The Bull Moose’s Legacy: A Lasting Progressive Party, Part 5

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

The reelection of George Norris in 1932 despite the poor state of the economy came as a shock to many in the Democratic and Republican parties. Both parties were sure that the Depression would sink the President’s chances among voters. However, the slight upswing in the economy in the final months of 1932 gave Norris the slight boost he needed for reelection. Despite this, the beginning of 1933 was rocky. As the results for the congressional elections came in, it dawned on all the major parties that the next two years would be historic. For the first time in American history, the leaders of the presidency, the House, and the Senate would be represented by three different parties. Norris’s reelection kept the presidency in Progressive hands. However, the Senate flipped to the Republicans, with Charles Curtis of Kansas becoming Majority Leader with a plurality of 41 of 96 Senators. In the House, the Democrats and Speaker Garner held their plurality. The Progressives were hurt by the state of the economy in Congress more than they were in the presidential election, and only kept 76 seats in the House. It was evident going into 1933 that the three parties would have to have some semblance of tripartisanship in order to get any legislation accomplished and bring the country out of the Depression for good.

As a show of this new tripartisanship, leaders from all three parties at the start of the 73rd Congress in March of 1933. The meeting was surprisingly effective as many Democrats and more liberal Republicans supported the Progressives in government actions to stimulate the economy. As the various river valley authorities and the Rural Electrification Administration had proven effective, further grand public projects received federal funding throughout 1933 and 1934. Many of these were public infrastructure projects or monuments. In 1933, ten million dollars in federal funds were allocated toward the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, lifting nearly a third of the bridge’s construction budget from the burden on the California and San Francisco local budgets. The federal government’s contribution, added to the state-issued bonds, allowed construction to finally begin on the bridge. The Golden Gate Bridge would be completed five years later in 1938. Another public project that the federal funding contributed to was Mount Rushmore. While construction had already begun on the monument, it was slow-going, and in 1933 the monument and land around it was placed under the management of the National Park Service. President Norris and Plains Progressives in Congress pushed through a bill to allocate federal funds for the monument in 1934. Later in 1936, after the completion of Jefferson’s head as the second on the monument, a bill went through Congress to add Susan B. Anthony as a fifth planned head on Mount Rushmore. The bill was heavily supported by the two female Senators and eight women in the House, particularly Kansas Congresswoman Kathryn O’Loughlin McCarthy, and passed through Congress to be signed by president Norris on December 22, 1936. In 1944 after delays due to American participation in World War II, the head of Susan B. Anthony was dedicated as the fifth head on the monument.

These and other public investment projects across the country helped greatly to foster employment for the nearly 17% of Americans who remained without jobs through 1934. By the end of George Norris’s second term as president, unemployment had steadily dropped to under 15%. With labor slowly normalizing after the economy began growing again in 1933, Norris aimed to implement other reforms during his tenure as president.

Alongside economic and agricultural reform programs, the major focus of the Norris administration was on electoral reform. After the 1924 election went to the House of Representatives and 1928 and 1932 nearly did, there was a large call for reform of the electoral college. Norris was in fact one of the major supporters of abolishing or changing the election process. He believed that the secondary process was undemocratic, and that its abolition would put the power of electing the president firmly in the hands of the people.

The first proposal for electoral reform in 1933 simply abolished the electoral college and handed the presidency to the winner of a plurality of the popular vote. However, the CoolidgeBinderup Amendment was fiercely opposed by Southern Democratic legislators. In the South, Jim Crow laws had been used to disenfranchise not only black voters but poorer whites who tended to vote Republican or Progressive on economic issues. With the Great Depression encouraging Progressive intrusion into the South, their hold on the electoral votes of the South became crucial to keeping the Southern wing of the party relevant in presidential politics. Alabama senator James Heflin was one of the most vocal opponents of the amendment, even nearly coming to blows with fellow Democratic senator Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee on the Senate floor for his support for Progressive policies, including the TVA and electoral college reform. With opposition from Southerners, the Coolidge-Binderup Amendment was defeated in the Senate. Even if it had passed Congress, many governors stated they would veto the amendment, preventing its ratification by the states.

While reforming the electoral college was not successful during Norris’s presidency, Norris did have a significant role in other reforms. Between 1933 and 1937, Nebraska, California, Montana, North Dakota, and Washington changed their laws to allocate the electoral vote proportionally. Montana and North Dakota, only having two Representatives, would use the Congressional district method of apportionment, while the other three states would vote on electors based on direct proportional voting and lists provided by each party. The first election where these new methods took effect was the 1936 election, and the state it had the greatest impact in was in California. With 22 electoral votes, California gave smaller parties the greatest chance of receiving electoral votes. The growing Socialist Party achieved a milestone as they received 6.11% of the vote in California, entitling them to one electoral vote. Socialist writer and former gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair ceremonially cast the first electoral vote for Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas in Sacramento on December 14, 1936. It was the first electoral vote not cast for either the Democratic, Progressive, or Republican parties in the 20th century.

Along with reforming the electoral process within the states, Norris also encouraged state legislatures to abolish their state Senates. He decried bicameral legislatures within the states as inefficient and undemocratic, citing that the function of the Senate was initially based upon the British House of Lords. In an effort for states to cut their budgets during the Depression to alleviate government spending at a state level, Norris’s home of Nebraska and several other states proposed amendments to their constitutions to adopt unicameral legislatures. The measures were most popular in the less populous Great Plains states, and during the 1930s succeeded in Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming.

The other major electoral reform of the 1930s gained national attention during Norris’s administration, but did not achieve fruition until after his presidency. This was the issue of voting rights for the District of Columbia. Since 1890, residents of the District led by Theodore W. Noyes continually promoted granting voting rights and representation in Congress for Washington. As America’s colonial empire had grown, residents in non-states such as DC, Puerto Rico, Alaska, and Hawaii agitated for representation. In 1935, Louis Brownlow proposed an amendment that would give the District of Columbia voting representation in presidential elections. In his advocacy for representation for the District of Columbia, Brownlow cited the disenfranchisement of the 12th largest city in the country as a “serious blow to the claim that the United States is a democracy” and that it went against the idea of no taxation without representation The amendment was supported by President Norris and other Progressives and liberal members of other parties. It passed Congress in 1936, and over the next five years was ratified by several states. The Twenty-First Amendment was ratified on February 12, 1941 with most of the Northern and Western states ratifying. Washington, DC voted in its first presidential election in 1944.

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