Conservative coalition

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Conservative Coalition
Prominent membersHarry F. Byrd
Carter Glass
John Nance Garner
Josiah Bailey
Robert A. Taft
Richard Russell Jr.
Howard W. Smith
Carl Vinson
(see below)
Succeeded byBlue Dog Coalition (1994)
Early phase:
Liberal conservatism[A]
Economic liberalism
Anti-New Deal
States' rights
Later phase:
Fiscal conservatism
Social conservatism
Political positionRight-wing

^ A: Prior to the 1960s, American right-wing referred to themselves as liberals, who opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Liberalism" and called themselves "True Liberalism".

The conservative coalition, founded in 1937, was an unofficial alliance of members of the United States Congress which brought together the conservative wings of the Republican and Democratic parties to oppose President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. In addition to Roosevelt, the conservative coalition dominated Congress for four presidencies, blocking legislation proposed by Roosevelt and his successors. By 1937, the conservatives were the largest faction in the Republican Party which had opposed the New Deal in some form since 1933. Despite Roosevelt being a Democrat himself, his party did not universally support the New Deal agenda in Congress. Democrats who opposed Roosevelt's policies tended to hold conservative views, and allied with conservative Republicans. These Democrats were mostly located in the South. According to James T. Patterson: "By and large the congressional conservatives agreed in opposing the spread of federal power and bureaucracy, in denouncing deficit spending, in criticizing industrial labor unions, and in excoriating most welfare programs. They sought to 'conserve' an America which they believed to have existed before 1933."[1]

The coalition dominated Congress from 1937 to 1963, when former Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency and broke its influence. Johnson took advantage of weakened conservative opposition, and Congress passed many progressive economic and social reforms in his presidency. The conservative coalition, which controlled key congressional committees and made up a majority of both houses of Congress during Kennedy's presidency, had prevented the implementation of progressive reforms since the late 1930s.[2] It remained a declining political force until it disappeared in the mid-1990s when few conservative Democrats remained in Congress.[3] The remaining conservative Democrats formed the Blue Dog Coalition, following the Republican Revolution in 1994. In terms of Congressional roll call votes, it primarily appeared on votes affecting labor unions.

The conservative coalition did not cooperate on civil rights bills in unison, requiring a partnership between member Everett Dirksen and President Johnson to unite sufficient numbers of northern Republicans to ally with northern liberal Democrats to push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to cloture.[4] However, the coalition did have the power to prevent unwanted bills from even coming to a vote. The coalition included many committee chairmen from the South who blocked bills by not reporting them from their committees. Furthermore, Howard W. Smith, chairman of the House Rules Committee, often could kill a bill simply by not reporting it out with a favorable rule; he lost some of that power in 1961.[5] The conservative coalition was not unified with regards to foreign policy, as most of the southern Democrats were internationalists. Most Republicans supported isolationism until President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in 1953.



In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had won a second term in a landslide, sweeping all but two states over his Republican opponent, Alf Landon. For the 1937 session of Congress, the Republicans would have only 17 senators (out of a total of 96) and 89 congressmen (out of a total of 431). Given his party's overwhelming majorities, FDR decided he could overcome opposition to his liberal New Deal policies by the conservative justices of the Supreme Court, which had struck down many New Deal agencies as unconstitutional. Roosevelt proposed to expand the size of the court from nine to fifteen justices; if the proposal met with success, he would be able to "pack" the court with six new justices who would support his policies.

However, the Southern Democrats, who controlled the entire South at the time with little Republican opposition, were divided between liberal and conservative factions. While the Southern Democrats included many New Deal supporters, there were also many conservatives among them who were opposed to the expansion of federal power. Among their leaders were Senators Harry Byrd and Carter Glass of Virginia and Vice President John Nance Garner of Texas. U.S. Senator Josiah Bailey (D-NC) released a "Conservative Manifesto" in December 1937,[6] which included several statements of conservative philosophical tenets, including the line "Give enterprise a chance, and I will give you the guarantees of a happy and prosperous America." The document called for a balanced federal budget, state's rights, and an end to labor union violence and coercion.[6] Over 100,000 copies were distributed and it marked a turning point in terms of congressional support for New Deal legislation.[6]

Attacking liberal policies[edit]

Coalition opposition to Roosevelt's "court packing" Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937 was first led by House coalition Democrat and House Judiciary Committee chairman Hatton W. Sumners. Sumners refused to endorse the bill, actively chopping it up within his committee in order to block the bill's chief effect of Supreme Court expansion. Finding such stiff opposition within the House, the administration arranged for the bill to be taken up in the Senate. Congressional Republicans decided to remain silent on the matter, denying pro-bill congressional Democrats the opportunity to use them as a unifying force. Republicans then watched from the sidelines as their Democratic coalition allies split the Democratic party vote in the Senate, defeating the bill.

In the hard-fought 1938 congressional elections, the Republicans scored major gains in both houses, picking up six Senate seats and 80 House seats. Thereafter the conservative Democrats and Republicans in both Houses of Congress would often vote together on major economic issues, thus defeating many proposals by liberal Democrats.[7] The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was the last major New Deal legislation that Roosevelt succeeded in enacting into law.[8] A confidential British Foreign Office analysis of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1943 stated that although the committee had 15 Democrats, seven Republicans, and one independent, because of the Republican-conservative Democratic alliance only 12 of the 23 members supported Roosevelt's policies.[9] A handful of liberal measures, notably the minimum wage laws, did pass when the conservative coalition split.

After the New Deal (1940-1960)[edit]

Some infrastructure bills received conservative support, and funding for more highways was approved under both FDR and President Dwight D. Eisenhower; Eisenhower also expanded public housing. While such liberal successes did happen, they often required negotiations between factions controlling different House committees. With conservatives heavily influencing the House agenda through the House Rules Committee and the threat of possible filibusters in the Senate (which then required a 2/3 majority to break) several liberal initiatives such as a health insurance program were stopped. Truman's Fair Deal in 1949–1951 was entirely defeated, except for one public housing provision when conservatives split.

In its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, the coalition's most important Republican leader was Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio; the leading Democrats in the coalition were Senator Richard Russell, Jr. of Georgia and Congressmen Howard W. Smith of Virginia and Carl Vinson of Georgia. Although the coalition usually voted together on urban and labor issues, they were divided on other economic issues, such as farm and Western issues (such as water). Conservative Southern Democrats generally favored high government spending on rural issues, and in this urban and liberal Democrats supported them while Republicans were opposed. For this reason, Democratic caucuses of 230 to 260 seats were enough to pass Democratic farm programs, whereas on labor issues even Houses with in excess of 280 Democratic Members could not pass labor priorities.[10] Foreign policy goals also presented a contrast. Prior to World War II most, though not all, conservative Republicans were non-interventionists who wanted to stay out of the war at all costs, while most, though not all, Southern conservatives were interventionists who favored helping the British defeat Nazi Germany.[11] After the war, a minority of conservative Republicans (led by Taft) opposed military alliances with other nations, especially NATO, while most Southern Democrats favored such alliances.

During the post-war period, Republican presidents often owed their legislative victories to ad hoc coalitions between conservative Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party (elected mainly from Northern cities), on the other hand, tended to combine with Republicans from the west and the north to put their own legislation through.[12]

Decline and end[edit]

Civil Rights Era (1960-1972)[edit]

Under President Lyndon Johnson, who had an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of Congress, liberal Democrats, together with Conservative and Liberal Republicans led by Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, convinced all but six Republicans to vote for cloture on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This vote broke a Southern filibuster led by Senators Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Strom Thurmond (D-SC). Though a greater percentage of Republicans than Democrats (about 80% versus 60% respectively) voted for cloture and for the bill, the 1964 GOP Presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), voted against cloture; before his presidential campaign Goldwater had supported civil rights legislation but opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on constitutional grounds, believing private individuals had the right to choose with whom they engaged in business. The GOP was massively defeated in 1964, but recovered its strength in the congressional elections of 1966, and elected Richard Nixon president in 1968. Throughout the 1954–1980 era the Republicans were a minority in both the House and Senate, but most of the time they cooperated with Conservative Democrats.

In defining the size of the Conservative Coalition in 1964, one study noted that

As of adjournment Oct. 3, the potential strength of the conservative coalition was 56 of the 100 votes in the Senate and 280 of the 429 votes in the House (there were 5 vacancies and the House Speaker is not counted because he rarely votes). This constituted a winning majority in each chamber. The figures are based on a lineup of 33 Republicans and 23 Southern Democrats in the Senate and 176 Republicans and 104 Southern Democrats in the House. Counting only bare majorities of the two blocs in the coalition (the point at which the coalition is defined in this study), its strength, assuming all Members voted, would be 17 Republicans and 12 Southern Democrats in the Senate (29 total) and 89 Republicans and 53 Southern Democrats (142 total) in the House. In neither chamber would the coalition have a winning majority. Therefore, whether the coalition won or lost depended not only on how large a majority of Southern Democrats and Republicans it could muster, but also on how many votes it would win away from the opposing faction, the Northern Democrats.[13]

In 1968, Nixon and native Southerner and American Independent candidate George Wallace carried the same number of states in the South. The coalition "found itself frequently allied with a conservative President against the restricted power of the Congressional liberals" in Nixon's first year as president in 1969, according to the 1969 Congressional Quarterly almanac.[14] Conservative senators blocked an amendment that would have blocked the Safeguard anti-ballistic missile but lacked the votes to confirm Supreme Court nominee Clement Haynsworth.[14]

Post-Watergate Era (1973-1994)[edit]

With Nixon's reelection and sweep of the South—as well as nearly every state in the country—in 1972, the Democratic stronghold of the Solid South had fallen to the GOP at the presidential level, save for 1976, 1992, and 1996, when a Southern Democrat was the Democratic nominee. However most of the state and local elections were still dominated by Democrats until the 1990s; at first these long-serving Southern Democrats still wielded great power due to the seniority system through chairing powerful committees; however, the strong Democratic victory in 1974 following the Watergate scandal led to a tremendous number of Northern and liberal Democratic freshmen in House, tilting the balance of the Democratic Caucus away from the Southerners. These Watergate Babies joined forces with more senior liberals and stripped committee chairmanship from three senior Southern Democrats: Wright Patman, William R. Poage, and F. Edward Hébert, and otherwise reformed the House, making it more responsive to the overall Democratic Caucus and leadership, and with less power for committee chairs (and the minority party.)

Over in the Senate, the similarly large Democratic majority modified Rule 22, which governs the filibuster, shrinking the required majority to invoke cloture in most cases from two-thirds of the Senate to the current three-fifths, or 60 votes. These actions together greatly reduced the power of the Southern Democrats to steer and block legislation in the House and Senate, and reduced the institutional benefits of being loyal to the Democratic Party. Many surviving Southern Democrats switched parties and became Republicans after that party gained a majority in 1995.[15] As a result of the 1994 "Republican Revolution," Republicans became the majority of Southern members of the House of Representatives for the first time since the Reconstruction era, also replacing many conservative Democratic congressmen. A few Democratic Congressmen switched parties, such as Alabama United States Senator Richard Shelby. After declining in the 1980s, the conservative coalition ended after 1994. However, many similarly conservative Democrats served until the 2010 midterm elections.[16] The Blue Dog Coalition is considered the main successor to the conservative coalition amongst Democrats, as it began after the 1994 midterm elections.

Main members[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Patterson, James T. (1967). Congressional Conservatism and the New Deal. University Press of Kentucky. pp. vii–viii. ISBN 9780813164045.
  2. ^ Mack C. Shelley, "Presidents and the conservative coalition in the U.S. Congress." Legislative Studies Quarterly (1983): 79-96 online Archived 2021-05-14 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Jeffery A. Jenkins and Nathan W. Monroe, "Negative Agenda Control and the Conservative Coalition in the U.S. House" Journal of Politics (2014). 76#4, pp. 1116–27. doi:10.1017/S0022381614000620
  4. ^ Katznelson, 1993
  5. ^ Bruce J. Dierenfield, Keeper of the Rules: Congressman Howard W. Smith of Virginia (1987)
  6. ^ a b c Kicker, Troy. "Taking on FDR: Senator Josiah Bailey and the 1937 Conservative Manifesto". Archived from the original on 2020-10-04. Retrieved 2016-02-02..
  7. ^ for example, Time magazine reported, " "Five Southern Democrats and four Republicans sat smiling at a lady one day last week in the cramped, dim-lit House Rules committee-room.... The nine smug gentlemen, key bloc of the conservative coalition now dominating the House, could afford to be gracious to hard-plugging Mary Norton, Labor committee chairlady, because they had just finished trampling roughshod over her." TIME Aug 7, 1939 online
  8. ^ Lubell, Samuel (1955). The Future of American Politics. Anchor Press. p. 13.
  9. ^ Hachey, Thomas E. (Winter 1973–1974). "American Profiles on Capitol Hill: A Confidential Study for the British Foreign Office in 1943" (PDF). Wisconsin Magazine of History. 57 (2): 141–53. JSTOR 4634869. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 21, 2013.
  10. ^ Mayhew, David, Party Loyalty among Congressmen: The Difference between Democrats and Republicans 1947–1962 Harvard University Press (1966), pp. 165–68
  11. ^ John W. Malsberger, From Obstruction to Moderation: The Transformation of Senate Conservatism, 1938–1952 (2000) ch 2
  12. ^ The Penguin Dictionary of Politics by David Robertson, Second Edition 1993
  14. ^ a b "Conservative coalition remains potent in Congress" (PDF). 1969 CQ Almanac. Washington: CQ Press. 1969. pp. 1052–1059. Archived (PDF) from the original on January 29, 2022. Retrieved January 29, 2022.
  15. ^ "Southern Democrats Coaxed to GOP Dance". Christian Science Monitor. ISSN 0882-7729. Archived from the original on 2023-01-05. Retrieved 2023-01-05.
  16. ^ "The long goodbye". The Economist. Retrieved 2013-03-12.

Further reading[edit]

  • Caro, Robert A. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: vol 3: Master of the Senate (2002).
  • Carson, Jamie L. "Electoral and Partisan Forces in the Roosevelt Era: The US Congressional Elections of 1938." Congress & the Presidency 28#2 (2001) 161–183
  • Domhoff, G. William, and Michael J. Webber. Class and Power in the New Deal: Corporate Moderates, Southern Democrats, and the Liberal-Labor Coalition (2011)|
  • Fite, Gilbert. Richard B. Russell, Jr, Senator from Georgia (2002)
  • Goldsmith, John A. Colleagues: Richard B. Russell and His Apprentice, Lyndon B. Johnson. (1993)
  • Hill, Rebecca. "The History of the Smith Act and the Hatch Act: Anti-Communism and the Rise of the Conservative Coalition in Congress." in Little ‘Red Scares’ (Routledge, 2016) pp. 315–346.
  • Jenkins, Jeffery A. and Nathan W. Monroe. "Negative Agenda Control and the Conservative Coalition in the U.S. House" Journal of Politics (2014). 76#4, pp. 1116–27. doi:10.1017/S0022381614000620
  • Katznelson, Ira, Kim Geiger and Daniel Kryder. "Limiting Liberalism: The Southern Veto in Congress, 1933–1950," Political Science Quarterly Vol. 108, No. 2 (Summer, 1993), pp. 283–306 in JSTOR
  • MacNeil, Neil. Forge of Democracy: The House of Representatives (1963)
  • Malsberger, John W. From Obstruction to Moderation: The Transformation of Senate Conservatism, 1938–1952 (2000) online edition
  • Manley, John F. "The Conservative Coalition in Congress." American Behavioral Scientist 17 (1973): 223–47.
  • Mayhew, David R. Party Loyalty among Congressmen: The Difference between Democrats and Republicans, 1947–1962, Harvard University Press (1966)
  • Margolis, Joel Paul. "The Conservative Coalition in the United States Senate, 1933–1968." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1973.
  • Moore, John Robert. "The Conservative Coalition in the United States Senate, 1942-1945." Journal of Southern History 33#3 (1967), pp. 368–376. online; uses roll call data sets.
  • Patterson, James T. "A Conservative Coalition Forms in Congress, 1933–1939," The Journal of American History, (1966) 52#4 pp. 757–72. in JSTOR
  • Patterson, James. Congressional Conservatism and the New Deal: The Growth of the Conservative Coalition in Congress, 1933–39 (1967) online edition
  • Patterson, James T. Mr. Republican: A Biography of Robert A. Taft (1972)
  • Reinhard, David W. The Republican right since 1945 (UP of Kentucky, 2014) online.
  • Schickler, Eric. Disjointed Pluralism: Institutional Innovation and the Development of the U.S. Congress (2001)
  • Schickler, Eric; Pearson, Kathryn. "Agenda Control, Majority Party Power, and the House Committee on Rules, 1937–52," Legislative Studies Quarterly (2009) 34#4 pp. 455–91
  • Shelley II, Mack C. The Permanent Majority: The Conservative Coalition in the United States Congress (1983) online edition
  • Shelley, Mack C. "Presidents and the Conservative Coalition in the U.S. Congress." Legislative Studies Quarterly (1983): 79-96 online
  • Rohde, David W. Parties and Leaders in the Postreform House (1991)
  • Williams, Arthur R., Karl F. Johnson, and Michael P. Barrett. "Cutting the Deck: New Deal, Fair Deal, and the Employment Act of 1946: Problems of Study and Interpretation." in Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress (Routledge, 2019).

Primary sources[edit]

  • Cantril, Hadley and Mildred Strunk, eds.; Public Opinion, 1935–1946 (1951), massive compilation of many public opinion polls online
  • Gallup, George. The Gallup Poll: Public opinion, 1935-1971 (3 vol 1972) vol 1-2-3 online 1935–1948.