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Alternate Histories

In 1944, another Democratic Party was possible

There truly are critical junctures, pivot points, when everything is decided,” writes journalist John Nichols in his new book, The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party. “Often, they involve bombs or assassinations. Sometimes, however, the fall of a gavel is all it takes.”

The gavel in question fell at 10:55 p.m., on the night of July 20, 1944, forcing the adjournment of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and ensuring that Henry A. Wallace, the popular and stridently antifascist vice president, would not be re-nominated—and thus never become president. In his new book, Nichols tells the all-too-relevant story of that stolen nomination, what led up to it, and what followed over the next seventy-five years, straight up to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns. In the process, Nichols makes the case that the largely forgotten Henry Wallace—a stalwart New Dealer and committed antiracist—could have changed the course of the Democratic Party, kept the New Deal going, and led the fight for Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms into the postwar decade.

It’s a history with particular resonance right now. Here we are in the midst of a devastating pandemic, a national crisis of global scale, facing an economic collapse on the order of the Great Depression—and heading toward an election with unprecedented stakes for democracy, human health, and the fate of the biosphere. What’s more, it’s hard to think of a VP choice more consequential than the one Joe Biden must make before the Democratic convention this summer, not only because of Biden’s age (no small consideration) and the necessity of defeating Trump but also because of the generational struggle for the direction of the party. The Democrats confront fundamental choices on issues of overwhelming magnitude—mass unemployment, climate catastrophe, health care, economic inequality, racial justice, immigration rights, reproductive rights, and more—while a Republican Party and its unhinged president make overtly racist and fascistic appeals to an increasingly restless, armed, and reality-denying base.

Henry Wallace’s story, and the party history Nichols traces, would be well worth writing regardless of any parallels to our moment—but the current crisis adds an unexpected urgency.

Nichols, longtime national affairs correspondent for The Nation, is the author or co-author of a dozen books and associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. We talked by phone on May 8. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Wen Stephenson: So let’s talk about Henry Wallace. As you describe in the book, when he was vice president in the early 1940s, he was extremely outspoken about what he called “American fascism.” And leading up to the pivotal 1944 Democratic convention, where he was rejected by the party establishment, he was among the most strident racial justice advocates in the country.

John Nichols: That’s right. In the middle of 1943—and this is an under-reported, under-discussed part of American history—there were a series of race riots, and they were really brutal. A. Phillip Randolph, the great civil rights leader, had prevailed upon Roosevelt to integrate war industries, so you were starting to see the first stages of integration. And there was resistance to that, and sometimes it was violent, sometimes police were involved. One of the worst of those circumstances was in Detroit, where they had a brutal race riot in mid-1943. And there were a lot of folks at the time who said, we don’t want to discuss these problems because that’ll just make America look bad in a time of war.

WS: And it’ll divide the Democratic Party.

JN: Right, the Democratic Party still had a huge segregationist wing. But Wallace’s response was to go right at it. He got on a plane, he went to Detroit, and he addressed a multiracial, multiethnic audience of trade unionists, mostly United Auto Workers folks. And he said very bluntly, we’re in the midst of a horrible war, yet it’s a noble effort because we are fighting against fascism, against those who would divide people along lines of race and class and religion for political purposes. And he says, I need to remind you, that’s not just a European problem. There are those here who divide people along lines of race and class and ethnicity and religion. And he says, if you are practicing racism here, you are practicing something akin to, and this a term he used, “Americanized fascism.”  And when he said that, it got huge attention. The whole speech he gave in Detroit was reprinted in the New York Times, reported as major news around the country. And he was rebuked for it.

WS: The Times editorial board blasted him.

JN: Yeah, “You’re dividing the war effort,” etc. They were very upset with him. But Wallace didn’t back off. And Roosevelt was actually quite delighted that Wallace was doing this. Roosevelt himself would not go as far as Wallace, but he recognized what was happening here. Wallace was beginning to talk about “winning the peace”—that in the postwar era, if we harness the energy of the battle against authoritarianism and evils around the world, we can come home and address our divisions and our challenges here. Wallace recognized that, and so did the people who didn’t like Wallace.

Fast forward to the Democratic convention. Now, before the convention Wallace had traveled across the country and given speeches—and went out of his way to address African-American, Latino, Jewish-American, Asian-American audiences—and he got an amazing response. Polls showed that his popularity was going up. And of course the Democratic leaders who didn’t want him were panicking. They went to Roosevelt and said, “We’ve gotta have somebody other than Wallace.”

WS: In the book you tell the story of the 1944 convention in lush detail, and it’s a great story. In short, Wallace gives this powerful, uncompromising speech—and the place goes wild. And then, when Roosevelt is re-nominated, there’s this huge groundswell of support for Wallace from the floor of the convention, and everyone realizes that if there were a vote for the vice presidential nomination at that moment, Wallace would win. So some of his supporters try to get to the podium and motion for a vote, and the party bosses shut the thing down.

JN: There was pandemonium at this point. One of the key big-city bosses yelled to the person who’s chairing the convention, “Shut it down!” And the chair says, “I don’t think I can! It’s out of control!” So it’s this chaotic situation, and the bosses are shouting “Shut it down!”—and one of them yells, “Motion to adjourn!” So the chair says, “There’s a motion to adjourn.” And the crowd overwhelmingly says, “No!” But the chair says, “I hear substantial support for it,” and gavels the convention adjourned.

That was the moment at which the Democratic Party chose compromise, and a pulled punch, rather than an aggressive, forward-looking progressive approach.

At that key moment, 10:55 p.m. on July 20, the groundswell was stopped. In the next twenty-four hours, the bosses, the Southern segregationists, the bankers, all the powerful players, pulled out every stop, basically pulled every trick you could. They even changed the ticketing for the convention so that the people who got in the day before couldn’t enter on the last day of the convention. They changed the whole dynamic of the thing. And when the vote came, initially Wallace led, and it looked like there was a possibility he could still make it, despite all the tricks, but as the afternoon wore on, he was defeated.

And that, to my mind, was the moment at which the Democratic Party chose compromise, and a pulled punch, rather than an aggressive, forward-looking progressive approach.

WS: So the question is, how might history have been different if Wallace and his allies had won? Could he have been a successful president? And could he have won in his own right in 1948?  Ira Katznelson’s history of the New Deal era, Fear Itself, makes a pretty persuasive argument that without the support of the Southern Democrats, the segregationist bloc, there wouldn’t have been a New Deal, and that FDR had to make this kind of Faustian bargain to hold the coalition together. Would Wallace have had to make the same kind of deal with the devil that FDR made?

JN: Great question. Roosevelt did build an incredible coalition. The New Deal coalition extended from bankers to socialists, from civil rights campaigners to racists, and it was very big. It was big enough to deliver landslide victories again and again, and big enough to hold those victories through midterm elections. But one of the things we have to recognize is that the coalition was so big it was never going to hold together once Roosevelt was gone. So the question was, what would be the next winning coalition? How do you assemble it, how do you make it work?

The people who imagine you had to keep the Southern segregationists lose sight of two facts: Number one, there was a great battle for the South going on, there were Southerners who were trying to move toward the future—and some of them were elected governors. At the same moment, the CIO was in the process of launching what became Operation Dixie, an effort to organize across the South in a multiracial model. So that’s one part of it. It was possible to fight for the South.

Number two, the Republican Party was in an internal struggle between conservative Republicans and liberal Republicans. There were Republicans from New York who worked with the American Labor Party, which was a pretty far left party. There were Republicans from the Midwest who worked very closely with labor unions and with progressive organizations. So was it possible to create a new coalition coming out of World War II? There’s great evidence that Roosevelt believed it was possible, and Wallace certainly believed it was possible.

And in the last days of Roosevelt’s life, he brought Wallace into his inner circle, to a much greater extent than Harry Truman, and Roosevelt and Wallace were talking about a massive jobs program coming out of World War II. Wallace, as secretary of commerce—he’d stayed in the administration—was writing about creating millions of jobs. You’re about to bring home all these soldiers who’d gone overseas. You had defense industries that were going to retool, and working in those industries were a tremendous number of women and people of color who had been brought in after centuries of discrimination. So the question was, in that postwar era, could you create a circumstance where there were enough jobs, and housing, enough economic energy, that everyone could benefit?

The answer is, Wallace had a plan. He was the Elizabeth Warren of his day. He had a plan for that. And it was a really good plan. My argument is that Democrats could have won the 1946 election, kept the House and Senate, and in so doing not been disempowered in the way that Truman was. That might have averted the Taft-Hartley Act, thus keeping labor strong, and may have averted some of the other compromises of that period. So I think there is a very real argument that Wallace could have led a successful Democratic Party and won in 1948.

WS: I want to connect this history to the present. What you’ve written is primarily an inside party history, from the 1940s up to today. It’s not a history of the era’s social movements. But there are several moments where “outside” pressure from social movements, whether labor or civil rights, was decisive. And that seems really important for understanding the current “fight for the soul of the Democratic Party.” Do you think there’s enough attention paid to the role of non-party, non-electoral social movements, not just historically but right now?

JN: I think the important thing to understand is that social movements have existed parallel to, in opposition to, and in some cases very separate from political parties. So your question is about wrestling with how social movements interact with political parties, how they make them better.

WS: Exactly.

JN: I’ve always been in the A. Phillip Randolph camp, which is to say that it is vital for social movements to put pressure on the party that is furthest from them, but also the party that is closest to them. And significantly, in 1960, Randolph and the civil rights campaigners, in that moment, organized marches on both the Democratic and the Republican conventions, because they wanted to pressure them both, and were right to do so. And in the 1930s and 1940s, part of what made the New Deal coalition work was that the social movements of that time, and the labor movement especially, really did do an inside-outside strategy. And it was incredibly successful. We lose sight of that.

WS: Do you think Bernie Sanders’ campaigns created an inside or an outside movement? Do they represent a social movement or a kind of inside-party insurgency? I think there’s a real tension over that question among progressives right now.

JN: Sure, totally. As Joe Strummer of the Clash brilliantly said, the future is unwritten. So we don’t know the exact answer to that question because so many of these things are in play right now. What we do know is this: as a candidate, Bernie Sanders was willing to be influenced by social movements, and he became a dramatically better candidate because movements made demands of him.

WS: Racial-justice activists rushed the stage and grabbed the microphone from him, literally, in the 2016 campaign.

JN: Exactly, and social movements did all sorts of other things. They challenged, they invited, they informed, they communicated. There was a sense with Bernie Sanders that this was somebody who listened and would potentially respond, and there’s evidence that he did. If you look at how his campaign evolved, from his announcement in spring of 2015 until the depths of 2020—a campaign, I would suggest, that is still not fully completed, there’s what his delegates will do at the convention, for example. But if you look at how he responded, the campaign became a much more expansive vision of economic and social and racial justice, saving the planet, and most notably, I would argue, evolving toward a very progressive vision as regards foreign policy.

The tragedy is when you have a political party that is inclined toward compromise, that is inclined toward a centrist route, trying to win narrowly rather than scoping out a big, bold vision.

Now, all of that may have been Sanders, to some extent, but social movements forced him to bring it forward, to center it, to highlight it. Whether his campaign was an insurgency or an expression of social movements, I think that’s different in different places, with certain elements of the campaign. But—but—it brought ideas that were primarily generated in social movements to the center of our politics. So we are now talking about single-payer Medicare For All health care, we are talking about genuine criminal justice reform and decarceration, we are talking about environmental issues in fundamentally different and bigger ways.

What you want in politics are political figures and political parties that are open enough to respond to and be made better by social movements that are uncompromising. The tragedy is when you have a political party that is inclined toward compromise, that is inclined toward a centrist route, trying to win narrowly rather than scoping out a big, bold vision—that party will seek to perpetuate its power, but not use its power.

That’s far different from saying we want to achieve power for a purpose. And we are willing to take risks with that power in order to achieve fundamental changes, because we believe that in achieving those changes, we will change not only the political dynamic of the United States, pull it toward a more progressive place, but ultimately improve our own fortunes, because people will have a stake in re-electing us, a great mass of people. Right now campaign donors have a stake in keeping their allies in power.

WS: I want to talk about the Green New Deal and climate justice, which is what I’ve been working on for the past ten years. And forgive me for editorializing here, but in just the past two years there’s been, I would argue, a belated realization on the part of American progressives that framing the climate crisis in terms climate justice—not merely as a traditional environmental issue that “environmentalists” will deal with, but as a justice issue, a human rights issue—that this can be a winning strategy. And that a New Deal-scale climate agenda for economic, racial, and social justice at home and abroad is the best defense against fascism and planetary destruction. But it’s required a new generation of “radicals”—operating outside the Democratic Party—to force Democrats to reckon with climate reality and justice. And, tragically, the belatedness of the Green New Deal—though the climate justice movement has been advocating for a “just transition” for years and years—has only made the threat of American fascism more real and immediate, because climate disruption is already giving rise to neo-fascist tendencies. Just look at U.S. immigration policy right now. We could spend days analyzing why it’s taken progressives such a long time to come to terms with climate, but what does it tell us about the trajectory of the Democratic Party right now and the fight for its soul?

JN: At the heart of everything is the concept of solidarity. And the notion that if you are going to build movements and if these movements are going to succeed, they have to understand a fundamental duty: First, to address the core issues, not the symptoms but the disease. And that certainly takes us to the climate crisis, and to economic injustice and racial injustice. And also to understand, if you’re going to build a coalition big enough to do that, you’ve got to respect everybody who is suffering and everybody who has a legitimate demand. You can’t say, “Well, we’re only going to address one thing right now, and when we get done with our thing, then we’ll move to something else.” No, we have fundamental systemic challenges that are so big that we can’t address them to the exclusion of other issues. We can’t say, “We’re going to deal with the environmental concern but we’re not going to deal with racism,” or “We’re going to deal with this economic concern but not the environment.”

WS: Right. It’s simply not viable to say we’re going to transform the economy to address climate change, but we’re not going to talk about jobs and health care.

JN: That’s it. And so this gets back to Wallace’s essay on the danger of American fascism because, as he writes there, authoritarianism in America will seek to perpetuate its economic and political power by dividing people along lines of race and religion and class. And the way to counter that is with a solidarity politics. Wallace preached this. He said you can’t separate these things out. What you have to do is pull together all these folks who have legitimate concerns, and say, in a big, bold way, we have a vision to address them. You have to recognize that these are all interlinked. And if we do, we can win the big fights. But if we don’t, they will find ways to divide us, to pit us against one another.

WS: And that’s what the fight for a Green New Deal is about. It rejects the silo-ing of the progressive movement into all these separate issues.

JN: That’s right, that’s right.

WS: One more thing I want to mention. In the book, I find this really interesting, you make clear that Wallace was a very religious and spiritual guy. And there’s this great line in the last part of his “American fascism” essay where he argues for the “moral . . . and spiritual significance of democracy.” He often reminds me of the spiritual leaders of the civil rights and antiwar movements, speaking in these explicitly moral and spiritual terms. And it’s interesting that today’s progressives, and social movements, are bringing back—because I think it’s been missing for a long time—that kind of explicitly moral language. Maybe not spiritual, maybe not religious, but a moral language. Bernie and Warren and AOC, and so many others, they’re couching the argument in moral terms.

JN: Oh, very much so. Wallace was deeply religious. And as I write about in the book, if you look at George McGovern in 1972, who got the nomination but then was abandoned by much of the leadership of the party and its allies, he spoke a moral language and put his campaign in a moral context. Then if you go forward to Jesse Jackson, when you look at Jackson’s speech to the 1988 national convention—that speech was one of the great moral statements ever uttered on the stage of a political convention. And it was deeply, deeply spiritual, moral. And also secular; it had all these elements.

Now it’s understood that we don’t have much time to save the planet, to address racism, to address economic inequality.

I would argue that the great struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party does indeed go to that word “soul,” and does indeed come down to a struggle between those who believe that the Democratic Party must be a moral force in our politics—challenging economic and social and racial injustice, seeking to save the planet, and seeking to change our foreign policies away from militarism and toward seeking peace—and those who would compromise on that. And it’s not that those who would compromise are evil, but rather, they do so often for reasons of fear, for what they think of as practicality, what they think of as necessity.

But the reality is, we now understand that necessity is intersecting with that moral message. I would argue that it always intersected with that moral message. But now it’s understood that we don’t have much time to save the planet, to address racism, to address economic inequality. This has all been highlighted and amplified by the coronavirus pandemic, but these issues were there before. Now we live in an urgent moment. And Henry Wallace, at his best, practiced an urgent politics. Democrats chose in his day not to do so. I would argue today Democrats must be urgent again. The sense of urgency is amplified now, and we can either be overwhelmed by it or we can embrace it. I wrote this book, in large part, to encourage people to embrace it.