Fashion, Political Elections, Political Figures, Religion, Sexual History, Social Movements

The Presidential Election of 1928: The First Culture War Election


There are certain presidential elections that I would call culture war elections. These would be elections where issues relating to what degree of freedom one is entitled to, or conversely, what obligation and conformity individuals in a democratic, pluralistic society should adhere to in their interactions with others and the community at large. These issues tend to involve religious freedom, gender issues, appropriate forms of protest, law and order, and the degree to which government should regulate personal behavior. Some of the presidential elections I would consider heavily dominated by culture war concerns would be 1968, 1972, 1980, 1992, 2016, and 2020.

However, the first modern-day culture war presidential election I feel would be that of 1928. I mentioned in a previous post that I consider the 1920s to be the first decade of the modern age. The 1920s witnessed a level of societal change, especially regarding gender, sexual mores, and the introduction of Hollywood mass entertainment. I would say that perhaps only the 1960s saw more societal change within a ten-year time period. Conservative society, which favored the status quo, was greatly alarmed by the advent of flapper girls in free-flowing knee-high dresses and smoking in public.

Conservative society had what can be called a pyrrhic victory at the start of the decade with the passage of Prohibition, which outlawed alcohol. In many ways, the law only ended up glamorizing the consumption of alcohol as a hip and inviting activity. The urbanization and arrival of many immigrants from southern Europe at the start of the century furthered alarmed many in WASP society. It is with this background in mind that one can understand better the cultural significance of the election of 1928.

Al Smith, the Democratic Candidate, was a politician straight out of Tammany Hall, New York City, and a Catholic. I often thought that anti-Catholic sentiment was a thing long in the past, from the mid-nineteenth century and “The Know-Nothings” of the 1850s, a sort of bizarre, quirky belief. However, the internet has shown me, much to my bemused surprise, just how much anti-Catholic sentiment remains even to this day among many Protestant Fundamentalists and evangelicals. Many go so far as to say Catholics are not even Christian, which seems a bit perplexing considering Protestantism came only into existence fifteen hundred years after the supposed time Jesus lived, and Christianity began. This sentiment was even more prevalent in 1928 and, along with The Monkey-Scopes Trial, just two years prior, increased the anxiety of those opposed to the secularization of society and suspicious of modernity. While they gained a victory of sorts with the defeat of Al Smith, it was at best very brief and not far-reaching. Five years later, Prohibition, their core cultural war issue of 1928, would be repealed. I would say the 1950s and the 1980s were the only two decades where society became more conservative than the decade that preceded, and even then, it would be for a relatively brief period.
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