There’s a fascinating article up at History News Network calling for us to rethink our traditional narrative of party shifts in the mid-twentieth century, arguing that it was not the Great Depression that created the Democratic Party’s dominance after World War II, but postwar prosperity. Examining a huge trove of opinion polls, the researchers show that while the Great Depression convinced millions of Americans to reject the Republican Party in the short-term, there’s no real evidence that they became committed Democrats until 1948. By that time, you had the building postwar boom, as well as the teenagers of the Great Depression who found hope in the CCC and other New Deal jobs programs eligible to vote.
This might challenge our traditional ways of thinking about the New Deal’s impact, but it also reinforces a truism in American politics–it’s the economy, stupid.
What rallied Americans to the Democratic Party was prosperity. “Happy times are here again,” most would eagerly agree by 1948. While the end of the war precipitated a sharp contraction of the economy in 1946 (which persisted through 1947) the economy grew by a robust 4.4 percent in 1948, and continued to do so for the next four years. Any fears that the country would slide back into a depression once wartime production ended proved unfounded. At the same time, the unemployment rate in 1948 fell below 4 percent after a brief spike from practically zero during the war years. The postwar prosperity, achieved under a Democratic administration, sharply contrasted with the Great Depression, which struck the economy under a Republican one. It was a contrast that Harry Truman reminded people of in the starkest terms during his whistle-stop campaign tour.