Michael Bowen: War on the Middle Class, Then and Now

We welcome a guest post today from Michael Bowen, author of the forthcoming book The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party (September 2011). In the book, Bowen reveals how a two-man battle for control of the GOP—and the Republican presidential nomination—escalated into a divide of ideology that ultimately determined the party’s political identity. In this post, he explains how today’s well-funded, anti-union, anti-tax Republican party has its roots in the Dewey-Taft conflict of the 1940s.—ellen

Since President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the narrative used to explain the Republican Party—the storylines and talking points that politicians and the press utilize to explain and sell their programs to the public—has whipsawed between two contradictory ideas.

From President Obama’s election until roughly spring of 2010, the major talking point was the ineptitude of the Republican Party and the death of conservatism. The tumultuous Bush years and the election of Obama and large Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill, it seemed, had left the GOP struggling to remain relevant. Former Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean, speaking at the University of Florida in April 2009, told an audience that the Republican Party would be in the minority for at least a generation because they appealed only to rich, older whites. Historian Sean Wilentz declared that the “Age of Reagan,” and its supply-side economic policy ended with President Obama. Pundits on the cable news chat shows argued that the GOP was leaderless, out of ideas, and destined to be in the political wilderness for many years.

In the middle of 2010, the narrative shifted. From a handful of special elections in the summer through the 2010 midterms, voters seemingly rejected the economic and domestic policies of the nascent Obama Administration, giving Republicans control of the House and reducing the Democratic majority in the Senate.

In 2011, as conservatives on Capitol Hill pushed back against the White House, Republican governors in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Florida limited the bargaining rights of public sector unions, a reliably pro-Democratic interest group. Even though both parties receive their share of campaign contributions from big business and Wall Street, Democrats and their liberal allies decried the Republicans as a pro-corporate party that had declared “War on the Middle Class” while defending tax breaks and perks for the rich. The Koch brothers, the industrialists who have regularly funded conservative causes and drawn the ire of the left, have become shorthand for this idea, one that has been a powerful rhetorical force in the recent debate over raising the nation’s debt ceiling.

Despite the current political intensity, these narratives are not new characterizations of the GOP. In fact, in the aftermath of the 1944 Presidential election between Democratic incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt and New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, the Republicans faced both of these ideas simultaneously. They had lost four straight elections to Roosevelt and there was serious talk of forming a third party because the memory of the Great Depression had tainted the Republican brand beyond repair. Republican economic policies of the late 1920s had led to disaster and their continued ties to business groups who opposed the New Deal put them at odds with Roosevelt’s populist style and his policies. In December 1945, both tropes weighed heavily on the GOP.

These two ideas were pervasive in public discourse, and Republican leaders split on how to deal with them. Dewey, hoping to retain control of the party and win the nomination in 1948 and thus revive the party, believed that the narratives were valid and ran against them. He thought that the New Deal had changed American politics forever, and the Republicans had to adjust. A poll he commissioned in summer 1945 found that Democratic policies appealed to the youth, the working class, and minority groups. For the GOP to become majority party again, it would have to win more support among these voters by becoming more liberal and “modern.” Over the next seven years, Dewey made this his primary goal. He trumpeted what he called “forward-looking principles” and attempted to make the party more inclusive. Though he took sizable contributions from industrial and financial groups, he wanted to move the Republicans beyond their pro-business base.

Ohio Senator Robert Taft and many Congressional Republicans believed that the party had to adopt conservative ideas and staunchly oppose the New Deal style of government. In 1946, after a contentious meeting of the Republican National Committee, Taft supporters took control of the Republican chairmanship. They mounted a conservative midterm campaign focused on anti-communism and the postwar strike wave and won majorities in both Houses of Congress.

Taft had a commanding role in setting the legislative agenda and made a bill to limit union activities, dubbed the Taft-Hartley Act, the cornerstone of the Republican program. President Harry Truman vetoed the measured but the Republicans successfully overrode him. Taft promoted what would today be labeled a “pro-growth” platform and believed such programs were the only way to restore the party to majority status. With Taft-Hartley, the conception of the GOP as a party opposed to the interests of the working class was now cemented for the foreseeable future.

The anti-labor activities of the conservatives angered Dewey, whose advisors had been negotiating privately with the American Federation of Labor for support. Though he opposed public sector unionism, he saw Taft-Hartley as too restrictive on the private sector. But he could do nothing to stop its passage. The new law drove the AFL away from Dewey and his associates.

In 1948 Dewey, once again the party’s nominee, ran against Taft-Hartley on the campaign trail, angering Taft and his conservative allies. When he lost to Truman, Dewey attributed his defeat partially to an anti-conservative backlash stemming from Taft-Hartley. Taft, on the other hand, believed the candidate had not been strident enough in his opposition to liberalism. Over the next five years, until Taft’s death in 1953, the divergence over the role of business and labor, and over conservatism and liberalism, destroyed any semblance of Republican party unity.

Today’s political fault lines are direct descendants of the postwar Republican split. From the early 1960s on, the GOP has almost always chosen to oppose most labor unions and their policy agendas, opening themselves up to charges that they are opponents of the working and middle classes. The labor question has not been an easy one for the Republicans to solve and it remains difficult to see, in today’s political climate, if any other alternative is possible.

Contemporary Republicans are by and large conservative with a well-funded, politically mobilized base, all trends that started as a result of the Taft versus Dewey factionalism. Democrats, conversely, have remained staunch allies with organized labor. For all intents and purposes, Dewey’s appeal to trade unions in the late 1940s was the last opportunity for a serious labor-Republican alliance. Certainly some labor organizations have endorsed Republicans in the past, such as the building trade support of Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, but these cases are few and far between. It seems highly unlikely that a contemporary version of Thomas Dewey would get very far in the primary cycle and, even if a pro-union Republican was nominated, very few unions would be willing to embrace them.

Michael Bowen is visiting assistant professor of history at Westminster College and author of The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party (September 2011).