A Regional Party Limited to the South: The Democrats in the 1920s, Part 2

This is the second part of three posts analyzing the Democratic Party’s struggles during the 1920s, when it lost three consecutive presidential elections by landslide margins. This will focus upon the 1920 and 1924 presidential election, when white ethnic immigrants abandoned the Democratic Party.

The last part can be found here.

(Note: This post was written several weeks before the election, but the necessity of reviewing all of California’s propositions in a limited timeframe pushed it back.)

The 1920 Presidential Election

The Democratic Party of the early twentieth century was composed of two bases (both of which no longer vote Democratic). These were Southern whites and immigrant, often Catholic, whites from places such as Ireland and Italy. Southern whites voted Democratic due to the memory of the Civil War and could be reliably whipped up with race-baiting appeals. Immigrant ethnic whites, on the other hand, saw the Democratic Party as a vehicle of defense against the dominant, Republican-voting WASP majority in the Northeast and Midwest.

The two groups had precious little in common, save distrust of the dominant Republican Party. One of the constituencies would often only lukewarmly support the national Democratic candidate (this was usually the immigrant  camp, because without Southern whites the Democratic Party was nothing).

In 1920, ethnic whites walked out of the Democratic Party. The city machines at Tammany Hall and others did not just fail to fully back Democratic candidate James M. Cox; they outright refused to support him.

This was entirely the fault of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. The previous year, Mr. Wilson had delicately stated that:

…there is an organized propaganda against the League of Nations and against the treaty proceeding from exactly the same sources that the organized propaganda proceeded from which threatened this country here and there with disloyalty, and I want to say — I cannot say too often — any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.

If I can catch any man with a hyphen in this great contest I will know that I have got an enemy of the Republic.

The political stupidity of this quote cannot be overstated. The “man with a hyphen” was not just a politically influential constituency; in states like New York, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin he was the Democratic Party.

This, along with Mr. Wilson making the 1920 election a referendum on his extremely unpopular League of Nations, led to the result in the map above.

Democratic candidate James M. Cox lost everywhere outside the Solid South. He got barely one-fourth of the vote in New York City, less than one-fourth in Chicago, less than one-fifth in Detroit, and so on throughout all the great non-Southern cities. In the “hyphen-heavy” states of Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and Minnesota, Mr. Cox failed to break the 20% mark. Even in the Solid South, Republicans broke 30% of the vote – for the first time since 1908, when disenfranchisement of blacks was complete.

All in all, Democratic candidate James M. Cox lost by 26.2% – the greatest defeat in the popular vote, ever.

The 1924 Presidential Election

In 1924, the Democratic Party nominated a man with the distinction of being more conservative than the Republican.

Little known John W. Davis was not just a social conservative who endorsed segregation – that was true for all Southern Democrats at the time – but also an economic conservative. Mr. Davis believed in small government, states rights, and would go on to oppose President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Mr. Davis was nominated as a compromise candidate after one of the longest and nastiest Democratic conventions in history – a bitter fight with immigrant whites from big cities against Southern and Western rural whites. By the time the convention had ended, it was clear that Democrats didn’t stand a chance of winning the 1924 presidential election. After Mr. Davis’s nomination, ethnic whites walked out once again.

In 1924, Democrats lost big again. They lost by more than Walter Mondale against Ronald Reagan. They lost by more than Herbert Hoover against FDR. All in all, the Democratic candidate lost by the second greatest popular margin in American history, right after 1920.

Mr. Davis won between one-fourth and one-third of the votes. Southern whites stayed loyal; indeed, he did a quite bit better than Mr. Cox in 1920 in the Solid South.

White ethnics did not. In 1920 white immigrants had sat out the election. This time they voted for Governor Senator Robert La Follette, who was the only liberal candidate in the race. Mr. La Follette did better than the Democratic candidate in a dozen states.

Everybody else voted for Republican candidate Calvin Coolidge. Mr. Davis lost almost every single non-Southern city, including all five boroughs of New York (the last time a Democratic presidential candidate would lose New York). In Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Francisco the Democratic candidate got less than 10% of the vote.

All in all, Mr. Davis failed to break 30% in more than half the states:

In the aftermath of this election – a second disastrous election in a row for Democrats – it was clear that a change in strategy was needed. For two elections in a row, Democrats had won Southern whites and nobody else.

In 1928, therefore, the Democratic Party nominated the candidate of the white ethnics to run for president. This time it was the turn of the Southern whites to walk out.

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9 Responses to A Regional Party Limited to the South: The Democrats in the 1920s, Part 2

  1. Rich says:

    The 1916 presidential election interests me. Wilson won, of course, albeit narrowly over Hughes. Two factors made the difference, it seems: 1) Wilson had kept America out of the war (although it was more fellow-Democrat William Jennings Bryant, campaigning for Wilson, who stressed this angle–not Wilson); at the same time, I think most everyone realized America would be in the war in short order. 2) the women’s vote and the western vote, which overwhelmingly backed Wilson–and I think the women’s vote, especially in California, gave Wilson the state and the election. Do you think pundits who thought Hughes would win overlooked the growing numbers of women voters? Any comments are appreciated.

    • inoljt says:

      You know, I’ve never thought about the women’s vote until now. That’s a really great point you make with respect to the importance women’s vote. I’d kind of forgotten that women couldn’t vote until 1920.

      I do hear (don’t ask me where, I utterly forget) that the women’s vote turned out to be less earth-shaking than the pundits of the day thought it would be. People thought that women would vote significantly different from men. But as it turned out, they voted very similarly to men. And turn-out amongst women was very low. So it didn’t turn out to be as big as a deal as people thought it would be. Ironically, things are different today: women vote differently from men and they vote more often than men.

      As for the West, it is kind of strange. Wilson was one of the only Democrats to win the entire West. Unlike the South, a lot of the West has always been loyally Republican.

  2. JK says:

    Just a quick question, since it seems important to the premise of the article (since it was apparently important to Woodrow Wilson):

    What is a “man with a hyphen”? The only hyphen I know is a character in the English language used to join two words in particular ways, or to mark a single word being split across 2 lines of written text. It’s not exactly an object you can carry around unless you’re counting whatever book you’re holding at the moment.

    Therefore, both Mr Wilson and the author must mean someone who is using hyphens in a particular way, but that way is never defined in the article. People with a double last name? No, that makes no sense. Why should the name “David Smith-Jones” be any articular threat to the Republic? Could we be discussing the use of hypens in the indication of racial or class membership as is common today? Perhaps, but how common was such “PC” language in the 1920s? And even so, under typical PC usage, aren’t we all hypenated-Americans? Even Wilson could be called such if that was the intended meaning. Caucasian-American, English-American, Protestant-American, and so forth.

    So, what are we talking about here with this “man with a hyphen” stuff?

    • inoljt says:

      I think Woodrow Wilson was talking about recent European immigrants – i.e. Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, German-Americans – as it was understood at the time. Americans with “hyphens.” There was a lot of opposition from the latter two groups to the League of Nations, which was created from the winners of WWI.

      Obviously, Germany was not such one winner – thus the opposition of German-Americans. And given that Ireland was a semi-colony of England – a victorious nation – at the time many Irish-Americans were also opposed.

      I’m not sure how common Wilson’s language was during that time; it’s actually the only time I’ve ever seen somebody use the term “man with a hyphen.” But it’s pretty clear, if you look at the historical context, who he was referring to.

      It was also an incredibly dumb thing to say, given that these European immigrants were to the Democratic Party back then what blacks and Latinos are to the Democratic Party today.

  3. Mike says:

    Interesting, I would say though that while people were premature with calling today’s GOP a regional party that will more then likely will happen as the US moves to minority majority nation..

    Today’s GOP party just will not be able to compete as it is today

    • inoljt says:

      I’m actually not so sure about that.

      When people talk about a “minority majority” nation, they really are talking about the growth of the Hispanic population (and, to a far far lesser extent, the Asian population). But it’s certainly not a given that Hispanics will continue voting as Democratic as they do now, especially as they begin to assimilate. You already see Hispanics voting much more Republican in places like Texas.

      In the 1900s, you could have talked about a new permanent Democratic majority based on Catholic support, as the number of Catholics (who voted 80% Democratic at the time) kept on increasing relative to Republican Protestants.

      Today there are indeed probably more white non-Hispanic Catholics than white non-Hispanic Protestants. But now they vote Republican. That may also happen with Hispanics.

      • Julien Peter says:

        What actually happened to the growing number of ethnic Catholics that prevented any sort of Democratic majority in the 1910s and 1920s is actually quite strange, even sort of sinister vis-a-vis most other countries of the world.

        Rather than support the democrats to win the industrial states, they simply did not vote. Registration laws and literacy tests made it so tough for these people to vote that, in the 1924 election, less than thirty percent of industrial workers actually voted. Most of them depended upon their churches for welfare and social life, and were socially conservative vis-a-vis what were seen as the liberal moral standards of the ruling elite and educated upper middle classes.

        By contrast, in every European nation, these working classes formed the basis of socialist parties that enforced large-scale welfare systems that virtually eliminated religion from public life. Even when the Catholic Church had a dominant – even dictatorial – role in national politics, industrial working class church attendance in Europe nowhere exceeded 5 percent even before World War I. Rather, socialisation, insofar as it existed, came form campaigns for radical political change in the form of class war.

  4. Most interesting; elections I knew little about, except the Repubs won…now I understand quite a bit more. Thanks for this.

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