The Soul of the Democratic Party Has Always Belonged to Capital

Henry Wallace was an ambitious left-winger in Roosevelt’s Democratic Party who, as secretary of agriculture and then as vice president, helped make radical the New Deal of the 1930s. His ultimate defeat by the right of his own party shows the obstacles the insurgent left has always faced within the Democratic Party.

Henry Wallace waving his hat in the air as he arrives at London Airport, circa 1950. (J. Wilds / Keystone / Getty Images)

It used to be said that you could tell a lot about a leftist’s politics by asking them when they thought the Soviet Union went bad. Anarchists and social democrats said 1917, Trotskyists 1928, Maoists 1956, and if you were in the Communist Party (CP), the answer was never.

There’s a similar dynamic at work in left narratives about the Democratic Party. Did it go bad with Bill Clinton and the Third Way in the 1990s? Or with Carter’s embrace of austerity? Or, as some more conspiratorially inclined parts of the left have argued, when JFK was assassinated? Or has the party never been anything more than “history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party”? Where you draw the line says a good deal about your politics.

John Nichols’s new book, The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party, draws the line very early indeed, with the removal of Vice President Henry Wallace from the ticket in 1944. The book is written explicitly as an intervention into current debates over the future of the party, and its argument that for most of the twentieth century, the Democratic Party was degenerating, is reflective of the radicalism of one pole of that debate.

For Nichols, Wallace represents the real soul of the New Deal Democratic Party. A proud progressive, dedicated anti-racist, and passionate anti-fascist, Wallace attempted to continue Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legacy, only to be stymied by more conservative forces inside the party. This narrative occupies the book’s first half, while the second half covers the history of the party in the seven decades following Wallace’s defeat in 1944. The result is a readable introduction to both Henry Wallace, one of the most interesting American politicians, and the Democratic Party’s long history of betraying progressive ideals.

The Soul of the New Deal

Wallace’s emergence as torchbearer for the progressive left took an unusual path. Born to a family of prominent Iowa intellectuals, he established himself as an authority on American agriculture and an innovative farmer in his own right. After Roosevelt’s election in 1932, he appointed Wallace secretary of agriculture. His eight years at the Department of Agriculture go almost entirely undiscussed in Nichols’s book, which is unfortunate, given that in this capacity he presided over one of the most exciting democratic experiments in American history.

As recounted in Jess Gilbert’s invaluable Planning Democracy, Wallace and a cadre of like-minded agrarians put in place a large-scale experiment in democratic planning, linking local farmers with economists to collectively plan the nation’s rural land use policies. Though the program was terminated in 1942 after a campaign against it by large capitalist farmers, it represented the New Deal’s most ambitious attempt to subject the economy to democratic control.

It’s in part thanks to this experiment that when Roosevelt brought Wallace onto the ticket in 1942 (ditching the conservative Texan John Nance Garner), he knew he was recruiting one of the New Deal’s most progressive voices to stand beside him.

Nichols argues that this move by Roosevelt revealed the direction the president hoped to take the country in during the 1940s. Sure that war was coming, he wanted a dedicated anti-fascist like Wallace by his side to wage the ideological battles. Similarly, Roosevelt wanted a committed New Dealer to help him preserve and extend his administration’s achievements in the face of strong opposition from the country’s business interests.

Some of the book’s best passages concern Wallace’s ideological battles in this capacity. At a time when the Democratic Party depended on the votes of racist Dixiecrats, Wallace stood firm for racial equality, declaring after the 1943 Detroit race riot that “those who fan the fires of racial clashes for the purpose of making political capital here at home are taking the first step towards Nazism.”

In response to arch-conservative magazine magnate Henry Luce’s speech calling for American hegemony after the war ended, Wallace pronounced the beginning of the “century of the common man,” arguing that, “There can be no privileged peoples. We ourselves in the United States are no more a master race than the Nazis. And we cannot perpetuate economic warfare without planting the seeds of military warfare.”

Demythologizing the Democratic Party

Though Wallace’s speeches as vice president were boldly forward-looking, and make for inspiring reading even today, Nichols nonetheless seems to overrate their importance in the Roosevelt administration. His chapter on the nomination fight at the 1944 Democratic convention is subtitled “When Democrats Began to Abandon the New Deal.” Yet there is abundant evidence that even while Wallace was vice president, the party was turning away from the New Deal’s more ambitious agendas.

As war loomed and the economy recovered, the New Dealers in the administration steadily lost ground to more conservative forces in the party. Roosevelt prioritized putting the economy on a war footing, and to do so he needed the help of business leaders, many of whom joined the administration as “dollar-a-year men,” in reference to their perfunctory salaries.

In 1942, the Department of Agriculture terminated the expansive democratic planning program Wallace had begun. The following year, the National Resources Planning Board, another ambitious attempt to subordinate the economy to democratic will, was also shut down. The left-wing journalist I. F. Stone wrote in 1943 that “New Deal agencies are quietly beginning to commit hara kiri as progressive instruments of government…[were] bringing in conservatives and getting rid of progressives.” Already in 1940, at the beginning of the turn toward war, Roosevelt was telling his chief aides to “cut out this New Deal stuff. It’s tough to win a war.”

In other words, the 1944 convention was not the beginning of the Democrats’ turn from the New Deal, but the conclusion. The party’s trajectory didn’t rest on a single figure’s shoulders. As Thomas Ferguson has argued, the New Deal was always a particular kind of class compromise between labor and capital.

As soon as recovery was in sight, capital’s confidence returned, and the titans of industry were happy to join the administration of the man who, only a few short years earlier, had declared he “welcomed their hatred.” In return, the administration drew back sharply from its plans that had threatened their interests. While egalitarian rhetoric certainly remained an important part of the Roosevelt administration, officials committed to turning that rhetoric into reality found themselves stymied by the growing presence of business in it.

After Wallace was removed in 1944, he moved even further to the left, joining forces with the Communist Party for a third party run for president in 1948, on the Progressive Party ticket. Nichols, following recent historiography, is decidedly unkind to Wallace’s run. In his account, the run was little more than folly, destined for the failure that has awaited third-party campaigns since the 1890s. Moreover, by accepting a close coalition with the CP in the Progressive Party, Wallace compromised himself in the eyes of the Democratic Party, fatally wounding his ability to counteract the party’s slow betrayal of the New Deal.

To be sure, this picture contains a good deal of truth. The Progressive Party was never going to win, and the Communist Party by that time had compromised itself so thoroughly with its policy zigzags in response to Moscow dictates that it was quickly losing its status as the most important vehicle for American radicalism.

But there is a reason the party won the support of people from a young Coretta Scott King to Albert Einstein to Frank Lloyd Wright. As Nichols recognizes, the Democratic Party had committed itself enthusiastically to the Cold War, and Truman’s “loyalty order” program investigating federal employees had kicked off what would soon develop into the lunacy of McCarthyism. By 1947, the Democratic Party had made it very clear that principled defenders of civil liberties or opponents of a bellicose foreign policy were not welcome within its coalition.

Even more importantly, the Progressive Party campaigned hard against segregation and racism, at a time when the “Solid South” was an integral part of the Democratic Party. Wallace held integrated rallies in the South where he denounced segregation, and his vice presidential candidate was arrested by the infamous Bull Connor for refusing to use the “whites only” entrance to a venue.

Recognizing this extraordinary commitment to equality, the campaign won the support of civil rights luminaries W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and a young Lorraine Hansberry. At the grassroots level, cadres of organizers who would go on to play central roles in the Civil Rights Movement cut their teeth organizing for Wallace. Recognizing that he was drawing significant support from black voters, liberals in the Democratic Party launched an all-out campaign to force Truman to adopt a civil rights plank, the success of which precipitated the Dixiecrat revolt led by Strom Thurmond.

Wallace’s run was hardly in vain. It forced the Democratic Party to adopt a more committed position on civil rights than it otherwise would have. And Nichols, like many latter-day critics of Wallace, gives little thought to what would have happened if Wallace had attempted to oppose the Cold War from within the confines of the party. The Progressive Party was undoubtedly an electoral failure, but historians judging it as such must also be willing to ask what other institutions could plausibly have served as vehicles for its supporters’ goals.

If Nichols is critical of Wallace’s decision to run in 1948, he is scathing on the trajectory of the Democratic Party over the next quarter century. While the Dixiecrats were welcomed back into the Democratic fold, Progressive Party supporters were hounded by red-baiters and driven out of the party.

As a result, the Democratic Party of the 1950s was directionless, triangulating between liberals like Hubert Humphrey, centrists like Truman, and the reactionaries of the South. Even the highpoint of postwar liberalism, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, was hobbled by the party’s embrace of anti-communist adventurism in Vietnam. Jimmy Carter’s embrace of austerity in the 1970s wasn’t a sudden U-turn, but the final consolidation of tendencies that had been developing for three decades.

Nichols’s account of this history is readable and insightful. As the Democratic Party of today moves against its insurgent left wing, his narrative will be a valuable resource for radicals attempting to resist it. At the same time, it is telling that even as fierce a critic as Nichols of the party’s accommodation of reactionary forces in American life nevertheless understates the obstacles that have stood in the way of those attempting to advance progressive aims within it. The soul of the Democratic Party has always belonged to capital, any fight to transform the party must recognize as much if it hopes to succeed.