When looking to the future, it’s good to remember the lessons of the past. In Robert Jenner’s, SIS/BS ’74, book, FDR’s Republicans: Domestic Political Realignment and American Foreign Policy (2009), he analyzes the bipartisanship that helped realign the U.S. political parties and prepared the country for a new foreign policy focus during the late 1930s and early 1940s. The book was released in paperback this month.
Commenting on the recent wave of elections, Jenner notes, “This has occurred before. They weren’t called Tea Partiers, but they were a rural-based constituency that voted Republican—a constituency that was very concerned with morality and other domestic concerns.” In his book, Jenner refers to this group as “populist progressives.”
As Jenner found in his research, “The Republican party had to defer to them to keep their coalition together. But in the end, it didn’t really work for them.” In fact, comparing the 1940s to today, he warns that the new Tea Party representatives “may make fools of themselves. That’s what they did in the ’20s and ’30s. They discredited the party.”
As a group, the agrarians were good at being critics but were almost incapable of coordinating their faction for the purpose of creating policies. The establishment wing of the Republican Party began to take them for granted by the late ’20s and even referred to them as “the wild jackasses of the western plains.” After the Roosevelt landslides, the Republican establishment once again sought agrarian support by deferring to their isolationism.
Through his research, Jenner moved beyond State Department archives detailing what happened in Washington and instead focused on what was happening on the local level. He was surprised at the attention paid to constituents’ opinions by their representatives. “Your voice does count. They do read your letters.”
Jenner found that, “the grassroots supporters for these candidates got their representatives to listen and to change during the early 1940s,” he notes. People wrote hundreds of letters to their representatives, all saying the same thing – ‘You have to stop this partisan stupidity’ – as the country braced itself for World War II.
In regards to his personal thoughts on FDR, Jenner remains positive. “I still think he was a great, great president. He was a clever man – a clever politician – maybe too clever at times. Some people say Obama could use a little more FDR in his approach.”
Jenner, who was a transfer student at AU, belonged to the Horseback Riding Club and interned with Senator Charles H. Percy (R – IL) while a student.
After graduating from SIS in 1974, Jenner pursued his master’s in international relations at the University of Chicago and his PhD in history from the University of Maryland. His book is based on the dissertation he wrote while completing his PhD.
Jenner will speak at American University about his book as part of the Alumni Book Club Series on Wednesday, January 12 in Bender Library. Guests are encouraged to register online.