Modern history

Politics and the Fading of Prosperity

These cultural clashes tore the Democratic Party apart, leaving Republicans in command of national politics. As it attracted a growing number of urban immigrants to its ranks alongside its customary base of white southerners, the Democratic Party tried to reconcile the tensions between traditional and modern America. Its failure to do so kept Republicans in power despite growing evidence of their inability to resolve serious economic problems. Although many progressives continued to press for reform, they were all but powerless to prevent the coming economic crisis.

The Battle for the soul of the Democratic Party

The 1924 presidential election exposed the social and cultural fault lines within the Democratic Party. Since the end of Reconstruction and the “redemption” of the South by southern Democrats, the Republican Party had ceased to compete for office in the region. Southern Democrats, along with party supporters from the rural Midwest, shared strong fundamentalist religious beliefs and an enthusiasm for prohibition that usually placed them at odds with big-city northern Democrats. The urban wing of the party increasingly represented immigrant populations that rejected prohibition as contrary to their social practices and supported political machines, which many rural Democrats found odious and an indicator of cultural degradation. These distinctions, however, were not absolute—some rural dwellers opposed prohibition, and some urbanites supported temperance.

Delegates to the 1924 Democratic convention in New York City had trouble deciding on a party platform and a presidential candidate. When urban delegates from the Northeast attempted to insert a plank condemning D. C. Stephenson’s Ku Klux Klan for its intolerance, they lost by a thin margin. Proponents of this measure owed their defeat to the sizable number of convention delegates who either belonged to the Klan or had been backed by it.

The selection of the presidential ticket proved even more divisive. Urban Democrats favored the nomination of New York governor Alfred E. Smith. Smith came from an Irish Catholic immigrant family, had grown up on New York City’s Lower East Side, and was sponsored by the Tammany Hall machine. The epitome of everything that rural Democrats despised, Smith further angered opponents with his outspoken denunciation of prohibition. Prohibitionists fiercely opposed Smith, and he lost the nomination to John W Davis, a West Virginia Protestant and a supporter of prohibition. The intense intraparty fighting left the Democrats deeply divided going into the general election. To no one’s surprise, Davis lost to Calvin Coolidge in a landslide (Map 21.1).

MAP 21.1

The Election of 1924

Republican Calvin Coolidge, who became president in August 1923 on the death of Warren Harding, continued Harding's policies of limited government regulation and corporate tax cuts. Coolidge easily defeated Democrat John Davis, whose strength was confined to the South. Running as the Progressive Party candidate, Senator Robert La Follette won 16 percent of the popular vote but carried only his home state of Wisconsin, with 13 electoral votes.

In 1928, however, when the Democrats met in Houston, Texas, the delicate cultural equilibrium within the Democratic Party had shifted in favor of the urban forces. With Stephenson and the Klan discredited and no longer a force in Democratic politics, the delegates nominated Al Smith as their presidential candidate. To balance the ticket, they tapped for vice president Joseph G. Robinson, a senator from Arkansas, a Protestant, and a supporter of prohibition.

The Republicans selected Herbert Hoover, one of the most popular men in the United States. His biography read like a script of the American dream. Born in Iowa to a Quaker family, he became an orphan at the age of nine and moved to Oregon to live with relatives. After graduating from Stanford University in 1895, he began a career as a prosperous mining engineer and a successful businessman. Affectionately called “the Great Humanitarian” for his European relief efforts after World War I, Hoover served as secretary of commerce during the Harding and Coolidge administrations. His name became synonymous with the Republican prosperity of the 1920s. In accepting his party’s nomination for president in 1928, Hoover optimistically declared: “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of the land.” A Protestant supporter of prohibition from a small town, Hoover was everything Smith was not.

The outcome of the election proved predictable. Running on prosperity and pledging a “chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage,” Hoover trounced Smith with 58 percent of the popular vote and more than 80 percent of the electoral vote. Despite the weakening economy, Smith lost usually reliable Democratic votes to religious and ethnic prejudices. The New Yorker prevailed only in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and six southern states but failed to win his home state. A closer look at the election returns showed a significant party realignment under way. Smith succeeded in identifying the Democratic Party with urban, ethnic-minority voters and attracting them to the polls. Despite the landslide loss, he captured the twelve largest cities in the nation, all of which had gone Republican four years earlier. In another fifteen big cities, Smith did better than the Democrat ticket had done in the 1924 election, thereby encouraging the country’s ethnic minorities to support the party of Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson. To break the Republicans’ national dominance, the Democrats would need a candidate who appealed to both traditional and modern Americans. Smith’s defeat, however, laid the foundation for future Democratic political success.

Where Have All the Progressives Gone?

The Democrats and Republicans were not the only parties that attracted voters in the 1920s. Some voters continued to cast their ballot for the Socialist Party. Others took the opportunity to voice their disapproval of Republican policies by voting for the remaining progressive candidates. Progressives did manage to hold on to seats in Congress, and in 1921 they helped pass the Shepherd-Towner Act, which appropriated federal funds to establish maternal and child centers (see chapter 19). But their efforts to restrict the power of the Supreme Court, reduce tax cuts for the wealthy, nationalize railroads, and extend agricultural relief to farmers were rebuffed by conservative legislative majorities. In 1924 reformers nominated Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin to run for president on a revived Progressive Party ticket, but he came in a distant third and won only five million popular votes and the electoral votes of his home state. The Progressive Party collapsed soon after La Follette died in 1925.

Robert M. La Follette, 1924 Wisconsin senator Robert M. La Follette, running for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1924, campaigns in Chicago with his son, Robert Jr., seated next to him. La Follette and his running mate, Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, favored higher taxes for the wealthy, collective bargaining rights for factory workers, and limits on Supreme Court power. Chicago History Museum, image DN-0077813/Photo: Chicago Daily News

Still, progressivism managed to stay alive on the local and state levels. Gifford Pinchot, a Roosevelt ally and a champion of conservation (see chapter 19), twice won election as governor of Pennsylvania starting in 1922. Social workers continued their efforts to alleviate urban poverty and lobby for government assistance to the poor. Even at the national level, women in the Children’s Bureau maintained the progressive legacy by supporting assistance to families and devising social welfare proposals. Progressivism did not disappear during the 1920s, but it did fight an uphill and often losing battle during an age of conservative political ascendancy. Its weakness contributed to the government’s failure to check the worst corporate and financial practices, a failure that would play a role in the nation’s economic collapse.

Financial Crash

On October 29, 1929, a day that became known as Black Tuesday, stock market prices tumbled. Over the previous five years, the rising market, bolstered by optimistic buyers, earned huge profits for investors, and the value of stocks nearly doubled. In late October, panicked sellers sent stock prices into free fall, culminating in the selling of more than 16 million shares valued at $32 billion on October 29. Although only 2.5 percent of Americans owned stock, the stock market crash had an enormous impact on the economy and the rest of the world. Because so much of the stock boom depended on generous margin requirements (a down payment of only 5 to 10 percent), when investor-borrowers got caught short by falling prices, they could not repay the financial institutions that had extended them credit. Banks and lending agencies, with their interlocking management and overextension of credit, had difficulty withstanding the turmoil unleashed by the stock market crash.

The 1929 crash did not cause the decade-long Great Depression that followed. The seeds for the greatest economic catastrophe in American history had been planted earlier. The economy had endured a series of panics and depressions in the past, but nothing like what happened between 1929 and 1940. The causes stemmed from flaws in an economic system that produced a great disparity of wealth, inadequate consumption, overextension of credit both at home and abroad, and the government’s unwillingness to relieve the plight of farmers. Republican administrations made matters worse by lowering taxes on the rich and raising tariffs to benefit manufacturers. The Federal Reserve Board exacerbated the situation by keeping interest rates high, thereby making it difficult for people to get loans and repay debts. The failure was not that of the United States alone; the depression affected capitalist nations throughout the world. The stock market collapse crushed whatever confidence the American public had that the unfettered law of supply and demand and laissez-faire economics could ensure prosperity.


• How did divisions within the Democratic Party contribute to Republican political dominance in the 1920s?

• What underlying economic weaknesses led to the Great Depression?

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