Why you should care
Because the road back is a long one.
Welcome to The Wilderness, an OZY original series charting how Democrats are trying to climb out of their historic hole. Read more.
It was the very first time news hit the masses over the airwaves. KDKA-AM Pittsburgh chose election night 1920 for the first commercial radio broadcast, with Leo Rosenberg telling listeners about the red tide that was sweeping the nation. Warren G. Harding won 37 of 48 states, Republicans captured 302 congressional seats, and state legislatures were stamped GOP from sea to shining sea.
Democrats now find themselves in a hole not seen since 1921: On top of Republicans claiming the White House and Congress in 2016, the GOP’s standing in state capitals across the country also increased. While the divided opposition party searches for an election-winning message, there are lessons to be had from nearly a century ago. The Democrats eventually returned to power by reinventing their party’s appeal, but punches were thrown in the process.
Harding’s 1920 platform has a familiar ring, with increased tariffs and reduced immigration. But today’s partisans would have a hard time recognizing their forebears. Republicans had a large progressive wing, and Democrats were the party of white supremacy in the South. Harding supported more federal jobs for Blacks and an anti-lynching statute. And Black voters — at least the ones not blocked from the voting booth by Jim Crow laws — stood behind the party of Abraham Lincoln.
Democrats were reeling from the economic hangover of World War I and President Woodrow Wilson’s unpopular push for the League of Nations. The Republicans were the party of small-towners and a rising middle class. “By 1920-21, the Democratic Party had disintegrated into a confederation of sectional interest groups that argued angrily over such matters as railroad legislation, public power, taxation, farm relief and the tariff,” writes Robert Keith Murray in The 103rd Ballot: Democrats and the Disaster in Madison Square Garden, about the 1924 convention.
There’s a really huge national freak-out.
Author Robert A. Slayton
The Democrats bounced back with big gains in the 1922 midterms, following the mini-depression of 1920-21, but they were not enough to recapture either chamber of Congress. The economy eventually took off and business-friendly Republicans cut taxes, brought aid to farmers and raised tariffs. But the GOP made a long-term strategic error in fresh immigration restrictions targeting newer southern and eastern European immigrants — many of them Catholics and Jews who were swelling the nation’s cities.
The debate was colored by a landmark 1920 census. For the first time, more than half of the country lived in cities — though “city” was defined rather broadly as any place with more than 2,500 people. “There’s a really huge national freak-out,” about the changing country, says Robert A. Slayton, author of Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith. An ascendant second-wave Ku Klux Klan was targeting Catholics and Jews. Prohibition, enacted in 1920 and not repealed until 1933, also became political shorthand, as immigrants and urbanites were more likely “wet,” aka pro booze.
Led by New York Gov. Al Smith, an anti-Prohibition Catholic, Democrats welcomed the tired, poor, huddled masses into the party. That brings us to the maelstrom at Madison Square Garden. The 1924 Democratic Convention in Manhattan was a clash of rural traditionalists backing former Treasury Secretary William McAdoo and the new rising electorate behind Smith. The event became known as the “Klanbake” when delegates voted narrowly against a proposal to condemn the hooded vigilantes. For 16 days, the Garden was in chaos, with governors even getting into fistfights over the Klan issue. Across the river in New Jersey, 20,000 Klan members staged a rally where they pelted a Smith effigy with baseballs. On the 103rd ballot — a record — the delegates compromised to select dark horse John W. Davis as their nominee. “[T]he party virtually committed suicide,” Murray writes. Davis went on to earn a pitiful 29 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
The winds were blowing in the urbanists’ direction. By 1928, Smith was the party’s standard-bearer, but again Democrats suffered a wipeout against Herbert Hoover. Even though Smith won only eight states and was demoralized, the seeds of future victory were sown. “The top 15 cities in the United States all, for the first time, went for Democrats,” says Slayton. “Urban dwellers knew [Smith] was one of their own, standing up for them.”
Democrats continued their urban organizing efforts, and the voting rolls surged ahead of the 1932 election. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s landslide had quite a bit to do with the arrival of the Great Depression under Republican rule. But he also helmed a Democratic Party that was a worker-friendly urban powerhouse that kept hold of its white Southern stronghold by remaining conservative on race. It only took more than a decade in the wilderness to get there.