Henry Wallace and the Road Not Taken

The Democrats’ turn away from New Deal economic radicalism toward corporate soft power began in 1944 with the dumping of an influential vice president.

By Sammy FeldblumNovember 27, 2020

Henry Wallace and the Road Not Taken

The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party by John Nichols. Verso. 304 pages.

AS AN AILING United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt considered his running mate for what was to be his fourth and final campaign, the sitting vice president, Henry A. Wallace, was approached by The New York Times to write an essay for its Sunday magazine supplement. Published in The New York Times Magazine on April 9, 1944, Wallace's op-ed began outlining the stakes of the political moment. With the country battling Nazism abroad, it risked missing the creep of fascism on the home front.

Wallace wrote that a “fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends.” An American fascist, then, “wants to do in the United States in an American way what Hitler did in Germany in a Prussian way,” preferring deception and spin over raw violence: “With a fascist the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power.” These would-be fascists could be “encountered in Wall Street, Main Street, or Tobacco Road.”

It is a stirring bit of writing from a statesman. Too stirring, perhaps, as The New York Times undermined Wallace on its editorial page the very same day. “It is astonishing,” countered the editors, “that Mr. Wallace cannot see that in going to such lengths he approaches the very intolerance that he condemns.” The paper of record’s discomfort was shared by Democratic Party bosses, who later that year edged out the vice president — the most popular candidate with the party’s base — in favor of the more moderate Harry S. Truman.

In The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace’s Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist Politics, John Nichols makes the case that the “prophetic” Wallace’s replacement began the dismantling of the New Deal and sent the party down a track of fecklessness that it has been following ever since. Nichols, a progressive journalist for The Nation and editor at The Capital Times, originally conceived of his narrative as a history of the Republican Party, the journey from Abraham Lincoln to Donald Trump. But in tracing the rise of Trumpism, Nichols came to believe that 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.” Tracing the decay of the Democrats, in turn, led Nichols to Wallace, whom he calls “the lost soul of the Democratic Party.”

With World War II still in full swing, Wallace began emphasizing the connection between winning the war and winning the ensuing peace. In 1943, following nationwide race riots in response to the integration of war industries, Wallace gave a speech in Detroit in front of a multiracial audience, comparing race-baiting demagogues at home to Nazis abroad and warning that the “second step toward fascism is the destruction of labor unions.” The choice, said the former Iowa farmer, “is between democracy for everybody or for the few — between the spreading of social safeguards and economic opportunity to all the people — or the concentration of our abundant resources in the hands of selfishness and greed.”

This message, popular with the party’s base, was unpopular with the party’s power brokers — Northern industrialists and Southern segregationists, who, in that time before Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy realigned American politics, were still key members of the big-tent Democratic coalition that implemented the New Deal. This coalition ran the gamut from socialists to bankers, trade unionists to Jim Crow apologists; much of the glue came from the overwhelming personage of FDR himself. But the balancing act inherent left a risk of reaction. Wallace’s denouncements of race-baiters and rapacious businessmen as akin to Adolf Hitler and his enablers attacked the power of the very men upon whose support the New Deal depended. On July 20, 1944, at the fateful Democratic National Convention, a stirring speech by Wallace left the assembled delegates clamoring for his nomination, but it was not to come: a panicked boss yelled to the party chairman to “[s]hut it down.” The chair motioned to adjourn, and, despite overwhelming opposition to the motion, declared its passage. The antiracist and economic populist was defeated by racists and moneymen.

Wallace remained in the administration as secretary of commerce, but was not to be the Democratic standard-bearer moving forward. He was ousted for his outspokenness in September 1946; two months later, Nichols contends, Truman’s compromises led to the party’s poor showing in the 1946 midterm elections, which sent Republican red-baiters Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon into Congress and led to the passage of the 1947 Taft–Hartley Act, gutting labor protections. At the 1948 United States presidential election, Truman would surprise the nation by defeating his Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey. But this was achieved, Nichols writes, “not by mobilizing an expanded electorate but by finding a narrow path to victory with less than 50 percent of an overall turnout that had dropped by 3 percent from 1944.” Truman’s tenure establishes the pattern Nichols so decries — Democrats content to act in a managerial role, lacking vision, and paying the price in the ballot box and through their ultimate inability to enact meaningful policy.

Two years later, Wallace would run a quixotic campaign under the banner of the Progressive Party, backed by the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois, Pete Seeger, and Betty Friedan but attracting little support among voters. His sidelining within the Democratic Party was complete; his status as a public figure would follow. Nichols pivots from Wallace himself to offer an iterative history of the Democrats in which each subsequent generation of party insiders would smother progressive firebrands.

The quintessential figure to the contemporary reader — the ghost haunting the modern Democratic Party — is George McGovern, who lost every state but one to Nixon at the 1972 presidential election, lending ammunition ever since to centrist hand-wringing that the nation is not ready for progressive candidates and policies. The party’s consistent reflex toward moderation leaves Nichols without many empirics upon which to pin his claim that bold progressivism is indeed a winning electoral strategy. Still, there is plenty reason to believe fear of McGovernism is overblown. As Joshua Mound noted in The New Republic in early 2016,

[McGovern] lost because he was facing a popular incumbent presiding over a booming economy. Moreover, the Democrats’ belief that they need to steer clear of McGovernism […] now looks increasingly misguided. With each passing decade, the types of voters drawn to McGovern’s 1972 campaign [the people of color, women, and LGBTQ community dismissed by conservative Democrats at the time] have become a larger and larger share of the American electorate.

And while McGovern’s campaign was indeed the worst loss by a Democratic candidate to that point, the centrist Walter Mondale’s loss to incumbent Ronald Reagan in 1984 was as bad. Yet Mondale’s loss did not lead to a fear of centrist candidates. This, writes Tim Barker in Jacobin, is because comparisons to McGovern “are a motivated selective memory that functions to emphasize the risks of progressive politics while effacing the plain empirical reality that centrist campaigns have also gone down to landslide defeats.”

John Nichols is writing for an audience of believers: while he evinces a distaste for the last 70 milquetoast years of Democratic Party, he nonetheless views the party as the vehicle through which the country might become more just, equitable, and humane. He notes, though, structural factors working against would-be Wallaces. Most notably, campaign finance rules began to loosen with the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo to lift post-Watergate limits on independent expenditures in campaigns — a decision that left big money’s influence on both parties “systematized and increasingly sophisticated.” The force of organized money would, in turn, propel business-friendly politicians like Bill Clinton and Al Gore to the forefront of the party, and add further obstacles for progressive insurgents to overcome.

Much of what Henry A. Wallace feared most has come to pass: the enervation of organized labor through the latter half of the 20th century has coincided with the capture of both parties, and of American politics generally, by the donor class. Donald Trump, avatar of American fascism, lost his re-election bid only to toy with a judicial coup, aided by a right-wing news ecosystem sowing just the sort of disinformation Wallace decried. While a return-to-normalcy appeal by president-elect Joe Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris was enough to win at the top of the ticket, the Democrats seem unlikely to win back the Senate (pending two January runoff elections in Georgia) and lost ground in the House. Trumpism remains a powerful force in American politics, hardly repudiated. The down-ballot disappointment was still fresh when, in a caucus call two days after the election, ex-CIA official and Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger began punching left, pinning the “failure” on progressive Democrats who dared use the word “socialism” and mentioned defunding the police. Majority Whip James Clyburn, whose support in South Carolina’s primary was crucial in winning Biden the state and ultimately the nomination, likewise suggested proposals for Medicare-for-All and defunding the police would surely lose the Democrats the pivotal Georgia runoffs. The Democrats’ task now — world-historical, given the urgency of the climate crisis lurking in the shadow of the pandemic — will be Herculean, given a hostile Supreme Court and a Senate sure to be led into gridlock and disarray by an obstructive Mitch McConnell. But “the future,” as Henry Wallace told the Democratic Convention in 1944, “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.” The Democrats thought Wallace too radical then, and wandered instead toward the center and into the political wilderness. Nothing like some soul-searching to find their way back.


Sammy Feldblum studies geography at UCLA and writes about the southern half of the United States.

LARB Contributor

Sammy Feldblum studies geography at UCLA and covers culture, politics, and the environment in the southern half of the United States. His work has appeared in Scalawag, The Baffler, Dissent, the Texas Observer, and National Geographic, among other outlets.


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