Friday, October 24, 2008

Experts: Don't expect a Depression-like political shift

Once upon a time, Democrats were demoralized after losing 32 House seats and a landslide presidential race in one fell swoop.

Yet just two years later they gained 52 seats; two years after that, they took 97 more and the White House in a landslide.

What happened in the interim was the Great Depression — a period of worldwide economic contraction heralded in part by bank failures and a stock market crash not unlike what we are seeing today — and the start of a dramatic realignment of American political thought.

While some experts agree that an economy in crisis tends to push U.S. elections toward Democrats, they do not necessarily think that we are about to see the Depression-era kind of realignment that led to a generation-long Democratic domination of Congress. The American political landscape has changed enormously since 1930, they say, and this is not yet a crisis on the Great Depression's scale.

"The economic situations by themselves are somewhat similar, but the politics are just all different. Back in 1932, the Democrats couldn't get a national majority without the segregationist south," said UC Davis history professor Eric Rauchway, author of "The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction."

"That's a big difference — you couldn't be more upside down then to now as far as that goes, when you have a black candidate at the top of the Democratic ticket," he said. "The electoral map, Advertisementas it shapes up if you look at polls, is so different even from four and eight years ago let alone from 70-something years ago, it's really hard to draw parallels."

Rauchway added that today's situation is not just like the Great Depression, which saw unemployment rise to 25 percent even as Americans withdrew all their money from banks in droves and elderly people were left penniless. Backstops put in place since then — such as unemployment insurance, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Social Security and a far more activist Federal Reserve board — most likely will temper the current downturn, he said.

Robert Cherny, a San Francisco State history professor, generally agreed that this downturn would not necessarily lead to sweeping, lasting changes in the political landscape, though for somewhat different reasons.

The Great Depression began in earnest only months into President Herbert Hoover's term, and it was his inaction until his final year — when he finally created the Reconstruction Finance Corp., which would come to resemble the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program recently approved by Congress — that turned the public so strongly against him, Cherny said. His Democratic successor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then instituted New Deal economic recovery programs that cemented the loyalty of a broad coalition of working-class Americans for decades to come.

"Hoover had three years to try to deal with the situation and didn't deal with it well; it just kept getting worse," Cherny said. "There's a lot more of immediate response today than there was in 1929, 1930, 1931. "... At least the federal government is taking much more significant action much more quickly this time around.

"Television, combined with highly scientific polling, has totally changed the nature of political campaigning — it has focused it in a much more negative direction and as a result it's been much more difficult for any political figure to build the kind of strong party loyalty that Franklin Roosevelt built in the 1930s," Cherny said. "Voters are becoming more and more cynical about politics because of all of the negative attacks, and this is driving voters away from the parties in general rather than letting any one figure create a future of any one party's majority."

He said that Democrats' gains in the polls in recent weeks are probably due to modern voters' tendency to trust Democrats more on economic issues, hence the 1992 Clinton campaign's resounding "It's the economy, stupid!" slogan, while Republicans usually do better on national security issues. That is all he sees here, not the start of a fundamental political realignment that will last for decades.

Since 1968, "all of these presidents have failed to really cement a group of voters to their party to give them a clear national majority," he said. "It may happen this time around if this crisis proves serious enough, but it's my guess it's not going to happen. "... I'm skeptical that political parties will ever again play the kind of role they played before the rise of television."

By the numbers, Hoover, a Republican, won the White House in 1928 with 58.2 percent of the popular vote and 444 Electoral College votes to Democrat Alfred Smith's 40.8 percent of the popular vote and 87 electoral votes. Smith carried only eight states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Rhode Island and South Carolina. Similarly buoyed by an apparently strong economy, Republicans picked up 32 House seats and seven Senate seats.

But that buoy soon became an anchor — Democrats gained 52 House seats and eight Senate seats in 1930, one year after the stock market crash that marked the Great Depression's start.

In 1932, Roosevelt, a Democrat, won the White House with 57.4 percent of the popular vote and 472 Electoral College votes to Hoover's 39.7 percent of the popular vote and 59 electoral votes. Hoover carried only six states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Vermont. Democrats also picked up 97 more House seats and 12 Senate seats.

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