The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party Is a Fight for the Future

The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party Is a Fight for the Future

The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party Is a Fight for the Future

Henry Wallace, FDR’s vice president, argued 75 years ago that Democrats had to go big on economic and social and racial justice. That’s still true.


The simple farmhouse where Henry Wallace was born and came of age can be found in Orient Township, on the southern side of Iowa’s Adair County, just off what is referred to as a minimum maintenance road. Drivers are advised to travel it “at your own risk.” That pretty well sums up the approach that has been taken with Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt’s second vice president, over the 75 years since he battled for the soul of the Democratic Party at its 1944 convention, struggled to keep alive the promise of the New Deal, failed as an anti–Cold War presidential candidate in 1948, and retired to the political wilderness. On the December morning when I visited the farm, no one was there. I brushed the snow off a plaque mounted on a stone that read, “Henry A. Wallace. Birthplace 1888.”

Wallace had hoped to live to the age of 100. If he had, I like to think he might have attended an Iowa caucus meeting on behalf of Jesse Jackson. In an effort to draw rural voters for his 1988 campaign, Jackson and his supporters set up their Rainbow Coalition headquarters in Adair County, just up the street from the county courthouse in Greenfield (population 1,713). But Wallace died at age 77, barely 20 years after he finished his vice presidency. The death of a former vice president who almost certainly would have succeeded to the presidency had he beaten the corporatists and the segregationists in 1944 was briefly noted. Wallace’s old ideological nemesis, The New York Times, headlined his November 19, 1965, obituary “Ex-Vice President, Plant Expert.” Wallace’s end was not the big story that morning. Rather, it was a report on the burgeoning US military presence in Southeast Asia under another headline, “Casualties High.” Wallace’s funeral took place at an Episcopal chapel near his farm north of New York City. It featured no eulogy, no sermon, and no hymns. A reading from Psalm 46 was chosen (“He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the Earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder, he burneth the chariot of fire”), as was a reading from Psalm 121 (“He will not suffer thy foot to be moved”).

The most prominent of the 300 attendees, John Gardner—who was then Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of health, education, and welfare—had, like Wallace, started as a liberal Republican and become the conscience of a Democratic administration. He brought a wreath of red and white carnations from the White House and said he was honored to pay tribute to “an extraordinary American.” Like Wallace in the mid-1930s, Gardner in the mid-’60s was a true believer in a presidency that sought to balance the scales a little more on the side of the common man and woman. (“To his admirers,” the Times said in his obituary in 2002, “Mr. Gardner was a modern-day Plato, needed by Americans looking for optimism and idealism.”) Unlike Wallace, however, Gardner would not finish his tenure with the administration in which he oversaw the launch of Medicare and championed its War on Poverty. A month before Johnson announced his decision to forgo a bid for reelection in 1968, Gardner quietly left the White House at a point when, the Times noted, “the war in Vietnam was increasingly occupying the president, and the nation’s domestic problems were relegated to a lower priority, as reflected in budget cuts.”

This was the long, sad story of the Democratic Party in the postwar years. It might see a New Frontier on the horizon or imagine a Great Society, but it never really got around the generals and the profiteers of the military-industrial complex. It might grasp at the promise of hope and change, but it was invariably derailed by the campaign donors and consultants who counseled that it would not do to invoke the hatred of Wall Street, as FDR once had, or to propose, as Wallace did, that instead of an American Century, what was really needed was “the century of the common man.” And yet on that morning in 2018, as I wandered across the barnyard where a young Henry Wallace came to recognize the great possibility of the American experiment, I felt as if the Democratic Party that he had championed, the morally driven and future-oriented party he imagined in 1945, might yet come into being.

It had something to do with the politics that emerged from the 2016 campaign of Bernie Sanders for the party’s nomination. Like Wallace before him, Sanders ran up against a party establishment that was not inclined to go big. Yet the senator from Vermont’s initial bid for the presidency planted seeds. And something was growing.

I made my second visit to Wallace’s birthplace with Sanders on a rainy afternoon in the summer of 2019.

The two of us were in a room where the windows looked out on cornfields and wind turbines, an image, I suspect, Wallace would have adored. We paused to consider a photo of FDR and his vice president, beaming in delight with each other during a 1940 campaign appearance—the man Wallace described as “the greatest liberal in the history of the United States” and the vice president who sacrificed his power, career, and proper place in American history for the liberal vision that the Democratic Party had abandoned.

“You seem to have made it a mission of this campaign to renew the Economic Bill of Rights, to take this 75-year-old idea and bring it to the present,” I said. “Why?”

Sanders started answering with specifics, references to proposals for a Medicare for All, single-payer health care plan and tuition-free college. Then he stopped himself. “I want to start again,” he said. “The answer is that we have to rethink politics in America. We have to ask questions that the establishment does not want us to ask. What Roosevelt said back in 1944 is we have a Bill of Rights, which protects our political freedoms, and that’s very important. But we have nothing to guarantee economic freedoms. So the question, in essence, that Roosevelt was asking is, if today you’re making $9 an hour, if today you have no health care, if today you can’t afford a higher education, how free are you really? And that’s the kind of discussion that we need. What does freedom mean?”

I asked Sanders how he would answer that question. “Freedom does not mean that you’re sleeping out on the streets,” he replied. “Freedom does not mean that you’re $100,000 in debt because you went to college. Freedom does not mean that you can’t go to the doctor when you’re sick. So we have to redefine what freedom means, and that’s what fighting for an Economic Bill of Rights is about. All that we are saying—and this is not radical, some of it already exists in other countries around the world—is this: Health care is a human right. OK? Then the United States has got to join every other major country in guaranteeing that.

“If you work 40 hours a week and you can’t make it on $10 an hour, then we have to raise that minimum wage to at least $15 an hour and make sure that workers can join a union. All over this country now, we have a massive housing crisis. It’s not just half a million people sleeping out on the streets. It’s people paying 50 to 55 percent of their limited incomes on housing. Freedom means that you have decent housing at a cost that you can afford. Freedom means that when you turn on your water faucet, the water that comes out is not toxic but drinkable.”

I looked up at a Time magazine cover from September 1940, a little less than a year before Sanders was born, with an iconic portrait, Wallace of Iowa by Grant Wood, the American Gothic painter, who was born a couple hundred miles away in Anamosa, Iowa. It was from a time when the media portrayed Wallace as a heroic figure. But the dynamic contender of one election year could be portrayed as the threat of the next and the radicalized dupe of the one after that. I reminded the senator that Wallace’s advocacy for an Economic Bill of Rights that would apply to all Americans had run afoul of the segregationists in the Democratic Party. “They had segregationists leading the party!” Sanders interrupted.

“What Roosevelt understood is that you have entrenched economic interests—he called them economic royalists, we call them the billionaire class—who will do anything that they can to protect their incredible wealth and their incredible power,” he continued. “So one of the points of this campaign is to ask the questions the corporate media will not ask, of course, and Congress does not discuss. Where is the power in America? Why aren’t things changing? How do you end up with three people owning more wealth than the bottom half of America? Those issues we don’t discuss. And I want to force discussions on those issues, because I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again: No president, not Bernie Sanders or anybody else, can do it alone. We can’t transform this economy, this government, unless millions of people are involved in an unprecedented grassroots political movement to challenge the power structure of this country.”

Sanders would learn over the ensuing months that the power structure gave no concessions to movements. As we spoke, I thought about the difference between the tepid politics Democrats have so frequently practiced and the transformational politics that are needed. If Democrats hope to be more than just an electoral machine, if they hope to transform our politics in ways that might finally address militarism and inequality, racism and the climate crisis, they have to think as Roosevelt and Wallace thought when they spoke of a New Deal and Four Freedoms and an Economic Bill of Rights. And they have to do so with an understanding that such bold responses are the best way to avert the threat of the American authoritarianism that the 33rd vice president began warning about three years before the 45th president was born.

So why be optimistic? Why not give in to the pessimism that has shaped so much of the postwar era? I found some of the answer in Orient but not all of it. Because while the story of Henry Wallace begins in those Iowa cornfields, it also passes through Detroit, where in the summer of 1943 he made the connection between the struggle against European fascism and “an Americanized fascism.” I visited Detroit in the summer of 2018, traveling with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as she campaigned for progressives in the state’s Democratic primaries. The days were hectic. So we agreed to meet at a café in a predominantly Arab American neighborhood in Dearborn a little bit before midnight. She had been going all day. She was tired, yet she still wanted to talk. When I asked her how she hoped to see the Democratic Party change, she blended the language of the past and the future, speaking of “a 21st century New Deal” and a new New Deal coalition.

“There is a hunger for an assertive, strong, ambitious, defined effort to establish and advance economic and social and racial justice for working-class Americans,” she told me. “That requires a plan. It requires ambitious ideas. People, I think, are searching for those champions, searching for that movement. I think [the way we do that is by] linking all of the individual movements that we see happening across the country and taking up those causes as our own. Taking up Ferguson as our own. Taking up Flint as our own. The Bronx as our own. Rikers as our own. Rural America as our own. I think that’s what it’s about, and that’s why it needs to be a movement.”

Could something like the New Deal be done again? Could it be done better? Could this talk of a 21st century Green New Deal move from a speaker’s platform to the program of government and then to the reality of a nation? Could the movement become the Democratic Party, and could that party transform America? Ocasio-Cortez recognized that the original New Deal had fallen short in too many ways. But she refused to believe that the spirit of the thing, the striving energy that FDR embraced at his best and that Wallace never surrendered, had died. If rural electrification was possible, then why not a Green New Deal? “I want us to be the party that wired and electrified—literally—the nation,” she said, as the weariness of the late hour dissipated. “Because it’s not over. We did that. And now we have a lot more to do.”

Democrats once dreamed the biggest dreams: of thwarting the politics of hatred and defeating the threat of American fascism, of achieving economic and social and racial justice and peace and prosperity. This is history. But it need not be history alone. Just blocks from where a Democratic vice president of the United States had thrown down the gauntlet and proposed a fight against racism and inequality that would finally extend the American dream to all Americans, here was a young Democratic leader who spoke of the New Deal as it should be spoken of—not as some majestic memory but as a touchstone. Beaming now, filled with energy and excitement, Ocasio-Cortez spoke of forging a party that would again extend from the bottom up, that would be “first and foremost accountable to working-class people again and to marginalized people.” She looked up, toward the North Star above the great American city of Detroit. “I don’t want that to be something that we just talk about but something that we are about,” she said. “I want us to be that party again.”

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