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American Jewish History 89.3 (2001) 343-344

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New Deal Fat Cats: Business, Labor, and Campaign Finance in the 1936 Presidential Election. By Michael J. Webber. Bronx, New York: Fordham University Press, 2000. xvi + 208 pp.

In the presidential election of 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt assembled an electoral coalition that largely structured American political life for a generation. As political scientists and historians have demonstrated, it was an unwieldy coalition that combined such disparate groups as Catholics, white Southerners, Jews, and trade unionists. The journalist Samuel Lubell aptly characterized this political system with a celestial metaphor: elements of the "sun," the Democratic majority, would periodically break off and join the revolving "moon," a symbol for the minority Republicans. But in 1936, the components held together to bring Roosevelt what was one of the most lopsided triumphs in the long history of American presidential elections.

Michael J. Webber's book explores the electoral realignment of 1936 from the perspective of campaign finance. Drawing on reports that parties were required to file under the Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1925, he wishes to determine how the Democrats and Republicans financed their campaigns. Webber, a class dominance theorist in the mode of William Domhoff, is particularly interested in testing the claims of scholars who believe that certain segments of the business class gave substantial material support to the Democrats in 1936. Thus he looks carefully at assertions that the Democrats received significant contributions from elites in banking, mass consumption industries, and industries that were internationalist and capital-intensive like oil and finance.

While there is much in the book to interest scholars of American politics and campaign finance, readers of this journal will be most interested in the role played by Jews. In a painstaking reconstruction of campaign contributions, Webber finds that the higher levels of support for Roosevelt among certain business elites were largely a function of religion and region. That is, Catholic, Jewish, and Southern business elites deviated from the norms of their class to channel substantial contributions to the Democratic Party. The Northern Protestants in the mass consumption and internationalist sectors remained steadfast supporters of the GOP.

The patterns were clearest in industries that had a substantial Jewish presence. In retail, for example, most of the Democratic contributors were affiliated with the Jewish-owned Macy's or Gimbels. The major directors of the Federated Department Stores, Lincoln Filene and Louis Kirstein, contributed to the Progressive Party and strongly supported the [End Page 343] New Deal. The same patterns appeared in commercial and investment banks. The partners and directors of firms owned by Jews directed their contributions to Democrats while their counterparts in WASP banks embraced the Republican candidate. In other industries without many Jewish elites—tobacco, distilling, oil, etc.—Catholics and white Southerners largely accounted for whatever Democratic sympathies were available.

Webber does a better job documenting these patterns than explaining them. Indeed, I found nothing in the book that indicated why Jews, Catholics, and Southerners responded so enthusiastically to the New Deal that they crossed class lines to endorse it. The Southern pattern is perhaps best explained in terms of traditional antipathy to the Republican Party and the popularity of New Deal recovery efforts in the Depression-ravaged South. The pro-union policies of the New Deal offered a strong inducement for labor unions to move into the Democratic coalition in 1936. But why should religion exert a similar appeal? Scholars of political behavior have offered a number of explanations for the Jewish and Catholic embrace of the Democrats in 1936. Webber simply takes these for granted and industriously documents the trend. The book would have been richer and more broadly appealing had he helped us understand why the two groups acted in ways that seemed inimical to their self-interest.

Political scientists who read this book will find to their surprise that the campaign finance data from the 1930s shed light on the dynamics of partisan realignment. Students of mass political behavior will find confirmation of mass voting trends in the...