The roots of a conservative coalition opposing the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt can be traced back to shifts in the major parties that predated the 1930s. As early as 1920, the Republican Party had jettisoned much of its progressive wing and defined itself as a more ideologically homogenous, conservative organization anchored in New England, the Midwest, and the West. The Democrats of the 1920s, for their part, were not a unified liberal party, but an ideological muddle of rural southerners and urban northerners, anti-alcohol drys and anti-Prohibition wets, nativists and immigrants, and Protestants and non-Protestants. Hungry to regain national power they had lost since the Wilson years, the Democrats' gratitude for Franklin Roosevelt's victory in 1932 encouraged short-term unity within the president's party in Congress during the first hundred days. But as early as 1934, the emergence of the American Liberty League, with its support from not only Republicans but also past Democratic leaders such as 1928 presidential nominee Al Smith, showed the potential for a bipartisan coalition of conservatives unified in support of states' rights, anticommunism, opposition to federal taxation and spending, and resistance to organized labor and civil rights.
As Roosevelt's programs increasingly redefined the national Democrats in the 1935-1936 period as a party championing the interests of the urban, industrial working class, some veteran Democratic lawmakers from the South openly resisted the shift. Conservatives from both parties fought vainly against the Wagner Act (National Labor Relations) and Social Security Acts, and Senator Carter Glass of Virginia led successful efforts to water down the president's "soak-the-rich" Wealth Tax Act of 1935. Roosevelt's 1936 landslide re-election appeared to foretell a pending rout of his remaining conservative adversaries in Congress, but the unpopularity of the president's "court-packing" bill in 1937 and the onset of a major economic recession reinvigorated conservative critics in both parties. During the 1937 session, an ever-more-formal partnership between southern Democrats and congressional Republicans, both often representing traditionalist white, rural constituencies, began to flex its legislative muscle.
In the "Conservative Manifesto" of December 1937, written mainly by North Carolina Democrat Josiah Bailey, anti-New Deal legislators from both parties attacked the sit-down strikes launched by organized labor, demanded lower taxes and a balanced federal budget, endorsed states' rights and private property rights, and attacked relief programs for fostering permanent dependency. With the exceptions of a watered-down Wagner-Steagall National Housing Act in 1937 and the Fair Labor Standards Act the following year, most Roosevelt domestic initiatives floundered. When the president tried to reverse his political fortunes by working to defeat his conservative Democrat nemeses in party primaries, the voters repudiated him, returning anti-New Deal senators Ellison Durant, "Cotton Ed" Smith of South Carolina, Walter George of Georgia, and Millard Tydings of Maryland to Washington, and giving Republicans their greatest gains since 1928.
For all intents and purposes, the New Deal era had ended by 1938. Texas congressman Martin Dies led the House Un-American Activities Committee in headline-grabbing hearings alleging Communist influence in New Deal programs and the labor movement. Conservatives killed anti-lynching legislation, and pushed through passage of the Hatch Act, prohibiting federal employees, including relief workers, from participation in political campaigns. As the danger of world war deepened by the late 1930s, the conservative coalition's asking price for its cooperation with the executive branch on foreign policy was the winding down of the New Deal—a price the Roosevelt administration increasingly paid. During World War II and for several decades after, as Cold War fears of communism at home and abroad mushroomed and civil rights emerged as an even more central and divisive national issue, bipartisan coalitions of conservative lawmakers would continue to act as a powerful brake on liberal presidential initiatives.
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Robert F. Burk