Not Your Father’s Electorate (Instead, His Father’s)

The Republican vote was as high as ever. But the Democratic candidate still won — because more Democrats turned out to the polls than ever before. The electorate had expanded, […]

The Republican vote was as high as ever. But the Democratic candidate still won — because more Democrats turned out to the polls than ever before. The electorate had expanded, and the demographic had shifted. Working class city-dwellers suddenly realized their true numbers, and voting as a block, elected perhaps the most liberal candidate in the history of the United States. It wasn’t Barack Obama — it was Franklin Roosevelt. In his article “Blue Collar Democracy,” University of Pittsburgh historian Eric Leif Davin writes that, prompted by the advent of the Great Depression and a series of do-nothing presidents, the children of immigrants, the unemployed, those on relief, and all those who had been bullied and intimidated into voting Republican by mill bosses suddenly turned the tide. Democratic voter registration increased 50 percent in the off-year congressional elections between 1930 and 1934, and in 92 cities with over 100,000 residents, newly enfranchised urban liberals drove Republican control from 49 percent of city halls to 18.4 percent of city halls. Davin writes that these Democrats arose from grassroots movements in the industrial Northeast and Midwest, and were comprised mostly of the ethnic and immigrant groups that were then at the bottom of the social totem pole — Catholics, Jews, African-Americans, and workers. The new majority electorate was, for the first time, class-conscious. He attributes this political realignment to an urban and ethnic demographic revolution. Simply put — the waves of immigrants to America in the late-19th and early-20th centuries had children, and those children claimed their right to full citizenship. Here in Pittsburgh, by 1936 Republican registration had dropped to 43.9 percent of the city’s total (down from 95.3 percent in 1930), and Democratic registration had climbed to 56.1 percent. Numerically, the Republican vote was as high as it ever was – but more people started turning out to the polls, and most of those new voters were Democrats. Seventy years later, and things are much the same. Just as, until the 1930s, Republicans had controlled all levels of government since the Civil War, the United States is finally coming to the close of the era of conservative dominance that began upon the collapse of the New Deal coalition. Just as, the United States ceased to be majority white Anglo-Saxon Protestant earlier this century, it’s quickly ceasing to be majority European: many predict that Caucasians, already a minority in California, will become a minority nationwide by mid-century. And, just as in the 1930s (and also during that unfortunate political realignment in the late 1970’s) the country is entering a period of economic uncertainty. And it looks like the electorate is, again, expanding. Youth turnout is up, college-aged students are emerging from a long period of political dormancy, traditional Republican strongholds are now in question due to their affinity for the first African-American presidential candidate on a major ticket, “women”: https://www.mylifetime.com/community/my-lifetime-commitment/ewc/women-gear-record-voter-turnout have coalesced into a cohesive, key voting block, and Democratic voter turnout is overwhelming polling places. Amid cries that the white male vote still, ultimately, makes or breaks any election, perhaps it is premature to say that those huddled masses yearning to breathe free will reclaim American participatory democracy this fall. But they’ve certainly reinvigorated it.

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