It’s not often that a midterm election changes the direction of the United States. Signs are that next Tuesday’s will. Sixty-eight years ago, one certainly did. On November 3, 1942, voters went to the polls to hand FDR and the Democrats a defeat so resounding that it halted the country’s decade-long leftward shift, while their GOP rivals found a clear mandate to reverse the biggest expansion of government in American history, the New Deal.
Yet astonishingly, and unlike in 1994, Republicans did it without getting control of either the House or the Senate. Instead, they won just enough seats to instigate a legislative backlash against Roosevelt and his progressive allies, which not only halted the New Deal juggernaut but which — one could argue — also won World War II without giving up America’s freedoms in the effort.
In 1942, voters turned against FDR only two years after he had won reelection to an unprecedented third term. Yet after Pearl Harbor — followed in quick succession by the surrender of the Philippines, the Japanese occupation of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, and growing American shipping losses to U-boats in the Atlantic — there was a strong feeling, not entirely unwarranted, that Roosevelt had been an incompetent war leader. Roosevelt had hoped to launch Operation Torch — the invasion of Axis-held North Africa — before the election to help the Democrats’ chances, but the invasion was delayed until November 8. Yet even if he had managed to pull off his October Surprise, it still would have been too little, too late.
Still, the real discontent was domestic. Since 1933 — and not unlike today — Americans had witnessed an unprecedented growth of the federal government and federal spending, all in the name of helping the nation recover from economic depression. Yet by 1941 unemployment was still above 9 percent. As recently as 1939 it had been 16 percent. The public began to sense what even Roosevelt’s Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, had sensed for some time: that the New Deal had been a failure, and it was time to reverse direction.
Americans were also fed up with an administration that seemed to want to use the war effort as an excuse to extend federal control over the economy even further. Embodying that view was the left-liberal director of the Office of Price Administration (OPA), Leon Henderson, who seemed to see no commodity, from shoes to sugar, and no transaction, from riding a train to placing a long-distance telephone call, that he wasn’t ready to ration or regulate. That progressive New Deal war economy was summed up in an article by Roosevelt intimate Harry Hopkins in The American Magazine called “You Will Be Mobilized,” which prescribed a future of bleak regimentation and material deprivation, along with rising taxes, in order to win a war the United States manifestly wasn’t winning.
So although no Tea Party sprang up, the popular discontent showed in plunging Democratic poll numbers through 1942.
In May, the Democrats still looked as if they might gain 38 seats in the House. By August that number had dropped to eight. Then in September, the GOP looked to gain 21. When the election actually took place, two months later, the Republicans grabbed 46 in an anti-Democrat avalanche.