Thursday, November 5, 2020
November 5, 2020: Pivotal Elections: 1932
[To say that the 2020 presidential election will be a pivotal one in American history is to significantly under-state the case. But while in some clear ways this moment feels singular, this is of course far from our only such crucial election. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of others, leading up to a special weekend post on this year’s results.]
On a frustrating undercurrent to a landslide election, and why the positives remain nonetheless.
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I’m writing and scheduling this week’s blog posts (other than the weekend post on this year’s election results, of course) in the summer, so I can only speculate about how they might relate to the eventual results of the 2020 presidential election. But it’s certainly fair to say that I hope the 1932 presidential election—in which a deeply divisive and unpopular Republican incumbent (Herbert Hoover) closely linked to an unfolding national and global crisis (the Great Depression) was soundly defeated (472 electoral votes to 59, and a popular vote triumph of more than 7 million votes, 22.8 million to 15.7 million) by his Democratic challenger (Franklin Delano Roosevelt)—might serve as a parallel to 2020. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme (as someone famous, although probably not Mark Twain, put it), and as of this July moment at least 2020 and 1932 feel like they have the possibility to become a pleasantly rhyming couplet indeed.
One thing that hasn’t happened as of my writing this post is Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s choice of his Vice Presidential running mate. I’ve seen a good bit of debate over whether and in what ways that choice can influence an election’s results, but of course whether it actually does or not, the choice is often made due to electoral concerns. That was most definitely the case in 1932, when the more liberal New Yorker Roosevelt chose as his running mate a more conservative politician from a very different region (and one who had been seeking the 1932 nomination himself before Roosevelt secured it): Speaker of the House John Nance Garner, a Southern Democrat from Texas. Garner’s specific roles and duties as VP during Roosevelt’s first two terms remain uncertain (when Roosevelt declared his intention to run for a 3rd term in 1940 Garner left the administration and unsuccessfully opposed him), but to my mind it’s impossible to separate this choice of Roosevelt’s from the frustrating reality of the Roosevelt administration’s and the New Deal’s consistent appeasement of Southern (often white supremacist) Democrats at the expense of Americans of color. This wasn’t as bad as Lincoln choosing Andrew Johnson in 1864 (fortunately FDR didn’t die in office while Garner was VP, for one important difference), but I’d put it in that conversation.
So we can’t remember the 1932 election without factoring Garner in, just like we can’t analyze the New Deal’s inspiring programs and positive effects separately from those white supremacist elements. But while imagining counter-factuals in which Roosevelt chooses a different VP and pursues a different course for passing the New Deal has some value (especially in forcing us to remember those aspects of his campaign and administration), those are far from the most likely alternative histories; much more likely, as is the case with any election, is the election going a different way, Hoover winning a second term, at least the next four years of Depression-era America being driven by the same presidential administration and its allies. None of us know for sure what that would have looked like or meant, but the lessons of Hoover’s four years in office provide some guidance, and I think it’s fair to say that things would have gone much, much worse than they did under Roosevelt. Critical patriotism (the subject of my soon to be released book!) requires engaging with our most frustrating histories, but it also means not throwing out the good because it isn’t perfect—and the result of the 1932 presidential election was very good indeed.
Last election tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other pivotal elections you’d highlight?