Bootstrap Liberalism

Texas Political Culture in the Age of FDR

Sean P. Cunningham

Has Texas always been one of the United States’ most conservative states? The answer might surprise you. Bootstrap Liberalism offers a glimpse into the world of Depression-era Texas politics, revealing a partisan culture that was often far more ideologically nuanced and complex than meets the eye.

The Lone Star State is often viewed as a bastion of conservative politics and rugged “bootstrap” individualism, but that narrative overlooks the fact that FDR’s New Deal was quite popular in Texas, much more so than previous histories of the era have suggested.

“Anyone who looks backward from the last twenty-five years of Texas politics could be easily fooled into thinking that conservative Republicans had always won the day and spoke for the majority of Texans. In his excellent book, however, Sean Cunningham starts in the 1920s and offers an alternative and far more accurate view. Democrats, often of the liberal variety on everything except race, dominated all aspects of politics in Texas from 1930 to 1950. Franklin D. Roosevelt was especially popular in Texas, and as Cunningham makes clear, may have been the most popular president in Texas of all time. Read this well-written and compelling book for an antidote to what you thought you knew about Texas politics before 1950.”

—Walter L. Buenger, Summerlee Foundation Chair in Texas History, University of Texas at Austin

While it is true that many Texas Democrats remained staunchly conservative during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, and it is also true that many of these conservatives formed the basis of an established majority that would grow stronger in the decades that followed, it is simultaneously true that ordinary voters—and a good many politicians—embraced New Deal policies, federal experimentation, and direct economic aid, and often did so enthusiastically as liberal Texas Democrats rode FDR’s coattails to electoral success.

Texas political leaders recognized the popularity of the New Deal and identified themselves with FDR for their own political advantage. Using original resources mined from six research archives, Bootstrap Liberalism explores campaign strategies and policy debates as they unfolded at the local, state, and national levels throughout the Great Depression and World War II eras, revealing a consistent brand of pro–New Deal messaging that won favor with voters across the state. Most Texas Democrats did not apologize for supporting FDR. Rather, they celebrated him and often marketed themselves as New Deal Democrats. Voters endorsed that strategy by electing liberals throughout the 1930s and early 1940s.

About the Author

Sean P. Cunningham is associate professor and chair of history at Texas Tech University and author of Cowboy Conservatism: Texas and the Rise of the Modern Right and American Politics in the Postwar Sunbelt: Conservative Growth in a Battleground Region.