I thought it would be interesting to look back at the biggest Republican victory of the last 80 years, the off-year election of 1946. Republicans in that election gained 13 seats in the Senate and emerged with a 51–45 majority there, the largest majority that they enjoyed between 1930 and 1980. And they gained 55 seats in the House, giving them a 246–188 majority in that body, the largest majority they have held since 1930. The popular vote for the House was 53% Republican and 44% Democratic, a bigger margin than Republicans have won ever since. And that’s even more impressive when you consider that in 1946 Republicans did not seriously contest most seats in the South. In the 11 states that had been part of the Confederacy, Democrats won 103 of 105 seats and Republicans won only 2 seats in east Tennessee. In the 37 non-Confederate states, in contrast, Republicans won 246 of 330 seats, compared to only 85 for Democrats.
One large similarity:
First, Democrats were promising (or threatening) to vastly increase the size and scope of government. Government’s share of gross domestic product had risen to over 40% in World War II, and it was obvious that there would be some scaling back. At the same time, the Allied victory in World War II had enhanced the prestige of the state, just as the 1930s Depression weakened faith in free markets. In Britain, the 1942 Beveridge Report urged creating a welfare state after the war, and the Labour Party won a resounding victory in the July 1945 election and promptly proceeded to adopt the Beveridge recommendations and more.
In the United States, Franklin Roosevelt in his January 1944 State of the Union address echoed the Beveridge Report. As I pointed out in my 1990 book Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan, he called for “steeply graduated taxes, government controls on crop prices and food prices [and] continued controls on wages . . . Government should guarantee everyone a job, an education, and clothing, housing, medical care, and financial security against the risks of old age and sickness.” “True individual freedom,” Roosevelt said, “cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
Roosevelt, who declared after Pearl Harbor that he was no longer Dr. New Deal but was now Dr. Win the War, was clearly contemplating returning to his former role after the war was over. This despite the fact that in his second term the New Deal was proving unpopular. Gallup polls from 1937 to 1940 saw majorities opposing Roosevelt’s never-enacted “Third New Deal” and supporting cuts in government spending, favoring curbs in the power of labor unions, and opposing welfare programs. Majorities said that New Deal programs were deterring businesses from creating jobs. Roosevelt was evidently calculating that government’s success in the war effort would transform public opinion, as it indeed did in Britain.
There are some intriguing similarities between the political situation in 1946 and the political situation today. Democrats were promising (or threatening) to vastly increase the size and scope of government.
His successor Harry Truman took the same view. In September 1945, less than a month after the surrender of Japan, he called for continued price controls, a full-employment bill, a higher minimum wage, a public- and private-housing bill, and only limited cuts in the high wartime tax rates. In December 1945 he called for national health insurance.
The second is eerily parallel:
The second similarity is that the Democrats in 1945–1946 were closely allied with labor unions, which were deeply involved in politics and were avidly seeking more members and more bargaining power. At the end of World War II, labor unions represented 27% of the civilian labor force, up from 7% in 1934. This was primarily the result of government action. The Wagner Act passed in 1935 stimulated the growth of Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unions, which through sitdown strikes (which were plainly illegal) and other tactics organized the major auto, steel, and tire manufacturers between 1937 and 1941. Wartime government regulations encouraged unionization in defense industries. Wartime regulations banned strikes, and John L. Lewis’s United Mineworkers was the only union to defy it. But after the war, anticipating inflation, union leaders demanded sharply higher wages and workers went out on strike. The United Steelworkers got a handsome settlement in February 1946, the United Auto Workers (UAW) did so in March, and in April the railroad unions and the United Mineworkers went out on strike. Truman called for a law allowing the drafting of strikers in May but vetoed legislation to restrict unions’ powers in June. The number one strike year in American history turned out to be 1946. Some 4.6 million workers, more than 10% of the work force, were on strike at one point or another during the year, and strikes accounted for 1.4% of total working time—more than double those in the next highest years, which at that point were all in the future.
Today, of course, the union movement is much smaller. Unions represent only 7% of private-sector employees (but also represent nearly half of public-sector employees, as compared to zero in 1945–1946). But they proved a potent political force in 2008, spending some $400 million and providing highly competent organizers to help elect Democratic candidates. Unions in the mid-1940s were using their growth to increase their political power; now they have been using their political power to try to produce membership growth.
The 79th Congress did not increase union powers, which were already broad under the Wagner Act, but Truman’s veto did prevent it from imposing restrictions on unions. The 111th Congress has refused to seriously consider their card-check bill, which would effectively abolish the secret ballot in private-sector unionization elections, but the stimulus package passed in February 2009 allotted one-third of its funds to state and local governments, which helped preserve the jobs of many public sector union members—and the flow of dues money to public-sector union leaders.
The number one strike year in American history turned out to be 1946. Some 4.6 million workers, more than 10% of the work force, were on strike at one point or another during the year. Union issues were of much higher salience in 1945–1946 than they are today, and in that earlier time Americans tended to favor higher wages for workers to compensate for the end of wartime overtime premiums. But at the same time they supported by large margins limits on union powers and the ability to strike. Gallup polls suggest that that support increased during 1946, just as recent Gallup numbers reveal that opinion about unions has become sharply more negative in 2009 and 2010. The majority seemed to feel then and perhaps feels now that unions had taken advantage of their political alliances to get better treatment for their members than the non-union majority of the population was getting.
Barone does not predict the same crushing defeat of the Democrats, but
The parallels between the political situation in 1946 and 2010 are limited but instructive. Americans once again are faced with proposals that would vastly expand the size and scope of government. And they are faced by proposals to increase the power of labor unions. Public opinion polls show that in 2010, as in 1946, most Americans reject such policies. Republicans in 1946 were prepared to advance policies that turned America away from such policies. The question is whether Republicans in 2010, with the prospect but not the assurance, of winning a majority in the House and perhaps a majority in the Senate, are similarly prepared.