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Recent polls tell me that the Democratic Party is in the worst shape I have seen during my 50 years of following politics closely. So I thought it would be interesting to look back at the biggest Republican victory of the last 80 years, the off-year election of 1946. Republicans in that election gained 13 seats in the Senate and emerged with a 51–45 majority there, the largest majority that they enjoyed between 1930 and 1980. And they gained 55 seats in the House, giving them a 246–188 majority in that body, the largest majority they have held since 1930. The popular vote for the House was 53% Republican and 44% Democratic, a bigger margin than Republicans have won ever since. And that’s even more impressive when you consider that in 1946 Republicans did not seriously contest most seats in the South. In the 11 states that had been part of the Confederacy, Democrats won 103 of 105 seats and Republicans won only 2 seats in east Tennessee. In the 37 non-Confederate states, in contrast, Republicans won 246 of 330 seats, compared to only 85 for Democrats.
There are some intriguing similarities between the political situation in 1946 and the political situation today.
In the off-year election of 1946, Republicans gained 13 seats in the Senate and emerged with a 51–45 majority there, the largest majority that they enjoyed between 1930 and 1980. They gained 55 seats in the House, giving them a 246–188 majority in that body, the largest majority they have held since 1930.
First, Democrats were promising (or threatening) to vastly increase the size and scope of government. Government’s share of gross domestic product had risen to over 40% in World War II, and it was obvious that there would be some scaling back. At the same time, the Allied victory in World War II had enhanced the prestige of the state, just as the 1930s Depression weakened faith in free markets. In Britain, the 1942 Beveridge Report urged creating a welfare state after the war, and the Labour Party won a resounding victory in the July 1945 election and promptly proceeded to adopt the Beveridge recommendations and more.
In the United States, Franklin Roosevelt in his January 1944 State of the Union address echoed the Beveridge Report. As I pointed out in my 1990 book Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan, he called for “steeply graduated taxes, government controls on crop prices and food prices [and] continued controls on wages . . . Government should guarantee everyone a job, an education, and clothing, housing, medical care, and financial security against the risks of old age and sickness.” “True individual freedom,” Roosevelt said, “cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
Roosevelt, who declared after Pearl Harbor that he was no longer Dr. New Deal but was now Dr. Win the War, was clearly contemplating returning to his former role after the war was over. This despite the fact that in his second term the New Deal was proving unpopular. Gallup polls from 1937 to 1940 saw majorities opposing Roosevelt’s never-enacted “Third New Deal” and supporting cuts in government spending, favoring curbs in the power of labor unions, and opposing welfare programs. Majorities said that New Deal programs were deterring businesses from creating jobs. Roosevelt was evidently calculating that government’s success in the war effort would transform public opinion, as it indeed did in Britain.
There are some intriguing similarities between the political situation in 1946 and the political situation today. Democrats were promising (or threatening) to vastly increase the size and scope of government.
His successor Harry Truman took the same view. In September 1945, less than a month after the surrender of Japan, he called for continued price controls, a full-employment bill, a higher minimum wage, a public- and private-housing bill, and only limited cuts in the high wartime tax rates. In December 1945 he called for national health insurance.
The Congress elected in 1944 had Democratic majorities in the Senate (57–38) and the House (242–191). But relatively few of these Democrats were ardent New Dealers. Most Southern Democrats favored farm price supports but opposed much of the rest of the New Deal agenda—and were adamantly opposed to Truman’s call to make permanent the wartime Fair Employment Practices Committee. Many Northern Democrats were products of big city machines with no firm commitments on public policy. Other Northern Democrats were from rural areas that had supported the more Jeffersonian, pre-Roosevelt Democratic Party but opposed big-government programs. As a result, little of the Roosevelt-Truman policy agenda became law. Congress did pass the full-employment bill in 1946, which established the president’s Council of Economic Advisers and contained language that suggested but did not require the government to run budget deficits to maintain full employment. The minimum wage was not increased, the housing bill failed to pass, and Congress did not seriously consider government-provided healthcare.
One price controls Truman and the Democratic Congress wavered. Truman removed controls on building materials in September 1945 and reimposed them in December. Meat rationing was discontinued in December 1945. Truman got Congress to continue the Office of Price Administration past its expiration date of June 1946, but the government wobbled on meat price controls. The law lifted them from June to August, then reimposed them—leading to a meat shortage and much public opposition, which prompted Truman to lift them again in October 1946.
Polls from 1937 to 1940 saw majorities opposing Roosevelt’s never-enacted ‘Third New Deal’ and supporting cuts in government spending, favoring curbs in the power of labor unions, and opposing welfare programs.
The similarities between the policy choices facing Congress in 1945–1946 and those facing it in 2009–2010 are obviously far from exact. Nevertheless, there are some. In both cases a Democratic president was proposing and a Democratic Congress was considering proposals to substantially increase the size and scope of government beyond previous peacetime limits. The Democratic 79th Congress did not come as close to passing such proposals as the more heavily Democratic 111th Congress has done, but the prospect existed then as it does now that a more heavily Democratic Congress might do so.
The second similarity is that the Democrats in 1945–1946 were closely allied with labor unions, which were deeply involved in politics and were avidly seeking more members and more bargaining power. At the end of World War II, labor unions represented 27% of the civilian labor force, up from 7% in 1934. This was primarily the result of government action. The Wagner Act passed in 1935 stimulated the growth of Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unions, which through sitdown strikes (which were plainly illegal) and other tactics organized the major auto, steel, and tire manufacturers between 1937 and 1941. Wartime government regulations encouraged unionization in defense industries. Wartime regulations banned strikes, and John L. Lewis’s United Mineworkers was the only union to defy it. But after the war, anticipating inflation, union leaders demanded sharply higher wages and workers went out on strike. The United Steelworkers got a handsome settlement in February 1946, the United Auto Workers (UAW) did so in March, and in April the railroad unions and the United Mineworkers went out on strike. Truman called for a law allowing the drafting of strikers in May but vetoed legislation to restrict unions’ powers in June. The number one strike year in American history turned out to be 1946. Some 4.6 million workers, more than 10% of the work force, were on strike at one point or another during the year, and strikes accounted for 1.4% of total working time—more than double those in the next highest years, which at that point were all in the future.
At the end of World War II, labor unions represented 27% of the civilian labor force, up from 7% in 1934.
Unions also emerged as a political force in the war years—and as a political force entangled with the Communist Party. In July 1943, Amalgamated Clothing Workers leader Sidney Hillman set up the CIO-PAC (political action committee) to organize workers politically. Hillman, unlike his garment workers rival David Dubinsky, was a supporter of the Popular Front, willing to work with Communists inside the labor movement in pursuit of common goals. The Soviet Union was, of course, an American ally in the war, and the American Communist Party for the first time supported Franklin Roosevelt in the election of 1944. Some CIO officials were Communists themselves (CIO general counsel Lee Pressman) and some were Communist allies (UAW president R. J. Thomas and Hillman himself). Hillman was a gifted organizer and his CIO-PAC created effective Democratic mobilization efforts in the 1944 campaign, especially in big industrial cities where the CIO unions were concentrated and which in many cases did not have effective Democratic political machines (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit voted Republican in the 1920s).
The results were apparent in the 1944 election returns. Nationally, turnout was down 4%; one reason was that a congressional coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats refused to pass legislation making it easier for military personnel to vote. But turnout was up 3% in the counties containing the nation’s 12 largest cities, while it was down 6% in the rest of the North. The only Northern states where turnout increased more than 2% were Washington, California, Connecticut, and Michigan—all with large numbers of union members.
Today, of course, the union movement is much smaller. Unions represent only 7% of private-sector employees (but also represent nearly half of public-sector employees, as compared to zero in 1945–1946). But they proved a potent political force in 2008, spending some $400 million and providing highly competent organizers to help elect Democratic candidates. Unions in the mid-1940s were using their growth to increase their political power; now they have been using their political power to try to produce membership growth.
The 79th Congress did not increase union powers, which were already broad under the Wagner Act, but Truman’s veto did prevent it from imposing restrictions on unions. The 111th Congress has refused to seriously consider their card-check bill, which would effectively abolish the secret ballot in private-sector unionization elections, but the stimulus package passed in February 2009 allotted one-third of its funds to state and local governments, which helped preserve the jobs of many public sector union members—and the flow of dues money to public-sector union leaders.
The number one strike year in American history turned out to be 1946. Some 4.6 million workers, more than 10% of the work force, were on strike at one point or another during the year.
Union issues were of much higher salience in 1945–1946 than they are today, and in that earlier time Americans tended to favor higher wages for workers to compensate for the end of wartime overtime premiums. But at the same time they supported by large margins limits on union powers and the ability to strike. Gallup polls suggest that that support increased during 1946, just as recent Gallup numbers reveal that opinion about unions has become sharply more negative in 2009 and 2010. The majority seemed to feel then and perhaps feels now that unions had taken advantage of their political alliances to get better treatment for their members than the non-union majority of the population was getting.
In both 1945–1946 and 2009–2010, opposition to Democrats rose and support of Republicans increased during the electoral cycle, but those increases came later in the cycle in 1945–1946 than they have in 2009–2010. In Gallup’s polls, Republicans did not lead Democrats in the generic vote for Congress until late June and early July 1946, and then by only 51%–49% (Gallup did not report undecideds in those days). In Gallup’s last poll from March 2010, Republicans led 47%–44%; and the latest Gallup numbers on unions show a marked slide against them in public opinion.
Unions in the mid-1940s were using their growth to increase their political power; now they have been using their political power to try to produce membership growth.
The Democrats grew weaker in other respects as the 1946 off-year elections approached. Truman’s job rating, very high when he first took office, plummeted, and he decided to engage in no campaigning for Democratic candidates. CIO unions were split by fights between Popular Front advocates who supported cooperating with Communists and liberal anti-Communists who favored removing Communists and fellow travelers from union office; thus R. J. Thomas of the UAW was opposed by the staunchly anti-Communist Walter Reuther, who defeated him in the election for the union presidency in 1947. Hillman, head of the CIO-PAC, died in July 1946 at age 59. The union political operation so effective in 1944 was much less so in 1946.
Republican politicians, in contrast, were optimistic and believed their party could return to the levels of popular support it had enjoyed in the 1940s. It was widely believed that Truman would be a weak candidate for president in 1948 and that the Democrats might be weakened by the split between him and his predecessor as vice president, the Popular Fronter Henry Wallace, whom he fired as commerce secretary in September 1946. The Republican slogan was “Had enough?”—enough inflation, enough high taxes, enough price controls, enough coddling of unions with their frequent strikes and their entanglement with Communists. The Republicans promised to end controls, lower taxes, and restrict labor unions—an unusually coherent program for a party out of power.
Gallup polls suggest that that support increased during 1946, just as recent Gallup numbers reveal that opinion about unions has become sharply more negative in 2009 and 2010.
The popular vote for the House was 53%–44% Republican nationally and 56%–42% Republican outside the 11 Confederate states (where the popular vote was 79%–18% Democratic). The Republicans gained 4 seats in Connecticut, 7 seats in New York, 10 seats in Pennsylvania, 1 seat in Delaware, 1 seat in Maryland, 2 seats in Ohio, 3 seats in Michigan, 5 seats in Illinois, 2 seats in Wisconsin (plus 1 member elected as a Progressive in 1944 and as a Republican in 1946), 2 seats in Minnesota, 3 seats in Missouri, 1 seat in Montana, 1 seat in Idaho, 1 seat in Utah, 1 seat in Nevada, 7 seats in California, 3 seats in Washington, 2 seats in Kentucky, and 3 seats in West Virginia. Republicans lost 3 seats, 1 centered on Worcester, Massachusetts, 1 centered on Duluth, Minnesota, and one consisting of Denver, Colorado.
But this list does not isolate the areas where the Republicans made their biggest gains as compared with their performance in 1944. Most of those districts were located in large urban areas, and in particular in the relatively affluent or middle-class outer reaches of central cities. To eliminate specifics which may be peculiar to a single district, I aggregated the results when possible and compared the Republican percentage for the House in 1946 with that for 1944 and also the percentage for the 1944 presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, who lost nationwide by a 53%-44% margin. The biggest gains in Republican percentage, 9% or more, came in the following regions: New York (Manhattan and Staten Island), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), Missouri (non-metropolitan), Ohio (Cleveland), New York (Queens), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia suburbs), Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh), Michigan (Detroit), New York (Buffalo), New Hampshire, New York (Long Island), Illinois (Collar Counties), Wisconsin (rural), New York (Westchester and Putnam Counties), Illinois (Cook and Lake Counties).
The big government policies advocated by Presidents Roosevelt and Truman were clearly rejected by middle class voters. While Britain opted for the welfare state, America moved in the opposite direction.
Leaving aside the gains in rural areas, what we see here are massive Republican gains in big metropolitan areas—New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Buffalo, Chicago. Los Angeles should also be added to the list, although precise comparison of percentages is impossible because of California’s cross-filing system, which allowed candidates (usually incumbents) to win both major parties’ nominations and thus win the general election without significant opposition.
At a time when the post-World War II suburban growth had not yet occurred, these outlying areas of big cities (including much of Manhattan, which was middle class at the time) were white-collar, middle- or upper middle-income enclaves, with relatively few low-income immigrants or union members. The rising power of labor unions, made so visible by the huge number of strikes that year, plus the big-government policies advocated by Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, were clearly rejected by such middle class voters. While Britain opted for the welfare state, America moved in the opposite direction.
Those well-versed in electoral history will point out that the Republicans lost their congressional majorities in 1948, as congressional Democrats ran ahead of Truman, who beat Dewey 50%–45%, and that Republicans have never again enjoyed the House majority they had in 1947–1948. But as those versed in the history of government policy know, the congressional majorities Democrats held in 1949–1952 and 1955-1964 were not large enough to repeal the work of what Truman called, quite inaccurately, the do-nothing 80th Congress. The 1947–1948 Republican Congress eliminated wage and price controls, sharply reduced the powers of labor unions by passing over Truman’s veto the Taft-Hartley Act, and made at least a slight dent in wartime high tax rates. Those proved enduring policy successes. They also made possible the bounteous postwar economic growth which was so glaringly absent in welfare-state Britain.
The parallels between the political situation in 1946 and 2010 are limited but instructive. Americans once again are faced with proposals that would vastly expand the size and scope of government. And they are faced by proposals to increase the power of labor unions. Public opinion polls show that in 2010, as in 1946, most Americans reject such policies. Republicans in 1946 were prepared to advance policies that turned America away from such policies. The question is whether Republicans in 2010, with the prospect but not the assurance, of winning a majority in the House and perhaps a majority in the Senate, are similarly prepared.
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.
It is interesting to look back at the biggest Republican victory of the last 80 years, the off-year election of 1946. What’s similar and what’s different today?
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