With the midterms behind us, many Americans are already consumed with 2020 presidential speculation. A recent Des Moines Register poll tested the candidacies of 20 possible Democratic contenders, while Gail Collins cited upward of 55 potential candidates in a recent column. If any of these people actually want to be elected, they would do well to take a page, ironically, from one of the least successful Democratic candidates of the 20th century. In defeat, Alfred E. Smith revealed a formula for constructing a durable center-left coalition that ended up dominating U.S. politics for the better part of two generations.
There is reason to think a similar party realignment could happen today: Many of the deep demographic fractures present in American society are similar to those that divided Americans in 1928, when millions of working women and men in urban, ethnic, industrial communities across the Northeast and Midwest finally found a candidate of their own in Smith. The four-term Democratic governor of New York and the first Roman Catholic nominated by a major party for president of the United States, Smith championed pluralism as well as the bread-and-butter needs of American workers. Indeed, Smith’s campaign, which revealed the overlap between identity politics and class consciousness, might offer a road map for building a new dominant political coalition today.
The classic narrative of the 1928 campaign focuses on its shocking cultural overtones: the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses to menace the Catholic contender; Republican propaganda linked Smith’s candidacy to a deluge of immigrants; and Eleanor Roosevelt concluded that “if I needed anything to show me what prejudice can do to the intelligence of human beings, that campaign was the best lesson I could have had.” Smith countered by declaring ethnic and religious bigotry “un-American” while inspiring a new coalition of recently immigrated Catholics, Jews and some African Americans.
But to focus solely on culture overlooks what made Smith uniquely appealing, and what actually sparked the longer-term political realignment. Smith’s support among diverse groups of marginalized Americans revealed a pathway to unify a new coalition by speaking to their needs with a three-pronged progressivism centered on cultural pluralism, labor protections and social welfare initiatives.
Smith’s Catholicism and his disdain for prohibition and the Klan resonated with many voters. One man in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., wrote Smith in Italian to assure him that “we Catholic people do not get tired of working for your victory.” A merry band at a Providence, R.I., rally traipsed about the confetti-laden streets carrying an enormous banner that read: “Remember November sixth — beer!”
Others celebrated Smith’s support for racial tolerance and “industrial democracy.” One Polish American from Chicopee, Mass., excoriated Republicans for having “furthered, protected, and fostered the special interests of a certain few against the common interests of the many.”
In fact, most Smith voters understood their candidate represented cultural pluralism and social and economic reform — and most of those voters desired, even demanded, both in 1928, understanding, as an Italian American Rhode Islander summarized, that the Republican status quo begat “favoritism” for “powerful combines” as well as marginalization of ethnic minorities. A Polish American worker from Springfield, Mass., observed that Republicans were the party of capital and prohibition, while lauding Smith for recognizing “that should the laborer, the farmer and the small business man prosper, money will be in more free circulation and the country will prosper.”
Smith’s twin messages had great appeal by 1928 because of the reactionary nature of the 1920s, both culturally and economically. He marked a dramatic departure for the Democrats, whose 1920 nominee had denounced “hyphenated Americanism” and whose 1924 convention had refused to approve a platform plank denouncing the Ku Klux Klan by name, while nominating a candidate for president whom labor leaders denounced as “just as reactionary” as Calvin Coolidge.
The decade featured the rise of “One Hundred Percent Americanism” that aimed to reinforce the dominance of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants with policies like severe immigration quotas and Prohibition. A virulent elixir of white supremacy, xenophobia, anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism propelled the Ku Klux Klan to political power across the country, attracting 6 million members by mid-decade. Both political parties routinely pandered to these bigoted impulses.
Meanwhile, Republican spending cuts and tax reforms reinforced Gilded Age income disparities, while organized labor plodded through a demoralizing decade of defeats. Indeed, despite the period’s reputation as the “Roaring Twenties,” glittering cliches did little to assuage the very real suffering of the working class: Wages failed to keep pace with productivity, consumption began to decline by 1927 and, in some sectors, especially agriculture, mining and New England textiles, depression conditions were already rife. Industrial dangers, dilapidated housing, truncated life expectancies and inflated childhood mortality rates all remained the reality for many workers.
In short, large swaths of the American population were being left behind by hostile economic and social policies. As a result, these Americans, marginalized both economically and culturally, were inspired to political action by Smith’s holistic approach to their complex needs. As New York governor he not only denounced the Klan, attacked “discriminatory” immigration quotas and criticized prohibition, but also championed and achieved real reforms to workplace safety, expanded state welfare and health services, and dramatically increased the state’s investment in public education. This combination of a more inclusive view of Americanism, labor reforms and a broadly defined welfare regime formed the base of the vision that Smith presented to the American people in 1928.
Smith’s movement turned out to be premature. Most Americans remained entranced by New Era economics in 1928 and offended by the “New America” embodied by Smith’s candidacy. He lost in a landslide. Still, his campaign set the tone for future candidates. As H.L. Mencken concluded: “The future of the Democracy lies in following the furrow plowed by Al.”
Smith’s complex appeal is still relevant to our politics today. Sweeping generalizations about the “white working class” are of diminishing usefulness when confronted with a workforce that is increasingly diverse and poverty rates that remain strikingly elevated among people of color. The term itself is antiquated and misleading: In 1928 “white working class” would have implied native-born workers, most of whom supported immigration restriction and Herbert Hoover, while the people we vaguely identify as “white working class” today are actually often the grandchildren of Smith’s “ethnic” base.
Smith recognized that marginalized ethnic and racial voting blocs were at the very heart of the American working class. As such, Smith emphasized not only tolerance but also catalogued his programs for workplace protections and public health, housing, schools, widows’ pensions, and minimum wages and employment standards for women and children. These programs appealed to Catholic, African American and Jewish supporters because of Smith’s “constructive, broad, social service legislation” and his denunciation of “the spirit of bigotry, intolerance and snobbishness,” proclaimed one advertisement.
Smith’s campaign reveals that the cultural appeals, both positive and negative, that mark contemporary politics are too simplistic and must include economic appeals to construct a sustainable coalition. Successful mobilization of marginalized groups with unique cultural identities must speak with authenticity to their sincere demands for dignity. Failing to do so not only betrays American pluralism but is also poor politics: one of the great failures of the Smith campaign was his decision, under pressure from Southern advisers, not to issue a more robust affirmation of African American equality — an uncharacteristically craven act that earned scorn from W.E.B. Du Bois and blunted Smith’s appeal among black voters.
To earn the loyalty of marginalized groups today, candidates should recall Smith’s vision, simultaneously speaking to the pocketbook issues that still plague their communities and cultivating a sense of solidarity among working Americans regardless of religious or racial differences.
Although Smith was unsuccessful in 1928, his ability to fuse cultural empowerment with economic justice spoke meaningfully to an important and emerging group of American voters, setting the stage for the coalition that would propel center-left political power for the next four decades.