“When [Donald] Trump assumed the presidency after a 2016 election that Democrats should have won by a landslide …” writes John Nichols in his new book, “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.”
You have probably seen versions of this argument hundreds of times. It is the standard left-wing critique of the Democratic Party. The feckless Democrats keep losing because they stand for nothing. Having abandoned their progressive principles and sold out to the corporate Establishment, they have forfeited the trust voters had given them during the glorious New Deal era. Most of these critiques point to the 1970s as the moment when the party turned neoliberal and set itself along the path of political and moral ruin.
But Nichols advances a different argument. In his new book, The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party, Nichols, the Nation’s national correspondent, locates the pivotal moment some three decades earlier. The Democrats lost their way in 1944, when they removed vice-president Henry Wallace from the ticket, denying him his place as Franklin Roosevelt’s successor. Wallace, argues Nichols, would have kept alive the New Deal flame that was instead extinguished by the moderate Harry Truman. Instead, Truman’s “great betrayal” (in Wallace’s words, which Nichols endorses) of Roosevelt’s legacy veered the Democrats onto the neoliberal path. “The lost soul of the Democratic Party was a man,” he argues, “and his name was Henry Wallace.”
Nichols has ambitions beyond mere historical reinterpretation. He presents his history as a blueprint for the revival of the Democratic Party’s left wing, concluding with a rousing chapter casting Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as heirs to the Wallace tradition. His blurbs — from progressives like Sanders, Ro Khannna, Ilhan Omar, and Democratic Socialists of America director Maria Svart, rather than from historians — underscore Nichols’s vision of his protagonist as a redemptive model.
Nichols is correct to see parallels between Wallace and the left-wing movement built around Sanders. What he fails to understand is that many of the same errors that destroyed Wallace as a political force also drove Sanders to his demise.
Nichols’s emphasis on Wallace as a model has one clear advantage over the traditional left-wing focus: He is able to account for the tension between liberals and leftists that long predated the 1970s. After all, if the “neoliberal turn” took place only after Nixon appeared on the scene, what would explain the left’s contempt for what it called the “corporate liberals” of the Kennedy-Johnson era? Or the bitter attacks on Truman that Nichols documents? Both the international economy changed and the Republican Party’s economic program changed in the 1970s, but the Democratic Party’s ideological orientation was relatively stable. It did not stop being a social democratic or labor-dominated party in the “neoliberal era” because it was not one before then, either.
But Nichols’s attempt to make Wallace the rightful heir to FDR runs into problems of its own. The most obvious one is that, if Wallace was a faithful adherent of Roosevelt’s legacy, and Truman a Judas, why did Roosevelt throw Wallace off the ticket and replace him with Truman?
Nichols tries to explain this away as a devious scheme foisted upon an unwitting Roosevelt by the party’s conservative elements. “The bosses took advantage of an ailing and distracted Franklin Roosevelt to force [Wallace] off the ticket,” he writes. This explanation gives too little credit to Roosevelt (who was ailing, but who was not too distracted to spend time in Georgia with his mistress). When recounting the narrative, Nichols notes in passing that Wallace himself was gone on a strenuous trip across Siberia and China” before the convention where he was replaced. He does not mention that Roosevelt sent Wallace on this trip in order to keep him from campaigning to save his job.
Second, Nichols’s attempt to bracket Roosevelt with Wallace as visionary progressives, and Truman as the first of a long line of corporate sellouts, requires him to judge Roosevelt and Truman by very different standards. Truman, to be sure, accomplished relatively little in the domestic sphere. But this was because he inherited a Congress dominated by a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats. Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms had already ground to a halt before Truman took office.
Nichols gets around this problem by judging Roosevelt by his rhetoric, and Truman by his practical results. He lavishes praise on Roosevelt for his soaring “Four Freedoms” speech, without acknowledging Roosevelt did not (and could not) turn those principles into policy. He doesn’t credit Truman for his own soaring populist rhetoric (like his proposal for a “Fair Deal,” which would have created national health insurance, public housing, aid for education, and a rollback of Taft-Hartley anti-union legislation.)
At one point, Nichols does acknowledge that Roosevelt, too, was hardly a consistent liberal: “He would lurch left and then edge back; he would welcome the hatred of the bankers and plutocrats and then meet the investors and business owners whose buy-in he needed to retool the economy.” And yet he generally falls into the progressive trap of treating Roosevelt as if his lurches to the left constituted the entirety of his political identity.
Roosevelt’s self-definition was generally that of a liberal, counterpoised between radicals (who supported him sporadically) and conservatives. Roosevelt once observed that a radical was “a man with both feet firmly planted — in the air,” and a conservative “a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned to walk forward,” while, “a liberal is a man who uses his legs and his hands at the behest — at the command — of his head.” Truman’s habit of tacking between left and center, market and state, and conciliating business and labor was a more faithful continuation of Roosevelt’s political style than Wallace’s.
After Roosevelt replaced him on the ticket in 1944, Wallace rejoined the cabinet. But he left in 1946 when he broke with Truman, whose administration was reorienting its foreign policy around resistance to the Soviet Union. After a stint as editor of the (then) left-wing New Republic, where he built his following, he ran against Truman as a left-wing splinter candidate in 1948.
The movement that grew around Wallace in the middle and late ’40s many ways resembles the one built by Sanders over the last five years. Both Wallace and Sanders presented themselves as the true heir to Roosevelt, proposing to steer the party back to its New Deal roots after it had lost its way. Wallace, like Sanders, mobilized a passionate base whose intensity at times obscured how few people the movement actually represented. Both came to rely on the energy supplied by their most passionate and ideologically extreme supporters, some of whom were hostile to the Democratic Party and had no use for it except as a vehicle for a left-wing takeover. And both Sanders and Wallace tended to delude themselves into thinking they represented the true sentiment of the party’s voters, and by mobilizing a populist rebellion, they could seize it back from the corrupt nexus of financial interests that had gained nefarious control.
Nichols rightly credits Wallace for his moral clarity in denouncing segregation. Barnstorming the South and holding integrated rallies, Wallace was well ahead of his time in an era when the Democratic Party had a devil’s bargain with Jim Crow.
But Nichols’s emphasis on civil rights is difficult to square with his valorization of Roosevelt. While the New Deal drew northern black voters into the Democratic Party with economic relief, Roosevelt did almost nothing to challenge white supremacy. He allowed Southern Democrats to bottle up even meager steps toward civil rights like anti-lynching laws, and (as Ira Katznelson documented) was forced to craft many of his social-welfare measures to deny helping disenfranchised black voters in the South.
Meanwhile, it was Truman who took the first real steps toward making Democrats the party of civil rights. Truman’s outrage at lynchings of returning black soldiers drove him to integrate the military. Truman fought for a strong civil rights platform at the 1948 Democratic convention, where Hubert Humphrey declared, “The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” Wallace dismissed integration of the armed forces as an “empty gesture.” But the party’s lurch toward civil rights was significant enough that Strom Thurmond left to run a splinter campaign as the Dixiecrat, foreshadowing the demise of the Solid South.
The disparate way Nichols describes the behavior of Roosevelt and Truman is telling. He gently chides Roosevelt’s civil rights record (“FDR had fallen far short”) while crediting him for attracting black voters. Later he attacks Truman as “cautious and calculating.” It’s difficult to reconcile his gentle treatment of Roosevelt and harsh treatment of Truman, when Truman’s civil rights record undeniably surpassed Roosevelt’s.
It’s even harder to understand how Nichols can castigate Truman and his Democratic successors for forfeiting Roosevelt’s massive New Deal coalition. The overwhelming reason white voters left the party was that the party moved left on race. Nichols blames Democrats for losing white voters while blaming them for failing to move farther and faster on the very issues that caused white voters to defect.
Wallace had an answer to this contradiction. He believed moving left would attract, not repel, white Southern voters. He believed white racism was nothing but a plot by economic elites from the North. When his Southern rallies faced violence, he blamed “northern industrialists who ‘dominated’ these communities” for inciting it, and claimed whenever “one found racial injustice in the South … ‘there look for the long string of dividends that lead to Wall Street.’” (Here, and in some other places where I provide context Nichols omits, I am citing Thomas Devine’s 2013 history, “Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism.”)
Wallace’s insistence of dismissing racism as a metaphenomenon driven by economic concerns, and his inability to take it seriously as an authentic belief system, anticipated the errors Sanders has made in 2016 and 2020. Both men believed that if white racists were told they were being duped by Wall Street, they would awaken from their false consciousness and vote their class interest. Both likewise failed to understand the calculations of African-American voters, who preferred to leverage their vote with political allies who could promise and deliver concrete steps in the right direction. More than three-quarters of black voters supported Truman in 1948, and rather than question his flawed assumptions of his candidacy, Wallace bitterly concluded the black vote had “let him down.”
It was foreign policy that drove Wallace out of Truman’s cabinet in 1946 and formed the most irreparable breach with his former party. From Wallace’s point of view, Truman was betraying Roosevelt’s alliance with the Soviets. It is of course correct that Truman’s policy toward Moscow was more hostile than Roosevelt’s. The error made by Wallace and his supporters is to attribute that difference to Truman abandoning Roosevelt’s vision, rather than the two presidents facing very different circumstances. Had Roosevelt survived his fourth term, his posture with Stalin would have surely changed after the Nazi threat had disappeared and the Soviets began gobbling up Europe.
Nichols defends Wallace’s warning about the rise of fascism in the United States, pointing to Donald Trump’s right-wing authoritarianism as an indication that Wallace was “prophetic.” But Wallace’s definition of fascism was far broader than anything that might be traced forward to Trumpism. He insisted that American support for a democratic government in Germany was a plot to revive Nazi-style fascism. Wallace insistently described American foreign policy actions as “offensive” and Soviet actions as “defensive.”
Nichols justifiably credits Wallace for his unvarnished denunciations of British imperialism, but fails to note that Wallace turned a blind eye to Soviet imperialism. When the Soviets sponsored a coup in Czechoslovakia, Wallace blamed Truman for provoking them, and compared Russia’s actions to the American position in France. When the Soviets imposed a blockade on Berlin, Wallace assailed Truman for airlifting in supplies.
Nichols, incredibly, credits Wallace with forcing Truman to “temper the bombastic Truman Doctrine in favor of the more cooperative Marshall Plan” to give billions of dollars in aid to rebuild Europe. He does not inform his readers that Wallace opposed the Marshall Plan. It was a “‘blueprint for war’ concocted by militarists and Wall Street monopolists ‘to suppress the democratic movements in Europe’” that would “convert western Europe into a vast military camp, with freedom extinguished,” he testified.
Nichols has no affection for Soviet expansionism. Rather, he echoes the same view of communism that was articulated by Wallace and many of his enthusiasts. They viewed communists as allies, and viewed almost any attack on them as unfair “red-baiting.” Wallace’s anti-anti-communism consisted more of an intense suspicion of any anti-communist policy than a positive defense of Stalin’s regime. Their method was very similar to the anti-anti-Trumpism that defines many conservatives today.
The debate over communism dominated American politics at the time. There were essentially three positions. The center-left, epitomized by Truman, proposed instead to contain communism, through a combination of aid for non-communist states and military deterrence against further Soviet expansion. The right wanted to roll back communism, going to war if necessary (which it would have been). Conservatives denounced containment as a form of appeasement. Richard Nixon mocked Truman’s foreign policy as “the cowardly college of communist containment.” Wallace’s left, which was far smaller than either of the other two camps, opposed containment as a provocation that would, and was designed to, lead to war.
The domestic analogue to this debate centered on the increasingly paranoid form of anti-communism that Joe McCarthy stoked. McCarthy’s tactic was to equate New Deal liberals with communism, asserting that Roosevelt and Truman had been manipulated by Soviet spies. Wallace, for his part, equated all anti-communism with McCarthyism.
From the right, anybody who opposed rollback and McCarthyism was a communist sympathizer. From the left, anybody who opposed communism was a warmonger and a red-baiter. In both their foreign and domestic aspects, both the right and the far left sought to flatten three-sided debates into a more convenient binary.
Wallace’s political crusade was not merely about left-wing domestic or foreign policy. It was an attempt to revive a political strategy called the “Popular Front,” a strategic alliance that joined liberals with the far left, including avowed communists.
During the 1930s and ’40s, the Communist Party line was set in Moscow and followed by communists across the world. At some points in time, communists refused to cooperate with any other left-of-center party, believing that it was better to allow fascists to destroy them to hasten the revolution. (The pursuit of this course helped Hitler crush the German Social Democrats.) At other times, they urged communists to support other anti-fascist parties by forming a Popular Front. Many American communists and fellow travelers joined Roosevelt’s government, an arrangement that was tenable while the United States was fighting a world war on the Soviet side, but became untenable as the end of the war drew within sight.
The logic of the Popular Front was often summarized in an expression “no enemies to the left,” and its ethos of refusing to draw lines of contrast against the left was foundational. The two Bernie Sanders campaigns have both followed a version of this strategy. Sanders brought into his campaign organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America, and some radical activists, who otherwise view the Democratic Party with indifference or outright hostility. Nichols admires Wallace’s method of absorbing smaller left-wing parties into a broad left-wing movement to capture the party.
What Nichols does not seem to recognize is that this very practice helped lead to Wallace’s demise, and had the same effect on Sanders.
Wallace stirred wild passions among his enthusiasts, who packed stadiums for his speeches and could mobilize impressive armies of volunteers. One demonstration of strength came in February 1948, when a Wallace-backed candidate won a special election for a House seat in the Bronx against the Democrat. The jubilant left interpreted the result as “a wholesale repudiation of the Truman administration,” recounts Devine — much like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking primary upset, which many progressives saw as a harbinger of a nationwide uprising against the party leadership.
But most Democrats recognized that Wallace had merely activated a fervent but tiny faction. “Removed from the hothouse atmosphere of the ‘liberal civil war,’ they were less likely to overestimate the former vice-president’s potential strength or the electoral clout of the Democratic Party’s left wing,” writes Devine, in a passage written several years before Sanders’s first presidential campaign, but which nonetheless captures it perfectly, “even though Wallace claimed to have the backing of the ‘common man,’ his primary base of support had always been limited to a relatively small group of left-leaning intellectuals, middle-class professionals, and CIO labor leaders.”
The Wallace campaign was a debacle. He won just 2.37 percent of the national vote, and 37 percent of his votes came from New York City. Whatever passions he had stirred among the intelligentsia, Wallace gained almost no inroads among regular Democrats, despite having served four years as vice-president and eight more years as a high-profile cabinet official.
Nichols criticizes Wallace’s decision to run as a third-party candidate, arguing instead for a Sanders-style popular-front strategy within the Democratic Party. But he fails to understand that Wallace’s refusal to distance himself from the far left made him toxic to the party base. For instance, 90 percent of the public opposed his plan to let the Soviets take Berlin. Nichols instead attributes his problems mainly to the machinations of segregationists and party bosses, not to any genuine distrust his message might have created with the voters.
He does allow that Wallace’s communist-dominated campaign may have committed some mistakes. “Yes, an argument can be made that taking less advice from the Communist Party tacticians who hung around the progressive party headquarters in New York might have made for more strategically sound choices,” he concedes. But he reels back even that remarkably tepid criticism in the next sentence: “But a parallel argument can be made that many of the ablest grassroots campaigners for Wallace in the campaign’s closing days were Communists, fellow travelers, or independent leftists” who refused to abide any form of anti-communism. (There were very fine people on both sides of the Stalin issue.) This seems more like a description of the problem that comes with handing your campaign over to its most extreme adherents than a persuasive defense of doing so.
Social movements can change the world. But they can also become powerful vehicles for self-delusion. Wallace tapped into a movement that came to believe it represented The People, and lost all ability to see what the actual people outside the movement thought about them. Inevitably they came to see their defeats as the product of a scheme. Nichols detects many parallels between Wallace’s movement and the Bernie movement. But the lessons he draws seem to be mostly the wrong ones.