In 1936, FDR won re-election by a slightly larger margin, but with a different coalition. The rural and small town North returned to its long Republican allegiance, while Democrats made further big gains among immigrants and blue-collar workers in big cities and factory towns.
The New Deal historians attributed these gains to Roosevelt's economic redistribution measures: high tax rates on high earners, the pro-union Wagner Act, Social Security. These laws -- the so-called Second New Deal -- were passed in 1935. They replaced the different, non-redistributionist policies of the First New Deal that stopped the deflationary downward spiral underway when Roosevelt took office.
The problem with the historians' claims is that the shifts in the electorate apparent in 1936 also are apparent in the 1934 off-year elections. Democrats won big that year, but compared to 1932, they lost ground in rural areas and small towns and gained much ground in big cities and factory towns.
The 1936 realignment happened in 1934. It could not have been caused by redistributionist Second New Deal legislation because it hadn't been passed before November 1934.
So why should voters be leery of economic redistribution in times of economic distress?
Perhaps because they realize that they stand to gain much more from a vibrantly growing economy than from redistribution of a stagnant economic pie. A growing economy produces many unanticipated opportunities. Redistribution edges toward a zero-sum game.
They miss growth when it is absent. They don't appreciate it so much when it is happening.
Roosevelt's 1934 and 1936 victories were won in periods of growth. After the economy shifted into recession in 1937, New Deal Democrats fared much worse, and Roosevelt won his third and fourth terms as a seasoned wartime leader, not an economic redistributor.
Lesson: If you want redistribution, you'd better first produce growth. Which the Obama Democrats' policies have failed to do.
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