The Transformation of the Republican Party, 1912-1936
From Reform to Resistance
Clyde P. Weed
A FirstForumPress Book
Boulder (Colorado): Lynne Rienner, 2012
Hardcover. x+250 pages. ISBN 9-781935049425. $62
Reviewed by Élodie Chazalon
Université de Perpignan-Via Domitia
Almost twenty years after the publication of his book, The Nemesis of Reform, in which he focused on the Republican Party’s partial failure to stand out as an agent of political change during the New Deal years, Clyde P. Weed offers a 250-page study centered upon the “neglected sources”  relating to the Grand Old Party. The book spans the period from 1912, when the rifts within the party led to the presidential victory of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, to 1936, which marked the decline of the GOP as a “party of ideas” and its subsequent recovery efforts. It starts, however, with the author’s caveat that his work should not be considered as a “complete explanation” but as one aimed at finding “clues […] that will lead to further insights and understanding” [x], as stated in the preface.
As such, the study does not target the readers who expect a comprehensive, easy-to-read history of the Republican Party, but the scholars and well-informed readers who are already well acquainted with such history and who search for a thorough analysis of its internal dynamics and role in domestic politics outside the Progressive era. The author sets aside whole sections of American history, such as foreign policy and international affairs, so as to enhance “the party’s central, unconsidered role in American political life in the middle of the ‘American Century’” , as the introduction puts it.
The book meets these conditions. The eleven chapters with endnotes effectively combine critical viewpoints of political scientists, scholars and journalists as well as authentic empirical data (electoral maps, polls, tables and figures) extracted from scholarly reviews and essays. The well-documented bibliography contains a wide range of primary sources, such as political reviews and highbrow newspapers (Literary Digest, American Political Science Review, Journal of Politics, Atlantic Monthly, etc.), as well as more recent essays on political history and economy. The index of significant words, names, and political institutions and the “About the book” section offer proof of the high level of accuracy of the study.
Its progression is chronological and emphasizes the linkage between the party leaders, their belief systems, and their shifting electorate – both regionally and nationwide – without neglecting the cultural and intellectual background of the period under study. Chapter 1, “The Republican Party and the National Idea,” sets the scene and examines the national perceptions of the Republican Party as “national party” from the Civil War to the Progressive era, in other words, before the GOP underwent internal dissensions – especially during the 1912 and 1916 campaigns – as well as a series of political challenges up to the 1930s.
Weed’s intricate method is revealed throughout the chapters. First, he maps out the political and cultural landscape of the different periods under study, relying on major names in political and social history. He then flushes out more specific and “underutilized”  sources, so as to fill the gaps and make up for what he labels “persistent flaws in historians’ treatment” , “minimal consideration” and “little analysis”  of the GOP’s role in domestic politics and in the shaping of the modern American political system. To that end – and to anticipate potential criticism – Weed does not omit to mention that the Republican Party lacked, to some extent, visibility and political vigor. He insists, however, that these foibles were not inherent in the party, but that they resulted from external factors and from the fact that significant sectors of American domestic politics have been largely underplayed by historians.
Chapter 2, “World War I and the Presidential Election of 1916,” depicts how the policy of Woodrow Wilson’s Administration relating to business and trade showed in fact “far more continuity than disruption”  with that of the Progressive era, a situation which made it difficult for the Republicans to stick to their reformist image. Deploring that many studies put forward the American participation in World War I, Weed chooses to shed light on the GOP’s continuous efforts – despite regional divisions between Northeastern and Western Republicans – to defend economic freedom, counteract the Democrats’ attempt to federalize industries, and restore cohesion among the party.
By the same token, Chapter 3, “The GOP in the Last Arcadia of the 1920s,” debunks the historical blindness and distortions at stake in much scholarly work relating to the 1920s, which had been depicted as an age of materialistic excesses and changing moral values. Most historians, who contented themselves with the popular representation of the “unimaginative”  and corrupted Republican leaders and with the breakup of the Wilsonian coalition, failed to emphasize the Republicans’ alternative electoral politics, which marked “a middle way between the statecraft of the preceding century and the rhetorical presidency to follow” [50-51]. In the same manner, Weed denounces the lack of “serious or sophisticated account[s]”  on Harding and Coolidge’s presidencies, which were obscured and partially misrepresented because of the prevalence of the “negative images” |54] of the era.
In the chapters that follow, Weed is intent on giving a detailed explanation of the continuous adjustments made by the Republicans to adapt changing political and economic conditions, in spite of renewed tensions between the nationalist-protectionist and the internationalist blocs. For instance, he shows how the Republican Party partly moved away from the laissez-faire ethos and endorsed business-government cooperation policies throughout the 1920s (Chapter 4, “The Associational State and the Transformation of the GOP”).
Chapter 5, “The Rush past Republican Associationalism, 1929-1932,”
explores “the transformation of the GOP’s organizational base” . The
renewed support of traditionally Republican areas, the “modern shift to
personally centered organizations”  and, conversely, the Democrats’
inability to break from their Bryanite heritage, are presented as catalysts to
the Republicans’ victory in the 1928 elections. Nevertheless, Weed qualifies
his statement by adding that these events also concealed “the degree of
disunity that [now] existed within the Republican coalition” , a point
which would prove fatal to the Republicans during the Depression and the 1932
campaign, when their strategy sunk into oblivion and when most of their efforts
at keeping afloat failed (Chapter 6, “The Forgotten Republican Campaign of
Chapters 7 and 8 delve into the Republicans’ resistance and creative spirit facing the political setbacks of the New Deal era. Chapter 7, “The 1934 Congressional Campaign: The Counterrevolution That Was Not,” expatiates on the party’s earlier and later efforts at restoring a cohesion that proved difficult. Chapter 8, “The Stillborn Republican Revival of 1935-1936,” qualifies the notion of minority party and reappraises the fighting spirit of the Republicans in those years. More specifically, Weed underlines how some inconsistencies in the New Deal policy offered “fresh prospects and renewed opportunities”  for the Republican leaders. Their “changing view” , despite successive electoral wreckages, would partially restore the party’s image in the eyes of conservatives and industrialists, and it would have a significant impact on the whole American political system.
What is at stake in the last three chapters is a more general examination and reconsideration of the Republican Party’s credo and experiences in the 1930s. Chapter 9, “The Breakdown of Republican Electoral Evaluations and the Realignment of the 1930s,” covers such diverse topics as the Republicans’ strategy to attract business and conservative Democrats, the nomination of Alfred Landon to regain Western states, the Republicans’ “misperception”  and misinterpretations of partisan divisions during the New Deal period, the Republican convention, the Maine elections of 1936, and the post-election evaluations, to give only a few examples.
Chapter 10, “The New Deal’s Critics: What Was Said Then and Why It Still Matters,” lays out the different approaches of New Deal’s critics, and shows the extent to which the Republican Party played a significant part in bringing fresh ideas to national planning, economic liberty, and the expansion of wealth, issues that had been left aside by the New Deal policy.
Chapter 11, “Reconsidering the Republican Experience of the 1930s,” serves as conclusion. Again, Weed draws on a series of unused sources – a 1936 Literary Digest poll showing the high Republican response rate in the elections, and a “Roosevelt Political Barometer” graph from the Roper Center for Opinion Research – in an attempt to explain why the Republican Party failed to stand out, and why historians failed to notice both the decline of Roosevelt’s popularity and of the New Deal’s reliability. After harking back to the Republican Party’s early and major concerns throughout history, the essay finally gives a glimpse of its later developments up to the 1960s.
Clyde P. Weed’s Transformation of the Republican Party is one of those rare academic studies which go beyond the party battles and their stereotyped images in the collective mind. The work greatly contributes to shifting the ground of the debate and to playing down the line that usually separated the two parties. By drawing from largely unexplored source material, and by seizing the changing trends in political history, the author manages to reappraise the role of the GOP outside the Progressive era. A compelling and demanding work, this book challenges traditional approaches and provides insightful observations that urge readers to rethink such terms as “minority” party and “power.”
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