- Truman’s Triumphs: The 1948 Election and the Making of Postwar America by Andrew E. Busch
This careful, insightful account of the 1948 election persuasively investigates Harry Truman’s effort of that year to revitalize the Democrats’ New Deal coalition, first mobilized by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression. According to Busch, that effort was successful in securing victory not only for Truman but also for the Democratic Party at large. The campaign, however, exposed the coalition’s weaknesses as well as its strengths. On this note, Busch’s account does not straightforwardly support Burns’ contention that the election of 1948 was a “maintaining election”; it was instead a turbulent one that featured change together with continuity.1 The breakaway candidacies of Henry Wallace for the Progressive Party and, more significantly, Strom Thurmond for the “Dixiecrats” starkly demonstrated intraparty divisions, but Truman skillfully crafted policy appeals to shore up the support of key groups within the coalition, notably including African Americans and labor members. Paradoxically, though a greater degree of ideological unity existed among Republicans, divisions about candidates, [End Page 281] issues, and strategies undermined the GOP’s effort more significantly than they did that of the Democrats.
Busch’s analysis of politics in 1948 authoritatively draws on secondary material and on newspapers and magazines, and the findings of contemporary polls inform his powerful exploration of public opinion. Polls notoriously predicted defeat for Truman; though embarrassing for the pollsters, the predictions captured the volatility of voting intentions in 1948, shaped particularly by popular indecision about the Fair Deal agenda. Polls suggested both general support for the New Deal’s liberalism and doubts about its wastefulness and even its effectiveness. That summer, poll respondents had similar levels of confidence in the Republican and Democratic parties’ ability to tackle a new depression. They preferred the GOP’s Thomas E. Dewey to Truman in this regard.
The methodologies of political science and history create the scholarly framework for Busch’s analysis. Not only does he offer a fresh contribution to the literature about realignment and electoral orders, but Busch also insightfully assesses how the “mixed system” that comprised the contemporary presidential nomination process shaped political debate, fostering fluidity in the competition among party rivals while party leaders, playing an important role, emphasized concerns about electability.
Busch shows that the campaign marked a turning point in electoral politics—away from whistle-stop tours and toward television, as well as away from close cooperation between national committee and candidate and toward personalized campaign operations. The results showed an uptick in split-ticket voting, which remained an enduring feature in American elections. For the next sixty years, the party winning the presidency was unable to achieve congressional gains of such magnitude. For Busch, the campaign’s significance stems mainly from the ongoing debates about foreign policy, civil rights, and programmatic activism that it established. Vividly recreating the political storms that followed World War II, Busch compellingly shows that Truman’s triumphs did not so much signal the revitalization of the New Deal coalition as it marked the start of a new era in American politics.
1. James MacGregor Burns, The Crosswinds of Freedom (New York, 1989).