A History of the Two-Party System: Part 3 (1930s through 1980s)

by Mark Lause

May 6, 2015

Americans who are predisposed to “progressive” ideas regularly praise the merits of pragmatism and flexibility, while denouncing “rigidity and dogmatism.” Most often they do this to disparage the idea of doing anything other than voting Democratic. From their perspective, flexibility and pragmatism means seeing the election of Democrats as the way to foster a more just, rational, and peaceful world. In reality, offering only one course against all possible alternatives is practically the definition of an inflexible dogma.

This perceived marriage of “progressive” change and the Democratic Party grew from conditions that prevailed from the 1930s through the 1960s. The next half century sustained this faith less through positive policies than by comforting images. Integral to this has been the rise of a warfare state with its own logic. The implications of both have made a two-party political order unchanged by the end of either World War II or the Cold War.

Making of a Faith

One of the regularly promulgated fairy tales about capitalism is that the sum total of the individual market decisions creates the best outcome. In the face of imploding demand, individual business naturally responds by slowing production and laying people off. However, in the complex 20th century economy into which capitalism had grown, the sum total of what would be rational individual decisions spelled economic collapse. Decreasing production by increasing unemployment only decreased demand further. Much of the business community understood this after the crash of 1929, but without common rules they acted individually against their own collective self-interest. While both parties remained preoccupied with this problem, the most immediate victims had more pressing concerns.

Homeless Americans clustered in the unused margins of their cities in what they called “Hoovervilles” in honor of the president. Large numbers organized for direct action, as when desperate farmers organized holiday associations to protect their livelihoods. In the cities, the unemployed organized, regularly thwarting evictions for nonpayment of rent. Periodically, collective waves of humanity raged through the new corporate supermarkets, seizing what they and their families needed.

Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In reaction to President Hoover’s perceived indifference, voters turned to Franklin D. Roosevelt–Theodore’s Democratic cousin–and ultimately restructured the party system. Whatever its record on slavery, secession and segregation, the Democratic Party remade itself as a viable instrument of reform. By the 1932 election of FDR, those elements of the ruling class in the northeast concerned with finance and planning had taken charge of the nation’s affairs, and proved willing to accept a particularly aggressive kind of “scientific management” by the government. Recalling the government’s mobilization of the economy in the world war, FDR approached the Depression as a threat that justified a similar exercise of power, as part of an international trend.

The end of the First World War had created a financial crisis across the industrial world. In part, mass social discontent with the war had helped end it, but the broken economies, indebted governments and armies of unemployed continued the strife. In response, ruling class solutions turned on the creation of new stronger states, aided by extralegal means of repression. Facing civil war that continued the devastation and death of the world war, the new Soviet Union aped these solutions. In acutely desperate circumstances, such as Italy and Germany, right-wing gangs came to power, initially with the support of most of the world capitalist class. Having been marginal to the crisis, the United States adopted a less extreme version of reliance on the capitalist state to order the economy.

FDR certainly favored taking the same approach to the Depression as to the world war in that he abandoned the sanctions against deficit spending. However, he remained silent about what, beyond the repeal of Prohibition, that new government role would entail. He came into power bringing with him a group of businessmen, lawyers, academics and others that came to be called his “Brain Trust,” which had no coherent approach to most questions.

The “First New Deal” offered a series of pragmatic measures, including various make-work projects, attempting to cap it all with a National Recovery Administration. Bolstered by gains in the 1934 election, the Democrats launched a “Second New Deal” that included: the Works Progress Administration to make work for a wide variety of occupations; the Social Security Act; the Wagner Act, finally sanctioning the right of American workers to form unions; and, the Fair Labor Standards Act. None of this fundamentally restructured the Democratic Party, whose power still rested on the continued hegemony of the party in the South, sustained by its segregationist wing. Partly because the South had yet to have recovered from the loss of its key position as the source of cotton for the western world, these otherwise conservative politicians proved willing to participate in these New Deal experiments, so long as these did not threaten their regional power base.

These reforms rarely aimed simply to aid those who needed it. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, for example, did not really tinker with the nature of the market, but sought to reduce farm products in order to have them provide greater revenue to farmers. As this involved paying people for not growing crops, those with vast amounts of land became much greater beneficiaries than the proverbial Pa and Ma Kettle.

Over the decades, some of the biggest right-wing ideologues denouncing welfare cheats annually walked away with checks into the millions for not growing crops on their swamplands. This approach defined a kind of liberalism that artificially inflated the cost of social relief though a kind of self-imposed bribe to the wealthy. Nevertheless, the old elites often resisted these innovations. The Supreme Court regularly declared them unconstitutional and the former Democratic leaders and corporate executives spearheaded a new “American Liberty League,” joined by more conservative Republicans and corporate leaders from across a spectrum.

The Depression radicalized, among others, U.S. Marine Corps General Smedley Butler, who had fallen from grace with his support of the veterans’ Bonus March. Although he publicly complained of having had a career as “a racketeer for capitalism,” his prominence and popularity inspired several figures from the American Legion to approach him on behalf of a group interested in his taking charge of an attempted coup. The Congressional committee later heard his testimony, but refused to call any of those Butler named, and without such testimony the press dismissed it all as a great hoax.

Ultimately, Republican leaders acknowledged in 1936 that voters wanted innovation by nominating Alf Landon, who–like Hoover before him–had earlier bolted from the GOP to support FDR’s cousin on the Progressive ticket. Aside from his hostility to unions, Landon could well be described as a pro-New Deal Republican, though not enough to prevent FDR’s winning by the largest landslide in U.S. history.

Many–including the large and prominent Communist Party–sought to read a consistent direction into FDR’s approach. Certainly, a lot of people got back to work and launched an unprecedented drive for industrial unionism that established the new Congress of Industrial Organizations. The evidence suggests, however, that these were byproducts of often contradictory policies unfolding in fits and starts. For example, FDR’s attempt to cut government spending created the “Roosevelt recession” of 1937-38, to which voters responded by replacing many Democrats in Congress with Progressives or Farmer-Laborites as well as Republicans.

The reforms of the New Deal never actually ended the Depression. After a series of crises through the decade, world war erupted again in September 1939. The United States stayed out of the conflict but, after the German conquest of France in June 1940, formulated a cash-and-carry program to create a wartime economy to fuel the British war effort. In March 1941, it adopted the Lend-Lease policy that extended Britain and its Allies the material of war on credit.

Hot and Cold Running Wars

The attack on Pearl Harbor.

With a head start meeting British demands for the materials of war, the United States found itself the target of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Thereafter, FDR asked for and got a formal declaration of war, the last genuinely constitutional U.S. entry into a war: and it has not stopped fighting since. For 73 years now, a permanent wartime economy, and the need to maintain it, has framed everything about U.S. politics.

Nothing gave the voters a choice. As with every other major change in American politics, the two-party system did not permit voters their input into this decision. Rather, the advent of a permanent war economy echoed what happened with Progressive reform, the ending of Reconstruction, the importance of cotton slavery and every other fundamental consideration in our political history. The two parties did not take opposite positions on the permanent wartime economy and offer voters a choice between them.

Certainly, the rise of Italian fascism and German Nazism presented a kind of capitalism gone mad, resurrecting ancient brutalities in pursuit of some racial purism. The great U.S. rival in the Pacific, Japan, allied with them and waged total war and all that entailed. The Axis powers waged war by bombing, relocating, and destroying entire populations. The war with which the United States and its Allies responded was no less total. This nation became the first and only one to use atom bombs on an enemy, both Hiroshima and Nagasaki being civilian targets. The United States even incarcerated sections of its own population on purely ethnic grounds, without a hint of illegal activities on their part or of constitutional due process. Neither side mitigated their ruthlessness when dealing with weaker foes.

A National Security State

World War II changed absolutely everything about our society. The new American economy–like that of the Russians and others–had used wartime production to escape the Depression, and would not risk slipping back into it. As after World War I, U.S. power emerged virtually unscathed as the dominant force on the planet. When FDR died and Harry Truman took charge of the nation’s affairs, he extended the wartime economy with the Truman Doctrine aimed against our former Soviet allies.

This did not change with the national victories of Eisenhower the Republican or when the Democrat Kennedy took the presidency, or under each subsequent president, whether the Democrats under Johnson, Carter or Clinton or Republicans under Nixon, Ford, Reagan and the two Bushes. Indeed, the two parties not only agreed on the military and economic premises of the Cold War, but on silencing any questions about them. In 1947, the National Security Act not only codified the economic and political priorities of participating in a world war, but fundamentally superseded the older commitment to constitutional procedures. It established a new Central Intelligence Agency, alleged to have been the mere extension of the wartime Office of Strategic Services.

But the OSS grew out of the need to overthrow the Nazis, fascists or Japanese militarists, goals that had become obviously irrelevant after 1945. The CIA, in contrast, needed professional spies, saboteurs and analysts focused on the Soviet Union and the rising threat of nationalist revolutions in the Third World. Nazi defectors such as Reinhardt Gehlen and his Eastern European bureau formed the core of the personnel and ideology of the state. What would constrain the militarist predispositions of the ex-generals and admirals who headed the CIA would be a civilian National Security Agency, a meaningless figleaf entirely abandoned in the 1980s when the Reagan administration simply began appointing the same kind of military figures to run the NSA as the CIA. After 1947, the United States would never again declare a war as required by the Constitution, and never again would it be at peace.

The national security state offered various mission statements to define its purposes. Perhaps the most blood-chilling was that of the Doolittle Committee, declaring in 1954 that the United States faced “an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive, longstanding American concepts of `fair play’ must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated and more effective methods than those used against us.”

The Public Relations Internal Cold War

The permanent wartime state represented the most important innovation in American political history. As with Emancipation or Progressive reform, the two-party system had nothing to do with it. The Democrats who had led the nation into two world wars led it into a third, “Cold War,” to the cheers of the Republicans. Over time, the ascendancy of the so-called “defense” sector–along with the rise of the petrochemical industry–would transform the “Sun Belt.” In the 1960s, with the killing of John F. Kennedy, a long succession of presidents from the region assumed power. Although a resignation allowed the brief unelected presidency of Ford (MI), the list included: Johnson (TX), Nixon (CA), Carter (GA), Reagan (CA), Bush (TX), Clinton (AR), and Bush II (TX).

Joseph McCarthy with a map demonstrating supposed communist activity.

Although the term “McCarthyism” came to be applied to the intolerance of the age–after Republican Senator Joe McCarthy who began to realize the importance of media in shaping public perceptions–Democratic President Truman actually promulgated the loyalty oaths, the purging from government and public life of Communists, suspected Communists, or people who had ever attended a meeting with Communists or read a Communist newspaper.

Part of this climate represented the sheer exhaustion and relief of a generation that had been through turmoil of the Great Depression and WWII, and emerged into the wealthiest consumer society the world had ever known. The automobile drove the new housing boom directly to the suburbs. The Baby Boom fueled this expanding consumer economy, and the top-down, one-way communication of television guided it. Citizen-consumers learned what was important and relevant through a corporate “news” media that never abandoned its uncritical wartime stance towards the government, its wars, and its official political decision-making system. A deep, pervasive conformity characterized the postwar years, save for those who could afford an alternative lifestyle, or those whose conformity the society would not accept.

African Americans did share in some of the postwar prosperity, but the color bar still kept them from using what wealth they had to educate their children, buy a new home and a car. Their organization for civil rights provided an unusually bright spot in a dim period, but the most intransigent advocates of segregation remained in the Democratic Party, members of which had resisted any Federal intervention to secure Black equality before the law. When the issue reached the Congress in a wave of legislation from 1964 through 1968, politicians did not divide along simple party lines.

Revolt and Reaction

The eruption of new social movements raised other questions. The brutal escalation of the U.S. war in Indochina–premised on phony stories about North Vietnamese attacks on American ships–intensified conscription and led to massive protests, particularly on the college campuses. A movement for women’s liberation raised issues of equality that struck a responsive chord among gays and lesbians.

Latinos–both Chicanos in the southwest and Puerto Ricans in the major cities of the northeast–followed the course of African American protests, later followed by Native Americans and Asians. These did not represent traditional class movements, but offered clear challenges to capitalism, while the traditional trade union organizations continued to press the claims of the Democratic Party.

Nevertheless, none of these movements had any particularly close friendship with one party over another. When the women’s movement focused on the idea of an Equal Rights Amendment, they had Republican allies and Democratic opponents, both directly and surreptitiously. Those involved in these movements, too, tended to mirror the changing views of the voters, who tended to describe themselves increasingly as “Independent,” although those actually voting increasingly tended to be conservative.

Black frustration over the delays and dishonesty also boiled over, particularly when Lyndon Johnson turned towards funding his war in Vietnam. Bipartisan cooperation deepened in 1970 when a future Democratic Senator (Daniel Patrick Moynihan) suggested to a Republican president that they treat any further action on race with “benign neglect.” Bad as this was, the 1972 reelection of Nixon represented a crushing defeat that pushed the Democratic Party on the ever rightward trajectory it has embraced hereafter.

A political party facing such a defeat could go out, engage, register, and bring into the system the hitherto disenfranchised around an agenda that would serve them. However, success through such an approach would tend to leave the victorious party answerable to those constituencies. It might also opt for simply competing with its rival through its techniques of television ads and images. The Democrats took the latter course, barring caucuses of Blacks, Latinos, women, labor, gays and others from their conventions because they presented the wrong image to those who were voting Republican. They did not bar the organization of well-heeled Sun Belt Democrats who took the future of the party into its hands, and began moving it inexorably away from its “liberal” image.

It later became clear how Nixon had engineered that 1972 victory. Out of the White House, his campaign had organized “plumbers” to fix the leaks in the government, and these quickly turned to acts of sabotage against an “enemies list” of private citizens and the Democratic Party. This culminated in a break-in at the Watergate hotel, a coverup and its unraveling. Nixon received the same courtesy as his first vice president (Spiro Agnew) when he was caught in criminal activity. Once he resigned, both parties and the media declared that “the system worked.” Congress closed its investigations without ever asking many of the toughest questions. A few underlings did short sentences in white collar prisons, and the president himself left office until media eventually brought him back episodically as an “elder statesman.”

This bipartisan agreement not to prosecute criminal activity had far reaching consequences a few years later. At the close of the decade, revolutions in Nicaragua and Iran destabilized the Carter administration, and Reagan (surrounded by former CIA, military officials, and contractors) worked around the administration to use the crisis to prevent “an October surprise” that might successfully resolve the problem.

A New York Times front page covering President pardons from the Iran-Contra affair.

As Reagan came into office, he also established his own distinct relationship with both Iran and the opponents of the new Sandinista government in Nicaragua. It transpired that his administration had been seizing government weapons for sale to the Iranians, and using the proceeds to finance the CIA’s army against a government that the United States officially recognized. The unraveling of this “Iran-Contra affair” went far beyond Watergate, in that the criminal activities went beyond individuals around the president to include elements of the government itself — and yet proved even less consequential. The Democrats did not even mount an investigation as serious as they had over Watergate, and permitted witnesses to lie without later calling them back.

Republicans continued to trumpet their idolatry of the mythical free market and an ethos of what some have called “Cowboy Capitalism,” all sanctified by a resurgent Christian Fundamentalism. Democrats increasingly tended to win election based on their alliances with new technologies, and promises of a more expert management of the same policies advocated by Republicans. Republicans generally served the petrochemical and defense industries of the Sun Belt. Yet for six of Reagan’s eight years, the Democrats controlled Congress. They agreed on matters such as media deregulation, and permitting corporations to maximize profits and minimize taxes through the export of America’s industrial base. Later, Democrats continued the policies that permitted and encouraged the loss of American jobs.

The benign neglect that had worked for civil rights came to be extended to environmental concerns, health care, the minimum wage, and virtually any question that did not have an army of lobbyists fighting on its behalf. In addition to other oppositional ideologies, waves of libertarian sentiment appealed to an almost religious faith in the mythical “free market.” Despite being ignored or attacked, environmentalism continued to emerge as a critical mass concern, though only in recent years as any kind of organized movement.

The Stampede of Dollars

According to the American Presidency Project, the two major parties spent a total of less than $13 million to elect a president in 1956. In the next campaign, Kennedy’s victory over Nixon demonstrated the decisive nature of television, and politics became more and more about buying media time. Twenty years later, when Reagan entered the White House after a long apprenticeship as a minor Hollywood star-turned-corporate spokesman, the two parties spent $58.8 million.

However dramatic this increase of financing in presidential elections, the flow of money has poured into every other level of electoral politics, including for relatively minor offices. Elections within specific districts turned increasingly on outside funding. By the 1980s, state and local campaigns often cost more than national presidential elections of a few decades before.

Alongside many of the regulations and regimentations installed during these years came the “progressive” insistence upon an exclusive strategy of voting Democratic. Public relations aside, for decades, the Democratic Party has hardly attempted to address the poverty, racism, or sexism experienced by the majority of its voters. Nor has it even secured the simple right to unionize for American workers, or decent standards of longterm environmental health.

In contrast, it has fully participated in the construction of the warfare state, the anti-republican and undemocratic national surveillance and security monster, and the undisguised commercialization of electoral politics. The “progressive” punditry has responded with an increasingly dogmatic insistence that any politics other than promoting electoral success for the Democrats–including mass, independent demonstrations–gives aid and comfort to the reactionaries and must be crushed or derailed.

An honest discussion of more genuinely flexible and pragmatic alternatives is overdue.

Mark Lause is a Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati. His most recent book, A Secret Society History of the Civil War, was published in 2011. The first part of this essay discussed the two party system from its beginnings through the Civil War; the second part covered Reconstruction through Progressivism. The fourth part will cover the present era.


2 responses to “A History of the Two-Party System: Part 3 (1930s through 1980s)”

  1. Jason Schulman Avatar
    Jason Schulman

    While I appreciate everything Mark has written so far, I haven’t seen anything (yet) that discusses the degree to which the crappy electoral laws in the U.S. — as well as the U.S.’s structural bias towards two “catch-all” parties — makes the building of an independent left-wing party harder than it would otherwise be, in a “normal” parliamentary system (with or without proportional representation).

    Also, I don’t think Mark has mentioned the fact that for decades now the primary system in the U.S. — nonexistent in any other country’s political system — has allowed literally anyone to register as, and run for office as, a Democrat (or Republican, or Green, or Libertarian, or…), which makes the idea of running in a Democratic primary more attractive to leftists than it “should” be, since (a) nobody can stop you if you get enough signatures, and (b) virtually everyone that you would want to vote for you regularly votes Democratic anyway (unless they’re white conservative working-class men who vote Republican, or the very poor who don’t vote at all).

    If one wants to understand why Bernie Sanders is running for president in the Democratic primary rather than as a Green or an independent outside of any primary, well, those are the major reasons why. He wants to get those progressive Democratic votes, and he wants to be sure he’ll be on every ballot in the 50 states, and running in the Dem primary makes this process far easier than not running in the Dem primary.

    Mark’s discussion of the Democrats also makes the Dems seem like far more of a monolithic, unified “it” than is actually the case. Looking beyond the corporate-supported neoliberal leadership and its supporters, which dominate the DP through sheer numbers, there has long been a minority of elected Dems who are for all the immediate reforms that Mark is for. Why haven’t such folks dominated the DP as a whole? Mainly because it’s a lot easier for those who take cash from corporate America and Wall St. to win primaries than those who don’t (to spend on advertising, etc.). It’s damned hard to win a primary if voters don’t know who you are. (Gerrymandering doesn’t help either.)

    I am in agreement that much of the “progressive” punditry is loyal to the DP as a whole, which the DP as a whole certainly doesn’t deserve. Such pundits deserve our contempt, of course.

    But advocates of building an independent leftist party, today, right now, should at least acknowledge the structural barriers and peculiarities I’ve described above and elaborate a strategy for overcoming them. Because they really do need to be overcome, sooner rather than later.

  2. Dianne Feeley Avatar
    Dianne Feeley

    This is in response to the comment posted above. I agree with Jason about how difficult it is for an independent political party to have meaningful ballot access. I believe much of these obstacles were developed when there was some opposition vs. the 2-party system. That is, in the heyday of the Socialist Party, both before and after World War I, and then again in the late 1960s. Below is a link to a section of the pamphlet Solidarity put out for the 2012 elections, “The Politics of Austerity, Occupy & the 2012 Elections.” This is from a section entitled, “Democracy: Struggle & Limits”: