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We’ve Been Here Before – 1920s Edition

November 28, 2016

With Hillary Clinton’s popular vote lead having blown past 2 million—and more ballots yet to count—it’s increasingly clear that the anti-democratic structures (most notably the electoral college) in the US political system have delivered us a government in which the minority party (in this case, the Republicans) has near total control of the levers of power.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened*.

In the 1920 elections, Republicans swept control of the White House and both houses of Congress from the Democrats. At the same time the US census revealed that a majority of Americans now lived in cities, and those city dwellers were disproportionately Catholic and Jewish immigrants.

Faced with the prospect of losing their majority—and at the insistence of what was perhaps the nation’s most powerful single-issue group ever, the Anti-Saloon League—congressional Republicans simply refused to redistrict Congress…until 1929.  (After all, the Constitution only says that there must be a census every 10 years, and that congressional representation must be reapportioned using that census.  It doesn’t say when the reapportionment has to take place.)

With the ensuing lawsuits, it wasn’t until the 1932 elections that the reapportionment took effect.  That’s one reason Franklin Roosevelt’s election marks such a turning point in American politics.  It’s not only the backlash against the failed policies that led to the Great Depression; it’s also the first election in 20 years that reflects the massive demographic changes caused by the final wave of southern and eastern European immigrants (before passage of the explicitly racist and nativist Johnson-Reed Act in 1924).

LastCallDaniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise & Fall Of Prohibition is a rollicking read, and contains a terrific section on the Anti-Saloon League’s rise to power, and its key role in effectively nullifying the 1920 census. The kind of voter suppression and violation of longstanding democratic norms that Republicans are using today to wield power disproportionate to their actual public support is nothing new in American politics.

Those dismayed at the election of Donald Trump, the returns of Speaker Ryan and Majority Leader McConnell, and the prospect of a decades-long conservative majority on the Supreme Court can first take heart at the presidential popular vote returns in 1920 v. 2016.  Warren G. Harding won a landslide victory, defeating his Democratic rival, Ohio Gov. James M. Cox by more than 25 percentage points.  (One of history’s few lessons: things may be bad today, but chances are they were worse sometime in the past.)

More significant are the lessons to be learned from Harding’s (and Coolidge’s and Hoover’s) opposition: virtually everything we know today as Roosevelt’s “New Deal” of the 1930s—old-age and disability insurance, labor rights, minimum wages and maximum hours, civil service reform—was built on the foundation of what social reformers, labor activists, suffragists, progressives, and Democratic officials in states like New York, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts accomplished in the 1910s and 20s.

laborwillruleUnions like Sidney Hillman’s Amalgamated Clothing Workers founded their own banks, built thousands of units of low-cost cooperative housing, and pioneered their own brand of unemployment insurance.  (See Steven Fraser’s Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman & The Rise Of American Labor, and in particular the chapter titled “Socialism In One Union”, if you’re looking for inspiration on how to organize against the odds.)

Worker and civil rights organizers like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Bob Moses and Diane Nash spent a lot of time and energy in the 1960s figuring out how to organize so as to bring the power of the federal government to bear on local issues and campaigns.  Organizers in the Trump Era may well face the opposite challenge—how to bring the power of local and state governments, as well as business leaders and organizations, to bear in ways that 1) protect their communities against the powers of the federal government, and 2) plant and nurture the seeds of what a 21st century New Deal might look like.

*Note: For purposes of this discussion we’re setting aside cases of massive, categorical disenfranchisement of entire populations—e.g., women prior to 1920, slaves (and freedmen and women) before 1870, African-Americans across the South for the three generations between the end of Reconstruction and passage of the Voting Rights Act.

That’s despite the fact that there’s also much to learn from the political, social and economic organizing tactics and strategies successfully used by those non-voters to have powerful impacts upon the political system…including tactics and strategies that led to the destruction of those exclusionary regimes.


From → Books, History, Politics

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