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.
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.
[An] engrossing book.
The definitive book on the 1938 election.
Dunn does an excellent job of putting this purge attempt into historical as well as political context, and demonstrates that the method to FDR’s madness can be seen in his effort to bring greater ideological consistency not only to the Democratic Party, but to the two-party system as well… Dunn’s book is clearly argued and well written, and gives a glimpse of the inner workings of the Roosevelt White House and the Roosevelt mind. It sheds light on not only presidency studies but also the FDR era.
Dunn’s examination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s summer of ’38, when he attempted to rid his party of conservative elements, couldn’t be more relevant. The author colorfully and thoroughly chronicles the strategies that a once-popular president, who had helped America rise from a debilitating depression, employed when critics within his own party threatened his New Deal legislation… Roosevelt helped manipulate the outcome of Democratic primaries and supported liberals who challenged the seats of conservative incumbents… Even though FDR’s efforts ultimately failed, costing him political capital and bringing a beating upon Democrats in the midterm elections, the purge was ‘the precursor of a historic transformation of American political parties’ that ‘colors American Politics to this day.’ As the past prepares to repeat itself once more, FDR in ’38 is a perfect lens through which to view our current climate.
In 1938, when FDR tried to ‘purge’ conservative members of Congress who were running for reelection, he also hoped to transform the Democratic Party into a more progressive force for change. Dunn’s beautifully written, deeply researched book shows how and why he failed to do so. Her history of this pivotal failure has lessons for those in our own time who might wish to do the same.
How the most masterful presidential politician of the last century badly miscalculated in his bid to impose discipline on his party makes for a richly detailed and riveting narrative in Dunn’s superb new book. Hers is a resonant tale for today—a sharp reminder of the ideological and regional barriers confronting any president who harbors the ambition to transform American politics.
Dunn portrays one of the most dramatic episodes in the development of the American party system. FDR’s assault on conservative Democrats in the midterm elections initiated changes that would eventually transform the Democratic Party—and American politics. This engagingly written book is must reading for those who wish to probe the deep roots of contemporary partisan rancor.
In the most authoritative, absorbing, and deeply researched account we now have of Roosevelt’s intriguing and little-understood battle to remake the Democrats into a more consistently ideological party, Dunn shows how a master politician sought to break the deadlocks of his own time, suggesting many lessons that deserve our urgent attention today.
- 2011, Winner of the Henry Adams Prize
- 384 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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