The New Deal Realignment

The 1930s New Deal realignment reshaped the party system. The Great Depression acted as the catalyst for a transformation of the party system that moved the Democrats from minority to majority status at the national level. The New Deal Democratic coalition that put Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House and the Democratic Party in control of Congress combined support from the working class and various ethnic and minority groups with already existing strength in the South. The basis of Democratic appeal to blue-collar workers, low-income individuals, and recent immigrant groups (largely Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe) was the party's liberalism in economic matters. Roosevelt and the Democrats favored federal government activity to combat the Depression and proposed programs to benefit disadvantaged groups. The Republicans, who appealed more to the middle-class, business groups, and northern white Protestants, were critical of this expansion of government interference in the economy and creation of a variety of social welfare programs. By the late 1930s, the lines between the two parties were clearly drawn, both in ideological and socioeconomic terms (Ladd and Hadley 1978, 31-87).

Although the New Deal coalition began to break up in the 1960s, the impact of the New Deal realignment has remained to the present, albeit in a diluted and revised form. Many of the party images of decades past persist to the present. Democrats remain thought of as the party that favors bigger government, more spending on domestic programs, and helping those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Republicans continue to be perceived as favoring limited government, less spending on domestic programs, and fewer restrictions on business enterprises. Democrats are seen as the party of the working class and lower-income groups. Republicans are viewed as the party of business and upper-income groups. These are not baseless images. They reflect continuing fundamental differences between the parties.