The decay of the Democrats: How the visionless party's downslide started in 1948

The Democratic party has been whipsawed by campaign donors and consultants, and abandoned its progressive history

Published June 28, 2020 8:00AM (EDT)

At the 1944 Democratic National Convention, delegates show support for the current Vice-President, Henry A. Wallace (Getty Images)
At the 1944 Democratic National Convention, delegates show support for the current Vice-President, Henry A. Wallace (Getty Images)

Adapted from "The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace's Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist Politics" by John Nichols, out through Verso Books. 

America's future is linked to how we understand our past. For this reason, writing about history, for me, is never a neutral act. —Howard Zinn

Political parties have histories. In many countries, these histories are told with reverence and respect for their roles in breaking the bonds of colonialism or battling fascism, in defining the character of a country or in opposing malignant tendencies. Not so in the United States. The histories of our major political parties are rarely told. Rather, parties are understood as mere shells into which great men and women climb when they need a place on the ballot or a separate fund-raising apparatus. Dixiecrat segregationists decamp from the Democratic ballot line to the Republican line, transforming both parties. The youngest of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal Democrats lived long enough to watch in horror as the rules they had established to protect Americans from Wall Street speculation were undone by Bill Clinton and his "New Democrats."

The path I took in writing this began with a consideration of how the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Reconstructionists of the 1860s became the party of Donald Trump and the xenophobic white nationalists of the 2010s. I wondered how it had changed so drastically that it made a lie of Dwight Eisenhower's 1954 observation that "should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history."

There are no more Eisenhowers in the Republican Party, and that explains a lot. The supposed "adults in the room," the Paul Ryans and the Mitch McConnells, undoubtedly recognized the absurdity and awfulness of the Tea Party agenda of 2011, yet they adopted it largely without question. They thought they could control the right-wing base of their party. Instead, they forged a party that was ripe for takeover by Trump, a charlatan who wore his bigotry on his sleeve. If the Republican Party bartered off most of what was noble in its history long before Trump began to seriously consider a presidential bid, the hustler who wrote "The Art of the Deal" merely closed the deal.

But what of the Democratic Party? In the 2010s, the Democrats were as inept and visionless as the Republicans were calculating and cruel. When Trump assumed the presidency after a 2016 election that the Democrats should have won by a landslide, bolstered by a Republican Congress that was ready to follow the lead of a desperate and damaged narcissist, the crisis came into focus. It was not the Republican Party that was ruining our politics. Rather, the lack of a coherent and appealing opposition to the Republicans was the problem.

So what were the roots of that crisis? It is too shallow to blame Hillary Clinton or the bumbling strategists that mounted her 2016 campaign. It is too easy to point an accusatory finger at the consultants and candidates who kept losing to the empty suits that Mitch McConnell was running for the Senate. Something much deeper was amiss. The Democratic Party had abandoned what was visionary in its past to become the managerial party of Bill Clinton and the surrender caucus that showed up whenever the party was in a position to prevail. For some, it was sufficient to see President Clinton and the New Democrats as the source of the disease. But that was also shallow. The Democratic Party began pulling its punches long before both Clintons arrived on the scene.

The more I traced the roots of the decay of a party that could not beat Nixon or Reagan or George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush or Donald Trump, the closer I got to the last days of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency—and to the great unraveling that began when Harry Truman was maneuvered onto the 1944 Democratic ticket by the party bosses and Southern segregationists who knew FDR was dying and wanted to bury the New Deal with him. Truman, who was willing to compromise with the bosses, established a pattern of ideological and strategic concession by the party that extends to this day. But Truman did not just grab the nomination, the vice presidency and the promise of the presidency in a vacuum. He came to power after a struggle. The more I focused on that definitional fight, the clearer it became that the lost soul of the Democratic Party was a man. And his name was Henry Wallace.

Wallace has been so thoroughly written out of our popular history that he is often confused with a politician who was his polar opposite, Alabama segregationist George Wallace. Even those who know bits and pieces of the good Wallace's story imagine him as a tragic figure who, after a brief moment of New Deal glory, was ruined by the excesses of his idealism. Wallace was an idealist; arguably, with Eleanor Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie and A. Philip Randolph, one of the greatest idealists among the cadre of dreamers who remade America in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Indeed, the bare-bones biography of Henry Wallace is sufficient to identify him as one of the most striking political figures in U.S. history.

A progressive Republican editor and farmer from Iowa who supported Roosevelt in the 1932 campaign that realigned American politics, Wallace became an original member of FDR's cabinet and turned the Department of Agriculture into the roaring engine of the New Deal. He so impressed the president that, in 1940, Roosevelt forced the Democratic Party to accept Wallace as his running mate in an audacious bid for a third term. After an overwhelming election victory on the eve of World War II, Wallace emerged as the liberal conscience of the administration, championing the fight against fascism abroad and racism at home. He was controversial and so uncompromising that the bosses took advantage of an ailing and distracted Franklin Roosevelt to force him off the ticket in 1944, making way for the more malleable Truman. Yet FDR kept him close, making Wallace his secretary of commerce for a fourth term in which the original New Dealers dreamed of advancing the radical vision of Four Freedoms abroad and an Economic Bill of Rights at home.

When Roosevelt died in 1945, the dream began to fade. Yet Wallace refused to give it up. He fought for a time within the Democratic Party, objecting to Truman's compromises at home and abroad. He warned of the dawning of a Cold War— and of the domestic Red Scare that would extend from it. He attempted to maintain the popular-front coalition that had elected and re-elected Roosevelt, welcoming farm-state populists and urban intellectuals, civil rights campaigners and the defenders of immigrants, feminists and militant trade unionists, socialists and communists.

Wallace was no communist; he was a progressive capitalist who preached the anti-monopoly gospel of the upper Midwest, and who believed that honest competition and diplomacy as opposed to militarism and hubris could keep the postwar peace. As FDR and Willkie had before their deaths, Wallace refused to be drawn into the anti-Communist fervor that the monopolists and the segregationists had ginned up in hopes of undoing the unity of antifascist purpose that had moved America well to the left during World War II. He was skeptical of the Soviet Union. He recognized it as a rival, and a threat. Yet Wallace refused to accept that the threat would be well or wisely answered with a "cold war." Even as his reservations regarding the Soviets grew, Wallace held out for diplomacy, and for peace.

At home, Wallace recognized the dark machinations of the economic royalists who sought to renew the supremacy they had enjoyed in the pre–New Deal moment. He warned, even before the war was finished, that wealthy and powerful men would seek to divide the nation in order to further enrich and empower themselves. Wallace dared to identify the threat posed by these men as that of an "American Fascism," just as he dared to compare homegrown racists with the Nazis of Germany. He spoke these dangerous truths before it was fashionable, and for this he was labeled a communist dupe, a mystic, a zealot.

The Democrats who feared a new New Deal, and who were not prepared to fight as hard to "win the peace" as they had to win World War II, determined to erase the memory of the man who fought the hardest to maintain FDR's legacy. They largely succeeded, but in so doing they undid the visionary ambition that had characterized their party in the period of its greatest strength. This is a tragic story of abandoned values and missed opportunities.

Wallace made the work of his rivals easier. He gave up on the Democratic Party and in 1948 mounted a poorly thought-out and ill-timed independent Progressive presidential bid. While the threat that Wallace's candidacy posed would briefly pull Truman to the left, it failed to pull many votes. And it gave Wallace's detractors an opening to unleash a furious assault on the man they portrayed as clueless and calculating, marginal and dangerous. Yes, Wallace made plenty of political missteps. But the antiracist, antisexist champion of peace and progress ended up on the right side of history far more frequently than his critics.

After the collapse of his desperate 1948 bid to forge a "Gideon's Army," Wallace was consigned to the political wilderness. He retreated to a farm in upstate New York, where the man whose proposals to reform capitalism were ridiculed as naïve engaged in pioneering agricultural research. His work would eventually revolutionize farming and form the basis for multibillion-dollar endeavors. He built a fortune so great that, to this day, it helps to sustain the Wallace Global Fund's support for struggles against racism and violence, poverty and disease, climate change and the rise of the corporate state.

The fund maintains the memory of its namesake, recalling that "Henry A. Wallace was deeply concerned by what he saw as the rise of a corporatist state that concentrates power in the hands of the few and wields unchecked authority at the expense of the common good." It takes as its mission the work of promoting "an informed and engaged citizenry, to fight injustice and to protect the diversity of nature and the natural systems upon which all life depends."

The story of the party's rejection of Wallace, and of the bolder, more visionary politics that he proposed, tells us much that we need to know—not just about the decline of Democrats from the New Deal era to now, but about the decay of our politics in general. And, more hopefully, about the prospects for reversing that decline and decay.

For 75 years, the Democratic Party has refused to unify around the principles that Wallace outlined in his address to the 1944 Democratic National Convention. "The future," Wallace proposed, "belongs to those who go down the line unswervingly for the liberal principles of both political democracy and economic democracy regardless of race, color or religion." In 1944, the party bosses and the segregationist senators who aligned with them thought Wallace's calculus was wrong. The partisan descendants of those who constrained the Democratic Party's vision then have never stopped trying to constrain it.

The Democrats have had their outstanding leaders and their outstanding moments over the past three quarters of a century. But there has been no consistency of purpose; no steadiness of vision. The party has been whipsawed by campaign donors and consultants, by of-the-moment strategists and "Third Way" think tanks that, invariably, counsel against going down the line unswervingly for progressive principles. Even now, Democrats wrestle with the question of whether to be so bold, so visionary, so truthful and so willing to take risks on behalf of economic and social and racial justice as was Henry Wallace.

As the Republican Party has moved toward the extremism that Eisenhower feared and that Wallace suggested might take the form of an American fascism, the Democratic Party has tried to occupy the middle ground. Whenever it has moved tentatively to the left, the advocates for this progression—the George McGoverns, the Shirley Chisholms, the Jesse Jacksons, the Tom Haydens—have been quickly sidelined by the insiders. The approach might be defensible, politically if not morally, were there a record of steady success. But that record does not exist. America is not a right-wing country, yet through most of the postwar era it has been governed by steadily more right-wing Republican presidents.

Even when Democrats have prevailed, they have struggled to advance the progressive agenda that polls show most Americans desire. The last two Democratic presidents lost their governing majorities in the Congress midway through their first terms, and the two Democratic presidents before them were so badly derailed by domestic and foreign policy missteps that they could not secure re-election.

If we step back and observe with an honest eye the history of our political parties, we see a story of stark and unsettling contrasts. Republicans do not win every election. Yet their party has pulled the country steadily to the right, controlling and corrupting the federal courts, initiating and maintaining endless wars and extending the reach (and the budgets) of the Pentagon, imposing austerity in order to fund tax cuts for the rich. The planet has burned. Nationalism, xenophobia and racism have been mainstreamed. No survey suggests that this is what America wants. Yet this is what we have. Why? Because we lack an adequate opposition. The Democrats have bent, again and again and again, to the demands of investment-bank campaign donors, apologists for the military-industrial complex, and Third Way hucksters.

Democrats have been able to renew their electoral fortunes when they unite with independents to upend the worst excesses of the Republicans. Yet Democrats have not been capable of maintaining the energy and enthusiasm necessary to keep power and to advance an agenda that is both truly progressive and truly necessary. In recent years, they have expended most of their energy fighting to preserve gains made decades ago. So the balance keeps tipping to the right. This pattern has held since the 1940s, the decade in which the critical fight for the soul of the Democratic Party was lost. It will continue until a new fight for the soul of the Democratic Party is waged, and won.

Wallace's plight is not emblematic of the entire Democratic Party. Rather, it is an examination of a moment in the party's history, of a brief period when a definitional choice was made. The Democrats opted for compromise in the mid-1940s. It was the wrong choice. And it has haunted the party, and the nation, since that time.

Historical knowledge is always necessary. But it is most necessary when everything is again up for grabs, as is now the case. A new generation of reformers and radicals, of grassroots activists and visionary idealists, has stepped up. They are on the move. They seek to remake the Democratic Party as a fighting force that might win the future. Their successes in reframing and renewing the party in which they have chosen to make their stand invite us to consider the prospect that was outlined by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques: "If men have always been concerned with only one task— how to create a society fit to live in—the forces which inspired our distant ancestors are also present in us. Nothing is settled; everything can still be altered. What was done but turned out wrong, can be done again. The Golden Age, which blind superstition had placed behind (or ahead of) us, is in us."

Henry Wallace is not a distant ancestor. There are still a few old radicals who remember marching at his side. What he did turned out wrong, not because his values were wrong but because they were ahead of the time. Now, perhaps, what turned out wrong can be done again. Perhaps, the lost soul of the Democratic Party can be found.

Adapted from The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace's Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist Politics by John Nichols, out through Verso Books. 

By John Nichols


John Nichols is the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine, a contributing writer for the Progressive and In These Times, and the associate editor of Madison, Wisconsin’s Capital Times. He’s the author of several books, including The Death and Life of American JournalismThe Genius of Impeachment and The "S" Word.

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