Dumping Wallace, Blocking Bernie: How the Democrats Broke With the Working Class – Kuznick RAI
Peter Kuznick, co-author of The Untold History of the United States, spoke to Paul Jay about the significance of the vice presidency of Henry Wallace, who served in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the context of the Bernie Sanders campaign.
“[The historian] Arthur Schlesinger talked about him being the greatest secretary of agriculture in American history,” said Peter Kuznick. “He turned the agricultural economy around. In 1932, the farm income was one-third of what it had been before the Depression started, and Wallace reversed it and put it back on its feet. But during the ’30s, he was America’s leading progressive.”
Wallace “actually was, in terms of his politics, more progressive than Bernie Sanders,” said Paul Jay. “In fact, he makes Bernie Sanders look like a centrist moderate.”
The party bosses sought to remove Wallace from the ticket for Roosevelt’s third presidential run.
“The segregationists in the South hated him,” said Kuznick. “He was the leading spokesman for black civil rights. The misogynists hated him. He was the leading spokesperson for women’s inequality. The British and the French hated him. They implored Roosevelt to get him off the ticket as vice president because he was writing pamphlets and speaking openly about the need to end British and French colonialism. He said that America’s fascists are those people who think that Wall Street comes first and the American people second.”
After FDR wrote a letter saying he would reject the nomination if Wallace was removed, the beloved progressive politician was put back on the ticket.
Wallace was one of the most popular public figures in America during the 1930s. When traveling in Chile and Costa Rica, he attracted crowds numbering in the tens of thousands.
“Many people don’t understand where the progressive aspects of the New Deal came from,” say Kuznick. “If you look at the ’34, election, ’36 election, the American public was very, very, very progressive during that time. And the thing that sparked the progressive elements in the New Deal was the upsurge of labor, the rise of the CIO, the battle for the working class in the 1930s and the soul of America. In fact, if you look even at the Communist Party, the Communist Party was planning to be part of that tradition of the popular front.”
“Once you have the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the House Un-American Activities Committee and essentially purge the unions of most of the really progressive leadership, what you’re left with is a union leadership that merges with the elites and in fact become elites themselves,” said Jay. “And so the Democratic Party, instead of this place where you have this united front of different classes contending, you have the whole preponderance of leadership now representing the elites.”
“We’ve had certain moments when the party has reverted to its working-class roots, when it has been a progressive party,” said Kuznick. “And I think that’s what the Sanders campaign is trying to do, and it’s certainly what Wallace was fighting for from 1941-45 when he was vice president of the United States.”
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to Reality Asserts Itself. I’m Paul Jay on The Real News Network.
The Democratic Party is usually portrayed as a place where a lot of ideas contend, policies contend, personalities contend. It’s not usually talked about as a place where interests contend. But that’s in fact what’s going on and has always gone on within both parties. They’re essentially alliances of different classes and segments of the society. But on both parties–and this certainly includes the Democratic Party–the elites wind up ruling. In current times, the elite in the Democratic Party depends on New York hedge fund money, major Silicon Valley money, and other sections of the billionaires, and of course the Republicans have their own sections of billionaires.
Well, every so often in the Democratic Party there’s a sort of shred or tear in the fabric of that control. In fact, we’ve seen a little bit of that same tear in the Republican Party. But clearly that tear’s led by another section of billionaire, one billionaire in particular, and he’s gathering some allies. Trump, for example, now is allied with Sheldon Adelson, and he will find some other billionaires to join him in his leadership of the Republican Party. The Democratic Party’s much the same. It’s a class alliance, an elite that finds allies in the leadership of major trade unions. It finds allies and voters in urban working class areas. And within that alliance, there’s arguments and fights, but the elites almost always win. And they have rigged the system, as Bernie Sanders says. They make sure they find ways to make sure the Democratic Party nominates a presidential candidate that’s acceptable to those elites.
Once in a while in the Democratic Party it doesn’t quite work, or sometimes one section of the elite is actually so influenced by popular movements that you get a moment where someone actually represents ordinary working people and even rises to a very top position. And that’s what happened from 1941 to 1945. Vice President Henry Wallace, the vice president of Roosevelt, actually was, in terms of his politics, more progressive than Bernie Sanders. In fact, he makes Bernie Sanders look like a centrist moderate. Well, at the Democratic Party convention in 1944 there was what amounts to a coup. Wallace should have been the next vice president for the next Roosevelt campaign, and he was removed at the convention in 1944 and replaced by Truman. That’s a moment that set a pattern for who was going to really control the Democratic Party for decades to come. A few other tears along the way–for example, McGovern and Eugene McCarthy–came close.
Well, now joining us to talk about the Wallace moment and the Sanders moment and what they might have in common is Peter Kuznick. Peter joins us from Washington, D.C., where he is the professor of history and the director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. He cowrote with Oliver Stone The Untold History of United States.
Thanks for joining us, Peter.
PETER KUZNICK, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Glad to be here, Paul.
JAY: So, obviously they’re very different moments, Wallace in ’44 and Sanders now. I mean, talk a little bit about, perhaps, what is different about these moments, but also what’s similar.
KUZNICK: Paul, before we get to that, I’d like to go back and put it in a little bit more context in order to help people understand Wallace, because he was America’s secretary of agriculture during the New Deal. Arthur Schlesinger talked about him being the greatest secretary of agriculture in American history. He turned the agricultural economy around. In 1932, the farm income was one-third of what it had been before the Depression started, and Wallace reversed it and put it back on its feet. But during the ’30s, he was America’s leading progressive also.
And so when Roosevelt was running for a third term in 1940, he said he knew we were about to go fight a war against fascism and militarism, and he wanted a real progressive on the ticket. However, the party bosses resisted. Roosevelt wanted Wallace as vice president in 1940, and party bosses refused to put him on the ticket. And Roosevelt wrote an extraordinary letter to the Democratic Party convention, and I’d like to read just a bit of it. He says the Democratic Party must “champion (…) progressive and liberal policies and principles. (…) The party has failed (…) when (…) it has fallen into the control of those (…) [who] think in terms of dollars instead of (…) human values. (…) Until the Democratic Party (…) shakes all the shackles of control fastened upon it by the forces of conservatism, reaction, and appeasement, it will not continue its march of victory. (…) [The Democratic Party] cannot face in both directions at the same time.” Therefore I decline “the honor of the nomination for the presidency”.
Roosevelt wrote that letter and was about to send it to the convention, turning down the nomination if the Democrats were not going to be a liberal, progressive party. Eleanor Roosevelt went to the Florida convention–the first time a first lady ever did so–convinced the Democrats that Roosevelt was serious and was not going to run, and they gave him Wallace in 1940.
But the principle as stated there is so important, that the Democratic Party must have a soul, that it must be a liberal, progressive party. Its whole raison d’etre is to be the opposite of the Republican Party, a Wall Street-dominated party.
But, as you say, the party has lost its way. And a lot of that change, it happened during the 1941-45 period, and then the Cold War period when Truman puts his stamp of the Democratic Party. We’ve had certain moments when the party has reverted to its working-class roots, when it has been a progressive party, but for much of that time its soul has been torn between the party of Wall Street and the party of the working class, which is why it’s sponsored and fostered so many wars. It’s partly why Obama’s got troops in so many countries now that the Democratic Party has not found its real identity. And I think that’s what the Sanders campaign is trying to do, and it’s certainly what Wallace was fighting for from 1941-45 when he was vice president of the United States.
JAY: One of the things that’s different at the time: in ’44, the majority of the trade unions were onside with Wallace and fought for Wallace to continue as vice president in ’44 in spite of this coup of the party bosses against Wallace. And in ’44, Roosevelt winds up going along with the dumping of Wallace.
KUZNICK: To back up again, many people don’t understand where the progressive aspects of the New Deal came from. American politics shifted, between ’33 and ’37 or so, sharply to the left, to the point where The New York Times was writing, after the ’36 election, that the right wing of the Republican Party had been completely wiped out. If you look at the ’34 election, ’36 election, the American public was very, very, very progressive during that time. And the thing that sparked the progressive elements in the New Deal was the upsurge of labor, the rise of the CIO, the battle for the working class in the 1930s and the soul of America. In fact, if you look even at the Communist Party, the Communist Party was planning to be part of that tradition of the popular front. The communists were tracing their roots to Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson. So, I mean, the American public had shifted sharply to the left during that time, and labor was the element that was driving that the most, when you had the insurgency among African Americans, you had the shift to the left among scientists, intellectuals. America was a very different place between 1934 and 1944 than it’s going to become by 1947.
JAY: And instead of contending in this united front, if you will, between the liberal elite and the working class and the unions and the unions contending for leadership in the Democratic Party, once you have the Cold War and you have McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee and they essentially purge the unions of most of the really progressive leadership, what you’re left with is a union leadership that merges with the elites and in fact become elites themselves. And so the Democratic Party, instead of this place where you have this united front of different classes contending, you have the whole preponderance of leadership is now representing the elites.
KUZNICK: Yes. That’s the course it takes. Rich Trumka and other leaders have fought for a more progressive vision for the labor movement in recent years. But we even see with this latest negotiation over the members of the platform committee that the Democratic elites say, we don’t want any more labor members on there. So there’s still somewhat of a hostility [crosstalk]
JAY: Yeah, just a quick note for people. One of the people Bernie Sanders wanted to nominate to the platform committee was RoseAnn DeMoro from the nurses union, and all of a sudden there’s a rule that there’s going to be no more labor people on the platform committees, and force the Sanders group not to nominate her, which–I don’t know where that rule got made up, but it’s an interesting reflection of what’s happened to the role of unions in that party.
But we’ve seen in this primary fight, with the exception of a few unions like the nurses, communication workers, the postal workers, certainly locals across the country, but the majority of the big unions have all supported Hillary Clinton, and clearly Clinton represents the hedge fund Democratic Party establishment.
KUZNICK: Yeah, she’s trying to run away from her history as the candidate of Wall Street. No, but there’s a lot of talk about all the money she made for her speeches to Goldman Sachs. But she actually got more money in one hour for speaking to Goldman Sachs than about 2 billion people earn in their entire lifetimes. I mean, we live in a world now in which the richest 62 people have more wealth than the poorest 3.6 billion. This is an obscenity. And Clinton has cut her deals.
But this goes way back. Right? We know that she was working on the board of Walmart back in her Arkansas days, and she’s got a strongly conservative conventional streak in her, and it comes to foreign policy also.
Wallace, of course–Sanders is very different, to his credit. Wallace was even more different. At the Democratic convention in 1944, Wallace had the support of the entire labor movement. He had the support of every African-American delegate to that convention. He had the support of women. He had the support of all the progressive elements in 1944 at that Democratic convention. But he also had a lot of enemies.
And, again, I guess we’d better put this in a little bit of context, ’cause Roosevelt chose him because he was so progressive, and he lived up to that reputation. When Henry Luce said that the 20th century must be the “American century”, that the United States should dominate the world, Wallace countered as vice president with a speech in which he said some called for the “American century”. He said, but I believe that the century that must “come out of this war” can and will be “the century of the common man.” And he says in that famous speech that we have to end economic exploitation, we have to end economic and military imperialism, we have to end cartels, which create greed for the wealthy. He says what we have to do is spread the fruits of science and technology around the earth, and we have to do it in alliance with the Soviet Union in the tradition of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Bolivarian revolutions, the Russian Revolution, the 1848 revolution in Germany. He said this is his vision. And that’s what Wallace represented.
And he had as a result a lot of enemies. The segregation in the South hated him. He was the leading spokesman for black civil rights. The misogynists hated him. He was the leading spokesperson for women’s inequality. The British and the French hated him. They implored Roosevelt to get him off the ticket as vice president because he was writing pamphlets and speaking openly about the need to end British and French colonialism. And the Wall Street people–he said that America’s fascists are those people who think that Wall Street comes first and the American people second. Now we call them Democrats or Republicans, but Wallace labeled them America’s fascists. And so, clearly he had a lot of enemies, and those enemies came to play in that 1944 convention.
JAY: Now, if I understand it correctly, Wallace had the vast majority of the delegates on his side–and we tell the whole story about their–essentially was a coup against him. And if you want to know the details of that, watch the video down below here on our player on our website.
But how was Wallace received by the American people? And the argument has always been that Americans are kind of a right-of-center people. How did they respond to this kind of politics?
KUZNICK: Yeah, but not in this period. There was a Gallup poll. In 1943, March of ’43, Wallace went to Latin America. Roosevelt asked him to go there. It was an extraordinary trip. He first goes to Costa Rica. At his first formal presentation, 15 percent of the population of Costa Rica turns out for him. He then goes to Chile. And in Chile, he and the president walked down the streets of Santiago arm in arm and a million people greet him. He spoke at a stadium in Santiago that could fit 80,000. A hundred thousand people squeeze in.
JAY: But how did he do amongst the American populace?
KUZNICK: The American population? He was the second most popular man in the United States, behind Franklin Roosevelt. When he was in Latin America during that trip, Gallup released a poll. They asked American voters–they gave them the four leading candidates to replace Roosevelt on the ticket as president in 1944. Wallace came in twice as high as the second most popular person. Wallace had 57 percent approval rating. When the Democratic convention started on July 20, 1944, on that steamy night in Chicago, the Gallup released a poll asking potential voters who they wanted back on the ticket as vice president. Sixty-five percent said they wanted Wallace as vice president. Two percent said they wanted Truman as vice president. So the question is: how did the right wing of the party pull off a coup to get Truman on the ticket as vice president instead of Wallace?
JAY: The whole story’s in our other interview. But what I want to ask you about is: to what extent is this applicable to today? Because one of the big arguments against Sanders is that, yes, he’s got his base, but in general Americans skew right of center, and when they really hear the Sanders politics, it’s not going to be very well received.
KUZNICK: Well, in the United States, Americans have learned some things in recent years. You’ve got to remember that we’ve been fighting all these unpopular wars, so the American public is generally anti-interventionist to this part, when we talk about them being war-weary on the one hand. So that would make them more receptive to Sanders’ message. And the Occupy movement and the awareness of the tremendous gap in wealth between rich and poor in this country, the fact that the richest 1 percent in the the United States have more wealth than the poorest 90 percent, that the richest six people have more wealth than the bottom half of the population, I mean, people see that as being not only unconscionable, but really deeply offensive, even obscene.
So part of the tragedy of the Obama presidency is that he hasn’t used the so-called bully pulpit to educate. And Obama, who could be, given how articulate he is, could be a tremendous educator, has wasted or squandered that opportunity.
Bernie’s done a good job. Bernie, as you know, started at 3 percent approval, 3 percent support in this campaign, and now he’s equal with Hillary. In many ways he’s ahead of Hillary in terms of the popularity. And certainly when they put him up against Trump instead of her up against Trump, Bernie does much better. And she’s a compromised and tarnished Candidate in some ways. In lots of ways, especially domestic policy, she’s of course far better than Trump, but in other ways, in foreign policy, it’s not so clear-cut. Bernie has a message that resonates very, very well. And I think if they put him up against Trump, he would do extremely well.
JAY: Well, when we get to the convention, we’ll see how much it resembles 1944 or not. I guess it’s not quite the same–Sanders does not go in, in all likelihood, with a majority of votes. But there’s going to be a lot of doubt in people’s mind about what really is the right thing to do.
Thanks very much for joining us, Peter.
KUZNICK: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
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