1942 Midterms: Republicans win Popular Vote, Pick up 47 Seats in House; Roosevelt on Ropes; Pacific War Uncertain, Economy Slowly Improving

It was November, 1942. A year earlier the Japanese Empire had struck at Pearl Harbor and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had finally entered World War II. Although in May of 1942 the US was kicked out of the Philippines by the Japanese, with Gen. MacArthur retreating to Australia, in June of 1942 the US wins a major battle against the Japanese at Midway. Still, in fall of 1942 the long, bloody battle for Guadalcanal in The South Pacific had not been decided. The economy had finally begun improving after the long years of Depression. The unemployment rate was reduced from 14.6 percent in 1940 to only 4.7 percent in 1942. Roosevelt faced midterm elections.

Would you really choose that moment to more or less return to power the party that had caused the Great Depression?

We might look back on these years of the “Greatest Generation” as heroic, and Roosevelt as unbeatable. But you know what? His Democrats lost the popular vote, losing big in the House of Representatives, and Republicans picked up 47 seats. Because of the way things were then districted, the Democrats did hold on to the House by a slim margin. But they were deprived of a comfortable majority (left with just a 13 seat margin). As the Los Angeles Times noted the day after the election, Roosevelt was left without a real majority, because he always faced defections on any vote. The paper breathlessly noted the dramatic fall of Democratic dominance from the party’s commanding position in 1936.

Remember, this is almost a year into World War II, troops are fighting and dying in the Pacific, and the economy is looking up. Roosevelt and his party should have benefited from his being a war president, and should have gotten some credit for having saved the country from the worst economic crisis of all time. Instead, the voters punished him.

Timothy Y. C. Cotton explains in his article, “War and American Democracy: Electoral Costs of the Last Five Wars,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Dec., 1986), pp. 616-635:

‘ The attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 brought home to Americans the sure knowledge that the aggressively expanding totalitarian powers on either side of them presented a real threat. At the time of the midterm election of 1942, the war effort was not going well. Voters seemed to turn from the Democrats, who were still enjoying the benefits of the recovery of the economy from the Depression. Despite strong economic growth in 1942, the GOP was able to cut substantially into the Democratic majority in Congress.

The lack of progress in battle was one reason the GOP fared better in 1942. Another was the imposition of wartime controls on the domestic economy. “During 1942 the Office of Price Administration instituted ten major rationing programs, while shortages in still exempt goods
drove their prices up, encouraged hoarding and forebode further rationing to come” (Blum, 1976: 227). Economic growth was being funneled into the war effort rather than consumer goods as part of the effort to build up the nation’s military strength. Labor unions were
obliged to lessen their demands and not to strike, given the critical need for maintaining the supply of the tools of war. Workers became resentful, however, thinking that they were being taken advantage of by management. These factors conspired to turn the voters against the
Democrats in 1942.’

Of course, the dynamics were very different than today, with the Afghanistan War even chancier than the then Pacific one, and with government intervening in the economy in different ways (bank bailouts, briefly taking over an auto company, stubbornly high unemployment closet to that of 1940 than that of 1942, health care reform).

An even more interesting story could be told about the 1946 midterms, when Democratic President Harry Truman, who had, like won World War II, saw the Republicans pick up an astonishing 55 seats and take control of the House. People were tired of long years of war and sacrifice and the Republicans promised prosperity through unleashing the free market.

But that’s American politics. Presidents often lose big in midterms, and especially when the public is nervous about foreign wars and domestic economic uncertainty. In a two party system and a corporate-dominated society, what else can one expect but a continual see-saw?

Posted in Uncategorized | 24 Responses | Print |

24 Responses

  1. “Remember, this is almost a year into World War II”?
    OMG, Americans! Surely you mean this is almost a year into America’s entry into WW2?

  2. From surfing sites such as CommonDreams.org, I get the impression that when conservatives dislike their party, they hijack it. On the other hand, when liberals dislike their party, they turn away from it, voting for third parties.

    After some years, the situation is that the party of Eisenhower has become the party of Gingrich. While liberals are out in the wild, subsisting on grass soup, saying things like “the lesser of two evils is still evil.” Meanwhile, the party of Gingrich is busy calling the shots, channeling public funds to their own pockets with no one to stop the.

  3. I’d suggest a 60+ seat turn-around putting the Dems at about 195-240 is different from holding onto a 13 margin in favor.

    Sure our current wars are “only” bankrupting us and recruiting terrorists faster than we can “win hearts and minds.”

    But then we were fighting the fascists in Europe and the Pacific, now they’ve germinated in Congress itself.

  4. Your area of expertise is history, not political science, right? The Democrats got a whipping last night. The lesson is you might as well follow policies that directly help your base because the Republicans are going to deceive, demagogue and demonize regardless.

    Look where the obstinate obstructionism of Republicans got them and the bipartisan, incrementalist, namby pamby, accommodating, half measure, watered down, milque toast, policies got the Democrats. Democrats don’t have the courage of their convictions because they don’t stand for anything and don’t have any courage.

    • I agree with you, J.S., except for the part where you say Democrats have no convictions, have no courage, and don’t stand for anything. There’s plenty of each of those among most Democrats. It’s our corporated-compromised leadership that goes the weak-kneed route that you so beautifully describe in your comment (“…half-measure, watered-down…”, etc.). There is another whole echelon of Democratic leadership that we can help ascend to the actual leadership, such as Howard Dean again, whose policies and convictions converted the Congress to a Democratic majority the last time he had real power, but we who are not afraid and who have not been intimidated by the 30 years of Reaganesque-Gingrichese social experiment in message control need to get off our complaining butts and work to make that happen. There’s a lot of us, it will take 4-5 years to make it happen, and it can be done.

  5. “Labor unions were obliged to lessen their demands and not to strike, given the critical need for maintaining the supply of the tools of war. Workers became resentful, however, thinking that they were being taken advantage of by management.”

    My guess is that excessive war profits were not being shared with the workers, who were being asked to sacrifice. Is there any data on this?

  6. Please be a bit more careful about Harry Truman “winning” WWII, which “tweaks” the tender sensibilities of this WWII veteran.

    After all, if was just a month after FDR’s death that Germany surrendered…so what did Harry do for that???

    And, as for Japan, the die was cast, and they only lasted another three months. Perhaps Harry’s greatest “contribution” was dropping the two atom bombs, an event of which I heartily approved at the time (particularly since it may have saved my life) but which, upon reflection, loses much of its “shine”.

    Even so, it was our GREATEST President, FDR, who led us to victory and Harry Truman who was merely a member of the “supporting cast”.

    • Ron, I’m glad that for whatever reason the shine has gone off the first ever use of atomic bombs on Japan which, did you but know it, was done for political reasons (to scare the USSR) rather than for the tactical considerations always mooted.

      You may like to check out the reports of the US Strategic Bombing Survey published in 1946 to see their postwar findings.

  7. Minor quibble, I think any rational observer would have to concede that it was the USSR who defeated Germany.

    When Churchill was thrown out of office after the War, the generally accepted analysis was that it was a repudiation of the ruling elite class of which he was a member and which was widely blamed for the war and the economic chaos that preceded it, rather than a “Labour promised us more goodies” sort of vote.

  8. Dear Professor Cole,

    Just a quick note to thank you for your commentary on the current US election cycle, and for your continuous attention to history and historical context. While I appreciate the focus of your blog, I equally admire your past commentaries on US politics and culture. I hope you might treat us to more in the near future.

  9. That’s humans for you. We kicked out Churchill at the first opportunity after the War.

    I do take exception to your claim that Truman, like, won World War II. If you are, as I hope, referring specifically to the Pacific theatre please have the decency to say so. We are tired of being told how Americans saved us all from having to learn German.

  10. ” In a two party system and a corporate-dominated society, what else can one expect but a continual see-saw? ”
    Sorry Professor, but the money from corporate interests has yielded a one party state .
    There’s the right wing , and the extremely right wing .
    The ridiculous costs which “elections” now incur
    have given the USA the best government that money can buy .
    It was fun while it lasted ,
    but the USA is now alarming friends
    and encouraging enemies .
    A pity really – much of the world hoped for better .

  11. We’re living in a nation of ingrates. In 1932, 1992, and 2008 Democrats had to wade in to clean up a mess Republicans and their capitalism created. Note that in the ’94 Democratic wipeout, the recovery had already begun. So Americans will vote out liberals because they don’t have enough money, but they will also vote out liberals because they have money again and the first thing they want is a return to the same greedonomics that led to the last crash. Since America is in long-term decline and wages have been flat for the 30 years of the Reagan ideological dominance, voters always feel that they have been cheated, but that means they view the extravagance of the last bubble as the closest they’ve come to getting what they deserve, instead of the very condition that caused the subsequent crash. Which favors the GOP.

    At least until there aren’t enough white voters left to keep this particular game going.

  12. there is only one party with two sides, the Fascists(R) and the Not so Fascist Moderates(D). god how i hate the concept of moderates, like “bipartisanship,” both words imply acceding to the “Republican” way! Stand for something, please, just stand up for anything to let me know you have a spine!!!! i already know the Republicans stand for graft corruption and greed.

    if the Democrats stood for something other than grabbing a piece of the Republican Corporate trough, maybe there might be some Democrats worth voting for. right now, the Democrats and Republicans are Kabuki actors diverting attention from the real thievery going on now by the “Haves and the Have Mores.”

    the Democrats and the Republicans are responsible for the Looting of America, as i remember Ayn Rand described it in “Atlas Shrugged.” Both parties are helping their Masters, the Banksters, finish off America. Just read Matt Taibbi’s stories in the “Rolling Stones” magazine.

    Watching Obama lose this election cycle was music to my ears. to await the subpoena power of Darryl Issa, R-Ca. is to await the payback Obama deserves for throwing us, the “Expendables,” under the bus.

    and no, i don’t fear Palin anymore than i fear the DCC, Ms. Bazile, James Carville, Dick Durbin, Hillary and the rest of the “corporate owned” Democratic elite. The Democratic Elite is part and parcel of the Corporate World. As for Palin, Palin and her ilk will be crushed by the Republicans once Palin and her grifter cronies get too close for the GOP Elite’s comfort.

    Obama is such a traitor to hope and change in America that i bet Obama’s “bipartisanship”/”code word for adopting Republican party beliefs/, will blossom into a total conversion to the Republican party ideals, all but in name only. as he has done in the last two years, the “D” after his name is for Dirty Tricks. As in, “I am not a Crook!”

    But no, I’m not angry at Obama at all. that is just who he is.

  13. Things to remember:

    1) Midterm elections have low turnout. The segment that beat the odds was the mis-named Tea Party. They voted non-Democrat whenever possible. That accounts for much of the turn around.

    2) Obama is blamed for the poor economy. His actual failure was not having enough stimulus to make a noticeable difference, but look, he was blamed for having passed the stimulus and the health care reform.

    3) Health care reform is now law. It will be the Republican’s mistake to attack it because a) they will be seen as the party of NO and b) it will become more popular as their scare stories prove to be false. Health care reform is one of Obama’s trump cards in 2012.

    4) If the economy improves between now and 2012, it will be Obama’s victory. If it worsens, the Democrat’s job is to make it the Republican’s fault. John Boehner (sp?) is the new Pelosi. What will the new Republican congress do if we need more stimulus? Will they betray their newly found principles, or will they stand in the way of progress.

    For the Republicans to have “won” this midterm, they needed to gain control of both houses. They failed to do so because their message is flawed, and in some states, only seriously flawed candidates were willing to carry the message.

    My hope is that Sarah “walking schizophrenic” Palin will speak louder and attempt to bend Boehner (sp?) to her will, whatever it may be on any particular day.

    • You’ve got a point about who turned out to vote, the Tea Party. All we hear about is unemployment being the cause for the pro-Repub vote. Overall unemployment is around 10%, the African American unemployment is much higher. Yet, African Americans overwhelmingly support Obama and the Democrat party, and the few “man-in-the-street” interviews I’ve seen with African Americans have said that it is impossible for Obama to fix the mess that he inherited in two year*s time. The Tea Party is overwhelmingly white and middle aged, with a large chunk of retired who aren’t looking for employment. I just get the feeling that there is more than a whiff of racism hanging over the Tea Party and the new Repubs.

  14. I would only remark that Obama is not Roosevelt. And the Republicans are still promising prosperity through the free market, and people are still buying it.

  15. President Obama is not President Roosevelt, not even remotely close. I could not be more disappointed with this President who seems increasingly only to really care about waging needless and immoral wars.

  16. Yes, Pres. Obama is not Roosevelt, but then Roosevelt wasn’t the mythical Roosevelt. He tried Keynesianism to get the US out of the Depression, but when everything looked OK, he went back to what he believed, a balanced budget, & revived the Depression.

Comments are closed.