Book review – A Third Term for FDR: The Election of 1940

Brent McKee, The Living New Deal’s Project Historian, reviewed John W. Jeffries’ A Third Term for FDR: The Election of 1940 (University Press of Kansas, 2017):

Anyone who thought the 2016 presidential race was uniquely bizarre and nasty should check out John Jeffries’ new book, A Third Term for FDR: The Election of 1940. There are several interesting similarities between the 1940 battle and the one that, mercifully, just ended. For example, Wendell Wilkie, Roosevelt’s Republican challenger, once said, “I’m the cockiest fellow you ever saw. If you want to vote for me fine. If you don’t go jump in the lake and I’m still for you.” Journalist Arthur Krock explained that Wilkie was “a novelty, a sparkling political prism and a thrilling entertainment. He appears to say anything he really thinks.” Hmmm… sound familiar?

As for the nastiness of the race, Wilkie and his wife were the targets of many projectiles, including “eggs, tomatoes, rocks, oranges, and in Detroit a cantaloupe and a wastebasket…” And political literature was distributed (by anonymous sources) portraying Wilkie as a Nazi sympathizer and Roosevelt as a communist who was too friendly with minority groups.

Even the intraparty squabbles of the Democratic Party were similar to the tensions between the Bernie camp and the Hillary camp in 2016. Roosevelt, it seems, was not interested in milquetoast liberalism; he wanted the New Deal continued with bold progressive policies. And similar to Bernie Sanders’ numerous warnings to the Democratic Party about its ineffective centrism, Roosevelt said in August 1939: “The Democratic Party will not survive as an effective force in the nation if the voters have to choose between a Republican Tweedle Dum and a Democratic Tweetle Dummer… if we nominate conservative candidates, or lip-service candidates, on a straddle bug platform… [it would be] an unfortunate suicide of the old Democratic Party.”

One of Jeffries’ most interesting findings is that voter satisfaction with the New Deal was still high enough in 1940 to have a significant impact on the election and help secure a third victory for FDR. This counters what we frequently hear from those on the political right—and even many in the political center or left—that America was, by the end of the 1930s, weary of the New Deal. Also interesting were the voting results by income. Jeffries highlights a postelection Gallup survey, showing “Roosevelt won some 28 percent of the upper-income vote, 53 percent of the middle-income, and 69 percent of the lower-income.” It seems Roosevelt’s consistent push for higher taxes on the wealthy and more assistance programs for the middle-class and poor had the outcome one would expect.

A Third Term for FDR has the right mix of interesting, often humorous stories, and academic & statistical analysis. Scholars, professional historians, and policy wonks will find it to be a great resource, and others, such as history buffs and political junkies, will appreciate its brisk pace, logical flow, and stunning relevancy to today’s current events and political fights. So, for more fascinating information on the above and more, pick up a copy of A Third Term for FDR.

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