Need a Democratic Platform? How About Harry Truman’s From 1948?

Harry Truman
He comes bearing gifts. Photo: Keystone-France\Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

As part of the discussion about democratic socialism and the past, present, and future of the Donkey Party, Josh Marshall made this interesting comment:

[M]ost of what is now branded “democratic socialism” in the USA in 2018 is more or less the Truman presidential platform in 1948.

I’m reasonably sure Josh was primarily alluding to the symmetry between today’s calls for a “single payer” health-care system and Truman’s call for national health insurance. But a stroll down memory lane to the 1948 Democratic platform shows more symmetry between the domestic policy views and concerns of Democrats 70 years ago and today than one might imagine.

Check this out:

We favor legislation assuring that the workers of our nation receive equal pay for equal work, regardless of sex.

We favor the extension of the Social Security program established under Democratic leadership, to provide additional protection against the hazards of old age, disability, disease or death. We believe that this program should include:

Increases in old-age and survivors’ insurance benefits by at least 50 percent, and reduction of the eligibility age for women from 65 to 60 years; extension of old-age and survivors’ and unemployment insurance to all workers not now covered; insurance against loss of earnings on account of illness or disability; improved public assistance for the needy.

There’s extensive and even militant language about union and collective bargaining rights, including a demand for repeal of the union-busting Taft-Hartley Act that remains on the books today. And 6 years before Brown v. Board of Education, and 16 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Truman’s Democrats made this pledge which has yet to be fully redeemed:

The Democratic Party is responsible for the great civil rights gains made in recent years in eliminating unfair and illegal discrimination based on race, creed or color.

The Democratic Party commits itself to continuing its efforts to eradicate all racial, religious and economic discrimination.

We again state our belief that racial and religious minorities must have the right to live, the right to work, the right to vote, the full and equal protection of the laws, on a basis of equality with all citizens as guaranteed by the Constitution.

No one knew about climate change in 1948, but there was this progressive demand for national action on natural resources, which soon evolved into a Democratic-led drive for public ownership of water and other energy resources:

 Our natural resources are the heritage of all our people and must not be permitted to become the private preserves of monopoly.

This plank could (and should) be replicated by today’s Democrats without amendment:

We pledge an intensive enforcement of the antitrust laws, with adequate appropriations.

We advocate the strengthening of existing antitrust laws by closing the gaps which experience has shown have been used to promote concentration of economic power.

Obviously foreign-policy elements of the 1948 platform, adopted at the beginning of the Cold War, seem anachronistic today, but its commitment to a fully multilateral and international approach to diplomacy and problem-solving are relevant today:

Ours is the party under which the framework of the world organization for peace and justice was formulated and created….

Under the leadership of a Democratic President and his Secretary of State, the United Nations was organized at San Francisco. The charter was ratified by an overwhelming vote of the Senate. We support the United Nations fully and we pledge our whole-hearted aid toward its growth and development. 

Democrats may be somewhat divided on trade policy today, but in 1948 they were clear about rejecting the idea that trade wars were “easy” and that tariffs are “the greatest:”

We pledge ourselves to restore the Reciprocal Trade Agreements program formulated in 1934 by Secretary of State Cordell Hull and operated successfully for 14 years—until crippled by the Republican 80th Congress. Further, we strongly endorse our country’s adherence to the International Trade Organization.

And then there’s this jarring language on immigration:

We pledge ourselves to legislation to admit a minimum of 400,000 displaced persons found eligible for United States citizenship without discrimination as to race or religion. We condemn the undemocratic action of the Republican 80th Congress in passing an inadequate and bigoted bill for this purpose, which law imposes un-American restrictions based on race and religion upon such admissions.

This pledge was in no small part motivated by restrictions on Jewish immigration into the U.S. after the Holocaust. And 1948’s Democrats were proudly committed to the newly created State of Israel:

 We affirm our pride that the United States under the leadership of President Truman played a leading role in the adoption of the resolution of November 29, 1947, by the United Nations General Assembly for the creation of a Jewish State.

But there was also this proviso, which remains relevant today:

We continue to support, within the framework of the United Nations, the internationalization of Jerusalem and the protection of the Holy Places in Palestine.

To be clear, not everything in the ‘48 platform, even on domestic issues,would work for contemporary Democrats: there’s a big section on fighting inflation, and a peroration on reducing the national debt. There are some strange and surprising planks as well, like this:

We favor the repeal of the discriminatory taxes on the manufacture and sale of oleomargarine.

But also this, which does sound a tad familiar:

We deplore the repeated attempts of Republicans in the 80th Congress to impose thought control upon the American people and to encroach on the freedom of speech and press.

All in all, it was a forward-looking platform for its time, and to a considerable extent, for our own time.

Now the consistency of Democratic policy positions for 70 years is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, today’s progressives (including the democratic socialists) have a ready defense against claims that they are somehow abandoning their party’s positions or “moving the party to the left,” as the media types are fond of saying right now. On the other hand, the Democratic left really does need to think about the extent to which its own alleged progressivism is strongly leavened by nostalgia for the New Deal and Fair Deal and Great Society.

Still, next time someone complains that Democrats have no clear platform or leader, they might counter with the 1948 platform and the example set by Harry Truman. Even in the absence of Democratic Party unity (there were competing presidential candidacies from ex-Democrats on the left and the right), that election year did, after all, produce the most audacious upset in modern American politics until you-know-who and you-know-what.

Democrats Could Do Worse Than Harry Truman’s 1948 Platform