fourth party system had unfolded in the 1890s because voters rejected a Democratic party that had been partly remade by the Populists. The fifth