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Roosevelt’s Purge

Roosevelt’s Purge

How FDR Fought to Change the Democratic Party

Susan Dunn

ISBN 9780674064300

Publication date: 05/07/2012

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In his first term in office, Franklin Roosevelt helped pull the nation out of the Great Depression with his landmark programs. In November 1936, every state except Maine and Vermont voted enthusiastically for his reelection. But then the political winds shifted. Not only did the Supreme Court block some of his transformational experiments, but he also faced serious opposition within his own party. Conservative Democrats such as Senators Walter George of Georgia and Millard Tydings of Maryland allied themselves with Republicans to vote down New Deal bills.

Susan Dunn tells the dramatic story of FDR’s unprecedented battle to drive his foes out of his party by intervening in Democratic primaries and backing liberal challengers to conservative incumbents. Reporters branded his tactic a “purge”—and the inflammatory label stuck. Roosevelt spent the summer months of 1938 campaigning across the country, defending his progressive policies and lashing out at conservatives. Despite his efforts, the Democrats took a beating in the midterm elections.

The purge stemmed not only from FDR’s commitment to the New Deal but also from his conviction that the nation needed two responsible political parties, one liberal, the other conservative. Although the purge failed, at great political cost to the president, it heralded the realignment of political parties that would take place in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. By the end of the century, the irreconcilable tensions within the Democratic Party had exploded, and the once solidly Democratic South was solid no more. It had taken sixty years to resolve the tangled problems to which FDR devoted one frantic, memorable summer.

Praise

  • Dunn delves into a fascinating and overlooked aspect of the FDR presidency: Roosevelt’s brazen effort to assert control over his own party in the summer of 1938. Dunn has written an engaging story of bare-knuckled political treachery that pits a president at the peak of his popularity against entrenched congressional leaders who didn’t like where he was taking the country and their party. FDR tried to use the power of the White House, and his personality, to run his opponents out of the Democratic Party. He failed miserably.

    —Jonathan Karl, Wall Street Journal

Awards

  • 2011, Winner of the Henry Adams Prize

Author

  • Susan Dunn is Preston Parish ’41 Third Century Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Williams College.

Book Details

  • 384 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press

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