At least twice in U.S. history, big political shakeups occurred in midterm elections that served as endpoints to periods of crisis, privation, and extraordinary government expansion and regimentation.
The first was in November 1918. That election was held in the midst of the Spanish flu pandemic and just days before the armistice was signed ending World War I. The Allied breakthrough in France was well advanced and the handwriting was on the wall for the kaiser’s forces.
Since entering the war in April 1917, Americans had endured extreme regimentation under the auspices of Woodrow Wilson’s “war socialism.” Rationing of consumer items was coupled with unprecedented government control over basic features of economic life, including a federal takeover of the nation’s railroads. These economic controls were combined with stringent political and social controls. With Wilson’s support, Congress passed the Sedition Act and the Espionage Act, clamping down (among other things) on publication or dissemination of arguments critical of the war effort or otherwise detrimental to national morale. Hundreds were imprisoned, including the Socialist Party’s perennial presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, who had urged young men not to comply with the draft. Spurred by war propaganda and encouraged by the administration, some exuberant patriots persecuted German Americans.
Campaigning in 1918 was curtailed due to the Spanish flu, as was turnout on Election Day. Nevertheless, Republicans, including former President Theodore Roosevelt, campaigned vigorously as skeptics of Wilson’s Fourteen Points and critics of his war measures. Republican candidates around the country demanded the end of wartime controls and regimentation. In 1920, Warren G. Harding would win the presidency on the promise of “A return to normalcy,” but it was Republicans in 1918 who first tested that theme, as they promised “a speedy victory and a return to normal conditions.”
In the end, Republicans gained 25 seats in the House and five in the Senate, enough to give them majorities in both chambers for the first time since 1910. Aided by the end of the war, they used those majorities to force Wilson to release his grip on the economy. In short order, the 66th Congress repealed over 60 wartime laws.
A comparable case came at the end of the Second World War. Franklin Roosevelt refrained from some of Wilson’s more extreme steps, such as takeover of the railroads. Nevertheless, FDR copied much of Wilson’s war socialism. The federal government rationed food and a wide range of consumer goods, converting much of the economy to wartime production. Bureaucracies such as the Office of War Mobilization, Office of Price Administration, National War Labor Board, and Supply and Priorities Allocation Board exerted economic control. Civil liberties again suffered, with censorship, internment of Japanese Americans, and Smith Act prosecution of the leaders of the German American Bund. In both world wars (as in the Cold War later), it was a reasonable question how far the Constitution should be stretched to defend the United States against enemies who would destroy constitutional liberty entirely if they could – but there was no question that it was stretched.
Although fighting ended in 1945, President Harry Truman had not yet issued a proclamation formally ending the state of war when the 1946 campaign got underway. Rationing of items such as meat, as well as wage and price controls, remained in place, to the growing anger of Americans on the home front. The war was over, and many asked why they were still subject to these measures.
Republicans, out of power since the early years of the Great Depression, sought to capitalize on the discontent. Using a slogan of “Had Enough?,” they hammered Democrats and the Truman administration for economic privation and for holding on to extraordinary powers even after the crisis had passed. It was time, they implied – though without using the phrase – to return to normalcy. Three weeks before Election Day, Truman decontrolled meat in a bid to stave off electoral disaster; still, at the end of October 1946, he registered a 27% job approval rating in the Gallup Poll.
When the votes came in, Republicans had ended the Democratic hold on Congress. The GOP gained 45 seats in the House and 12 seats in the Senate, winning a majority in each chamber for the first time since 1930. The repudiation was so severe that Sen. William Fulbright of Arkansas suggested that Truman should appoint a Republican secretary of state and then resign, an act that would have made that Republican the next president, given the legal order of presidential succession in 1946 (the office of vice president had been vacant since Truman became president upon FDR’s death). Truman declined to take that step, but in short order, he ended the state of war, rescinded most wartime controls, and disbanded the Office of Price Administration. He also proposed a balanced budget. If some New Dealers had hoped that the wartime expansion of federal power over the economy could be smoothly converted into equivalent peacetime power, 1946 disabused them.
1918, 1946 – and 2022
The elections of 1918 and 1946 were not identical. One happened while war still raged, though the issue seemed decided; the other did not occur until over a year after fighting had stopped. Republican gains in 1946 were roughly twice what they had been 28 years earlier. In one case (1918), Republicans subsequently held on to congressional majorities for a dozen years; in the other, they managed to do so for only a single term. Nevertheless, 1918 and 1946 share enough with one another, and with our current situation, to make it worthwhile to ask what they might tell us about 2022.
At the least, these two elections represented decisive electoral backlash against crisis policies – policies that voters tolerated while the crisis was hot but turned against when the danger had seemingly passed. Our crisis, a pandemic, is not a war, but it has been costly in lives lost. The U.S. is nearing a COVID death toll twice as great as the number of Americans who died in World War II. Like the world wars, the crisis has also been costly in terms of government spending, the bill for which is coming due in the form of higher inflation. And the crisis has occasioned a forceful intrusion of government into daily life unparalleled since World War II, from mask mandates to proposed vaccine mandates to lockdowns that closed thousands of businesses, churches, and schools. Whatever the efficacy of these measures – they will be debated for years to come – there can be little doubt that they represented an extraordinary degree of regimentation and an extraordinary challenge to civil liberties.
Is a backlash building ahead of the 2022 midterms?
Republican successes in the 2021 elections would seem to suggest so. Some evidence indicates that backlash against COVID restrictions was part of the story behind GOP successes in Virginia and New Jersey. In some Virginia exit polls, education was the second-most important issue; while the battle over critical race theory in schools received the most attention, some suburban women voters said that COVID-related school closures also played an important role in their swing toward Republicans.
In New Jersey, truck driver Edward Durr defeated longtime state Senate President Steve Sweeney. Durr called his victory “a repudiation of the [COVID] policies that have been forced down [the people’s] throats.” Incoming Republican Senate leader Steve Oroho agreed. “I think it had to do with the message coming from people who were just annoyed at all the executive orders and all the mandates and being sick and tired of being told what they can and can’t do,” he said. At the gubernatorial level, a long-shot Republican nearly rode the backlash to victory against incumbent Phil Murphy, whose response to COVID had been one of the nation’s most draconian – and most ineffective, if measured by deaths per 100,000.
In California, Gavin Newsom turned back a recall attempt in September. The recall effort itself was largely driven by dissatisfaction with the governor’s coronavirus response and violation of his own mask mandate at a private dinner for lobbyists at the swanky French Laundry restaurant. Though Newsom held on to his office by a wide margin, recall organizers’ success in getting 1.7 million valid signatures on petitions in the Golden State was itself evidence of public anger, as was Newsom’s perilous standing in polls a month before recall Election Day.
More generally in the realm of public opinion, Gallup has reported that sentiment on the question of whether government should be more active or less – a question that a majority answered in favor of more action in 2020 – has reverted to form. Government, a majority now says, is too big and does too much.
Not all evidence points the same way, though. Newsom and Murphy ultimately won, and exit polls showed a Virginia electorate ambivalent about the COVID response, not one that had turned decisively against the COVID regime. For example, most Virginians still said they supported mask mandates in schools, and a slight plurality said that they trusted Terry McAuliffe more than Glen Youngkin on COVID policy. At most, 2021 exposed the potential for a stronger backlash ahead. Perhaps the biggest difference between 1918 and 1946, on the one hand, and 2021, on the other, was that in 2021 the crisis was still not in the rearview mirror. If and when it finally gets there, watch out.