Politico.com November 15, 2014
Since last week, many Republicans have been feeling singularly nostalgic for November 1928, and with good reason. It’s the last time that the party won such commanding majorities in the House of Representatives while also dominating the Senate. And, let’s face it, 1928 was a good time.
America was rich—or so it seemed. Charles Lindbergh was on the cover of Time. Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Jean Lussier went over Niagara Falls in a rubber ball (thus trumping the previous year’s vogue for flagpole sitting). Mickey Mouse made his first appearance in a talkie (“Steamboat Willie”). Irving Aaronson and His Commanders raised eyebrows with the popular—and, for its time, scandalous—song, “Let’s Misbehave,” and presidential nominee Herbert Hoover gave his Democratic opponent, Al Smith, a shellacking worthy of the history books.
The key takeaway: It’s been a really, really long time since Republicans have owned Capitol Hill as they do now.
But victory can be a fleeting thing. In 1928, Republicans won 270 seats in the House. They were on top of the world. Two years later, they narrowly lost their majority. Two years after that, in 1932, their caucus shrunk to 117 members and the number of Republican-held seats in the Senate fell to just 36. To borrow the title of a popular 1929 novel (which had nothing whatsoever to do with American politics): Goodbye to all that.
A surface explanation for the quick rise and fall of the GOP House majority of 1928 is the Great Depression. As the party in power, Republicans owned the economy, and voters punished them for it. In this sense, today’s Republicans have no historical parallel to fear. Voters—at least a working majority of the minority who turned out last week—clearly blame Barack Obama for the lingering aftershocks of the recent economic crash.
But what if the Republicans of 1928 owed their demise to a more fundamental force? What if it was demography, not economics, that truly killed the elephant?
In fact, the Great Depression was just one factor in the GOP’s stunning reversal of fortune, and in the 1930 cycle that saw Republicans lose their commanding House majority it was probably a minor factor. To be sure, the Republicans of yesteryear were victims of historical contingency (the Great Depression), but they also failed to appreciate and prepare for a long-building trend—the rise of a new urban majority comprised of over 14 million immigrants, and many millions more of their children. Democrats did see the trend, and they built a majority that lasted half a century.
The lesson for President Obama and the Democrats is to go big—very, very big—on immigration reform. Like the New Dealers, today’s Democrats have a unique opportunity to build a majority coalition that dominates American politics well into the century.
For the 1928 GOP House majority, victory was unusually short-lived. About one in five GOP House members elected in the Hoover landslide served little more than a year and a half before losing their seats in November 1930.
On a surface level, the Great Depression was to blame.
The stock market crash of October 1929 destroyed untold wealth. Shares in Eastman Kodak plunged from a high of $264.75 to $150. General Electric, $403 to $168.13. General Motors, $91.75 to $33.50. In the following months, millions of men and women were thrown out of work. Tens of thousands of businesses shut their doors and never reopened.
But in the 1920s—before the rise of pensions and 401Ks, college savings accounts and retail investment vehicles—very few Americans were directly implicated in the market. Moreover, in the context of their recent experience, the sudden downtick of 1929-1930 was jarring but not altogether unusual. Hoover later recalled that “for some time after the crash,” most businessmen simply did not perceive “that the danger was any more than that of run-of-the-mill, temporary slumps such as had occurred at three-to-seven year intervals in the past.”
By April 1930, stocks had recouped 20 percent of lost value and seemed on a steady course to recovery. Bank failures, though vexing, were occurring at no greater a clip than the decade’s norm. Yes, gross national product fell 12.6 percent in just one year, and roughly 8.9 percent of able-bodied Americans were out of work. But events were not nearly as dire as in 1921, when a recession sent GNP plunging 24 percent and 11.9 percent of workers were unemployed.
In fact, Americans in the Jazz Age were accustomed to a great deal of economic volatility and risk exposure. It was the age of Scott and Zelda, Babe Ruth, the Charleston, Clara Bow and Colleen Moore—the Ford Model T and the radio set. But it was also an era of massive wealth and income inequality. In these days before the emergence of the safety net—before unemployment and disability insurance—most industrial workers expected to be without work for several months of each year. For farm workers, the entire decade was particularly unforgiving, as a combination of domestic over-production and foreign competition drove down crop prices precipitously.
In hindsight, we know that voters in November 1930 were standing on the edge of a deep canyon. But in the moment, hard times struck many Americans as a normal, cyclical part of their existence.
Unsurprisingly, then, many House and local races in 1930 hinged more on cultural issues—especially on Prohibition, which in many districts set “wet” Democrats against “dry” Republicans—than economic ones.
If the Depression was not a singular determinant in the 1930 elections, neither had Herbert Hoover yet acquired an undeserved reputation for callous indifference to human suffering. Today, we think of Hoover as the laissez-faire foil to Franklin Roosevelt’s brand of muscular liberalism. But in 1930, Hoover was still widely regarded as a progressive Republican who, in his capacity as U.S. relief coordinator, saved Europe from starvation during World War I. When he was elected president, recalled a prominent journalist, we “were in a mood for magic … We had summoned a great engineer to solve our problems for us; now we sat back comfortably and confidently to watch problems being solved.”
In 1929 and 1930, Hoover acted swiftly to address what was still a seemingly routine economic emergency. He jawboned business leaders into maintaining job rolls and wages. He cajoled the Federal Reserve System into easing credit. He requested increased appropriations for public works and grew the federal budget to its largest-ever peacetime levels. In most contemporary press accounts, he had not yet acquired the stigma of a loser.
Still, in 1930 Hoover’s party took a beating. Republicans lost eight seats in the Senate and 52 seats in the House. By the time the new House was seated in December 1931, several deaths and vacancies resulted in a razor-thin Democratic majority.
If the election was not exclusively or even necessarily about economics, the same cannot be said of the FDR’s historic landslide two years later. As Europe plunged headlong into the Depression in 1931 and 1932, the American banking and financial system all but collapsed. With well over 1,000 banks failing each year, millions of depositors lost their life savings. By the eve of the election, more than 50 percent of American workers were unemployed or under-employed.
In response to the crisis, Hoover broke with decades of Republican economic orthodoxy. He stepped up work on the Boulder Dam and Grand Coulee Dam (popular lore notwithstanding, these were not first conceived as New Deal projects). He signed legislation outlawing anti-union (“yellow dog”) clauses in work agreements. And he chartered the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a government-sponsored entity that loaned money directly to financial institutions, railroads and agricultural stabilization agencies, thereby helping them maintain liquidity. The RFC was in many ways the first New Deal agency, though Herbert Hoover pioneered it. Even the editors of the New Republic, among the president’s sharpest liberal critics, admitted at the time, “There has been nothing quite like it.”