Politics in the 1920s

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

Politics in the 1920s

In 1920, Republican Party candidate Warren G. Harding ran for president against Democrat James Cox. Harding coined the word normalcy to describe what he thought the United States needed after the dramatic and chaotic years of World War I. Cox, on the other hand, seemed to promise continued involvement in foreign affairs, as his campaign focused on the League of Nations. The voters liked the sound of a focus on domestic problems rather than foreign affairs, and Harding was elected in a landslide.

Harding did not share the goals of the Progressives. His administration reduced taxes on wealthy Americans and also reduced government spending. By 1922, the government deficit had turned into a surplus. In 1922, Congress raised tariffs to their highest levels ever, which encouraged people to buy American-made goods. Lowering taxes on the wealthy was intended to encourage them to spend the money they had saved on their taxes; this would supposedly stimulate the economy, and the benefits of that would “trickle down” to the poorer classes. The economy prospered under this trickle-down policy (at least in the short term), but poor and working-class Americans—who far outnumbered the wealthy—grew poorer under it, not richer.

The federal government had ceased to enforce antitrust laws, and businesses grew more prosperous. However, workers did not get their fair share of the profits. While owners’ profits increased by 60 percent over the decade, workers’ incomes rose by only 10 percent.

The last days of the Harding administration and the beginning of the Coolidge administration were disturbed when corruption in the White House came to light. Several of Harding’s close associates who had been given cabinet positions were discovered to have abused their power in order steal millions of dollars. Harding was greatly disturbed by the scandals, but he died suddenly before he could begin to confront those responsible. Coolidge, his vice president, fired the officials who had been implicated in the scandals.

Because the economy was prospering, Coolidge was easily reelected in 1924. Coolidge cut taxes on the wealthy even further than Harding had, and kept government spending at an all-time low. Coolidge opposed laws designed to help the workers, claiming that such programs would not be good for the national economy.

Herbert Hoover, Coolidge’s secretary of commerce, was elected president in 1928. His opponent was Governor Alfred Smith of New York. A Catholic, Smith was the first non-Protestant to run for president. Protestants conveniently forgot their own history of refusing to separate church and state in early New England; they claimed that a Catholic president would bow to the authority of the pope in Rome. Ironically, Protestant ministers did the very thing they were objecting to; they used their own religious influence to persuade their congregations to vote against Smith. Smith dismissed these scare tactics as ridiculous, pointing out that he had held high political office for many years without consulting the Catholic Church on political issues. Despite the fact that not he but his opponents were proving themselves religiously intolerant, Smith lost the election; the continued economic prosperity under Republican administrations and Smith’s opposition to Prohibition combined with Protestant paranoia to defeat him.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Jazz Age Practice Test

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