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The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace’s Antifascist, Antiracist Politics
By John Nichols
In 1943, in the midst of World War II, then-Vice President Henry Wallace gave a speech on racism in Detroit that would ultimately lead to the Democratic Party kicking him off the ticket the following year.
“We cannot fight Nazism abroad and condone race riots,” Wallace warned a mass meeting of community and labor groups, following a series of riots and protests that police said killed 17 African Americans. “Those who fan the fires of racial clashes for the purpose of making political capital here at home are taking the first step toward Nazism.” He highlighted those trying to undermine President Franklin Roosevelt’s domestic progress. “Some people call these powerful groups ‘isolationists,’ others call them ‘reactionaries,’ and still others call them ‘American Fascists.’”
The Nation’s correspondent John Nichols’s bold new book The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace’s Antifascist, Antiracist Politics argues that the Trump era has made it obvious that the Democratic Party has not learned the lessons of how a new “American fascism” could rise in the U.S.
“I wrote this book because I believed that we had to explain how the Democratic Party lost in 2016 to Donald Trump and we had to stop making excuses, we had to stop looking for someone to blame and recognize that some of the blame game comes with a Democratic Party that chose compromise over the big fight over race,” said Nichols in an interview with the Prospect.
“The fact is that we knew what to do in 1944 and we understand it, progressives understood it and yet the Democratic Party said no,” says Nichols of the decision to dump Wallace as vice president, so he could not succeed an ailing FDR, who died in office less than a year later.
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Building on the success of the New Deal, FDR added Wallace, initially his agriculture secretary, as vice president in 1940, dumping segregationist Democrat John Nance Garner. Roosevelt felt that Wallace could succeed him and ultimately continue on the work of the New Deal. More importantly, FDR needed Wallace’s energy and vision to help make the case to the American public to back the war effort.
As vice president, Wallace spent the war years touring the U.S. with a vigor that the wheelchair-bound FDR couldn’t, arguing that in order to truly win the war against fascism abroad, the United States must take on racism, sexism, and economic inequality at home, or risk the rise of a new “American fascism.”
“The survival and strength of American democracy are proof that it has succeeded thus far, but we all know that it contains the seeds of failure,” said Wallace in a pre-election speech in 1940. “I for one will not be confident of the continued survival of American democracy if millions of unskilled workers and their families are condemned to be reliefers all their lives, with no place in our industrial system,” he told the crowd.
Wallace later gave a popular May 1942 speech while rallying Americans to fight during the dark early days of America’s involvement in World War II. “Some have spoken of the ‘American Century,’” he thundered, warning against U.S. imperialists who hoped to use the war to increase America’s military presence. “I say that the century on which we are entering—the century which will come into being after this war—can be and must be the century of the common man … No nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations.”
The speech was a massive hit, reprinted in scores of newspapers, and translated into 20 languages for distribution by the U.S. armed forces to allies overseas. The speech was even made into a 14-minute film entitled The Price of Victory, which played in thousands of movie theaters and military training camps to prepare troops for what they were fighting for overseas.
The movie was so popular that it was nominated for an Academy Award in 1943. Composer Aaron Copland was so inspired by the speech that he wrote his stirring “Fanfare for the Common Man” to pay tribute to Wallace’s vision.
“It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army; he deserved a fanfare,” said Copland.
In the early days of American involvement in World War II, Wallace was one of the country’s most popular political figures. Political polls showed that the overwhelming majority of rank-and-file Democrats favored him for re-election to the vice presidency in 1944.
However, in 1944, there were very few open primaries. Instead, delegates to the Democratic National Convention choose nominees for president and vice president in an opaque process.
With FDR in very poor health, many Democratic establishment figures feared that he would die in office, likely elevating Wallace to the presidency.
A coalition of segregationist Southern Democrats, financial elites fearful of Wallace’s populism, and foreign-policy hawks itching for a confrontation with the Soviet Union worked behind the scenes to push Wallace off the ticket.
The book argues that the Trump era has made it obvious that the Democratic Party has not learned the lessons of how a new “American fascism” could rise in the U.S.
Ultimately, they were successful. Wallace lost the vice-presidential nomination at the 1944 Democratic National Convention to Harry S Truman.
Truman would drop Wallace’s rhetoric over race, significantly scale back FDR’s dream of expanding the New Deal, and pursue a confrontational strategy with the Soviet Union.
Two years later, in 1946, with a lack of a clear vision on racial and economic equality and constant attempts to triangulate against Republican messaging, Truman would lose the House of Representatives to the Republican Party.
UAW President Walter Reuther would later say that Truman’s defeat in 1946 resulted from frustration with “indecision, bungling, and appeasement” of segregationist and conservative Democrats, and “the great capacity of the Truman Administration to conform to those policies.”
Instead of reshaping the party, Truman would lean even more into the Cold War rhetoric of the era, leading a purge of thousands of left-leaning government officials from the federal government. This began the Red Scare that purged thousands of progressive activists on race and economic equality and the leadership of organized labor.
Now, 75 years later, Nichols hopes that activists pushing to change the Democratic Party would read his book to understand the roots of its failure.
“We too frequently see those struggles as part of the moment, as individual struggles, but not as part of a long arc of struggle. And once we begin to recognize that and stop making the same mistakes and start to make demands, and that’s what we have to do right now,” says Nichols.
Nichols says that in this crucial moment, it’s more important than ever for activists to heed Henry Wallace’s urgent warning about the rise of a new American fascism.
However, Nichols warns that, much like in 1944, the Democratic establishment is still very entrenched and fighting heavily against allowing progressive voices to take over.
“What progressives don’t always understand is that they got folks within the Democratic Party that are permanent enemies, and they are never going to stop fighting those that would have the Democratic Party compromise, that would have the Democratic Party be a center-right party, that would have it competing for power but not really an ability to fundamentally change things,” says Nichols.
“The progressive movement has to have a sense of the struggle that it is in and that it is a permanent struggle and that we have to be organized around generational struggles,” he added.
Nichols warns that, much like in 1944, the Democratic establishment is still very entrenched and fighting heavily against allowing progressive voices to take over.
Nichols says that Biden could be a president much like LBJ, and that the movements for economic and racial justice may be able to push him to do the right thing.
“The left has to be at the ready making a lot of noise, making pressure, creating pressure from the outside, because Biden isn’t going to be able to do it on his own, he needs the left to press him,” says Nichols.
However, without a clear long-term vision on race and economic justice, Nichols fears that we could be seeing the rise of the new era of American fascism that Henry Wallace envisioned.
“Either Biden is gonna do a great job or he is gonna screw up, and if he screws it up the Republicans are gonna march back instantaneously,” warns Nichols. “And it will be scary because they won’t come back as Trump, they will come back as a younger, smarter, more appealing version than Trump, and that’s a scary thing to think about.”