Franklin Roosevelt forged the modern Democratic Party in the midst of the Great Depression. Long before Rahm Emanuel spoke of “never letting a crisis go to waste,” FDR used the economic crisis of the 1930s to bludgeon the Republican Party and unite a governing coalition that made the Democratic Party the dominant political party from 1930 to the present.* In the process, FDR demonstrated that he was a first rate political strategist on the level of Machiavelli.
FDR set about his task even before his election as President in 1932. Shortly after the financial crash in 1929, he began to travel the country to raise his visibility and that of the Democratic Party while making sure that the Republicans, and President Herbert Hoover, received the blame for the financial crisis. He instructed the Democrats in Congress to block Hoover’s attempt to remedy the crisis thus making sure the economic slump continued until the election.
After taking office in 1933, FDR did not hesitate to use the power of the New Deal programs, the promise of government largesse (relief, money and jobs), and federal regulations to build his coalition. He withheld federal aid and the benefits of the New Deal programs – like grants from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration – from Congressional districts that continued to vote Republican or otherwise opposed the New Deal. He used the the National Recovery Administration to bully and harass those businesses and corporations that opposed unionization. He used relief measures like the Home Owners Loan Corporation and the Farm Credit Administration to bind elements of the middle class to the Democratic Party. And, in the end, he simply made many of the unemployed, employees of the federal government through the Civilian Conservation Corp, the Civil Works Administration, and the Public Works Administration.
FDR’s efforts paid off in the Presidential election of 1936 when the New Deal Coalition first emerged on the political battlefield. The coalition consisted of traditional Democrats in both the North and South, western farmers aided by the farm programs, ethnic groups in the northern cities who benefited from the new welfare programs**, middle-class property owners saved by the refinancing programs, intellectuals (and pseudo-intellectuals), unions and the larger labor movement, Socialists, and African Americans. The coalition crushed the Republican Presidential candidate, Alfred M. Landon of Kansas (28 million to 17 million in the popular vote, 523 to 8 in the Electoral College), and gained a super majority in the Senate (77 to 19) and the House (328 to 107). FDR would use the coalition to win reelection two more times for a record four terms.
African Americans joined the New Deal Coalition for reasons unique from the other members. Since the U.S. Civil War, African Americans had been stalwarts of the Republican Party and many Republicans took it for granted that they would always follow the Party of Lincoln. In the early years of the New Deal, FDR did not embrace African Americans as part of his new coalition because he needed the votes of Southern Democrats to pass much of the New Deal legislation. In fact, many of the early New Deal programs either excluded blacks, segregated them, or actively harmed their interests. (For example, the attempt by the Agricultural Adjustment Act to lower farm production led to the eviction of many black sharecroppers from southern farms.) Gradually, however, African Americans began to drift into the New Deal fold through the work of Eleanor Roosevelt. She served as the link between the administration and the black community. She visited their political and social organization, interceded for them with the administration and the New Deal agencies, and gradually won them to the cause.
Although the New Deal Coalition has changed over the decades since 1936, the core of the coalition has remained – unions, the urban centers, farmers dependent on government subsidies, government employees (Northern Virginia), intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals, Socialist and African-Americans. New groups like the modern druids and worshippers of Gaia (environmentalists), hedonists, and the young voters (Do I repeat myself?) have joined the coalition to replace those that departed.***
The Democratic coalition is still held together by the promise of government largesse or other forms of government intervention on their behalf – federal regulations, the promise of new “rights,” etc. To keep the coalition together, the Democrats have been forced over the years to pay tribute to the coalition members who keep them in power. The Great Society programs of LBJ, the unionization of public employees by Clinton, ethanol subsidies, the promise of gay rights, and increasing environmental regulations should all be viewed in that light.
In recent years, the Democratic coalition has become increasingly strained as the interests of the various members have come into conflict with one another. The most glaring example is the growing conflict between the unions and the environmental movement. Environmental regulations continue to cost union jobs – just ask those who work in the oil industry or the coal miners of the United Mine Workers Association. These political fissures can only be covered over by increasing government largesse that delays the day of reckoning, which is why we now have almost two years of unemployment payments to buy off those who have lost their jobs due to government regulation. The Democrats have now become the hunted victims of the Frankenstein monster they created.**** They must continue to pay or risk political dissolution. They face the unenviable choice of driving the country into the fiscal abyss or losing their electoral power. At one point the day of reckoning will come. It will either come now or when the country is too broke to pay off the Democratic coalition.
The Republicans can hasten that day of reckoning by refusing to raise taxes to pay for the Democratic coalition. Republicans can also refuse to raise the debt ceiling and thus block efforts by the Democrats to borrow money to pay off their coalition. Why should Republicans be complicit in feeding the Democratic monster and thus ensuring Democratic dominance at the ballot box?
Republicans can also begin to make inroads into that coalition.
Southwestern Virginia, the heart of the coal industry and once a bastion of Democratic power, voted overwhelming against Obama and his regulatory regime. Republicans need to politically consolidate on that opposition and turn those disgruntled Democrats into pro-job growth, pro-energy Republicans. If southwest Virginia becomes a part of the Republican growth coalition, then the other coal areas will fall.
Republicans can also make inroads into the African American community. We need to proceed like Eleanor Roosevelt and make a personal connection. Republicans need to communicate that the black community can be much more than just dependents of the federal government. We need to teach the value of conservatism one family, one community organization, one church at a time. Where are our ambassadors to that community? African Americans already align more with social conservatism than they do with the social liberalism (gay rights, abortion) of the Democratic Party. We need to strengthen that natural affinity. Why not bring representatives of the African American community to CPAC and the Value Voters Summit each year. Forget the older leadership and go for the next generation. Give them some real hope and show them what real change looks like.
These are just a few suggestions.
*I say they are the dominant party, not because they have always held the Presidency, but because they have successfully shaped the national debate to favor their liberalism. Republicans have only succeeded in turning the debate and going on the offensive under Reagan and the Republican Congress under Newt.
**Not the “Welfare Program” of the Great Society but little “w” welfare programs.
***I do not include women in the coalition. Women are not a permanent part of the Democratic coalition. In the recent election, the gender gap is non-existent if African American women are removed from the equation.
****Yes, I know Frankenstein was the name of the scientist and not the name of the monster. That is why I said Frankenstein monster.