In an article on the role of third parties in U.S. presidential elections in the August 21, 2000, issue of In These Times, founding editor and publisher James Weinstein observed:
In 1948, when I cast my first vote for president, Henry A. Wallace, vice president during FDR’s second and third terms, was running as the Progressive Party candidate against Republican Thomas Dewey and Democrat Harry S. Truman. In August, he was at 12 percent in the polls. On election day, he got 2 percent. My history professor at Cornell, a wonderful man named Paul Wallace Gates, was the New York state treasurer of the Wallace for President Committee. On election day, he voted for Truman. Within a year the Progressive Party disintegrated.
Weinstein’s point was that Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party campaign, which was aimed at preserving the New Deal coalition in the face of the rightward tilt of the Democratic Party under Truman, was doomed to a natural devolution as the election neared—in what could be regarded as a historical law for third-party movements in U.S. politics. But missing from this argument, astonishingly, was the main reason for the Progressive Party’s rapid decline, which had nothing to do with any law of natural devolution of third-party movements but rather grew out of the most virulent redbaiting presidential campaign in U.S. history, setting the stage for the full-fledged McCarthyism that followed.
Faced with the challenge from the Progressive Party on the left, and thus a serious threat to his winning the election, Truman appealed to progressives by arguing that he was the lesser evil: “A vote for the third party plays into the hands of the Republican forces of reaction, whose aims are directly opposed to the aims of American liberalism.” But Truman didn’t stop there. In his campaign speeches he pointedly referred to “Henry Wallace and his Communists” and declared that “Communists are using and guiding the third party.” It was no mere coincidence, moreover, that on July 21, 1948, just two days before the Progressive national convention, the Truman administration commenced the Smith Act prosecutions against twelve Communist leaders, putting the issue of Communism on the front page of every newspaper in the country, and effectively tainting the Progressives by association.
In the end Truman’s strategy worked. Numerous Wallace sympathizers were scared off by the redbaiting campaign and by a fear of a Republican reaction if Dewey were to win. Wallace received only about a million votes, as compared to twenty-four million for Truman and twenty-two million for Dewey (and a million for Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond). Yet, even then, the votes cast for Wallace came close to upsetting what the great progressive leader, Robert LaFollette, had once called the “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” politics of the two major parties. A few thousand votes lost by Truman to Wallace in Illinois (where they would have had to have been write-in votes, since the Democratic machine there had kept Wallace off the ballot), California, and Ohio would have resulted in a Dewey victory.
Truman had declared that a Dewey victory, resulting from a strong Wallace showing, would have meant the triumph of “forces of reaction.” But under the circumstances of the time, a Republican victory might not have been the unmitigated disaster for progressives that was feared. Dewey was a Wall Street lawyer and no civil libertarian, but he had opposed the Nixon-Mundt bill to outlaw the Communist Party, which eventually became law under the sponsorship of liberal Hubert Humphrey. Dewey’s vice-presidential running mate was Earl Warren, a fair-minded conservative who later became Chief Justice in the best Supreme Court the United States ever had. The creation of the historic Warren court—through appointments in Republican Eisenhower’s first term—is believed to have been due largely to Eisenhower’s Attorney General, Herbert Brownell, who was Dewey’s closest friend and campaign manager. The two Supreme Court justices Truman got to appoint in the 1949-1953 administration were Tom Clark (a justice from 1949 to 1967) and Sherman Minton (from 1949 to 1956). Both were reactionaries and contributed substantially to the Supreme Court’s horrible record of destroying the Bill of Rights during the McCarthy period. Clark lasted long enough to oppose almost every good thing done by the Warren court. In terms of the national security state, there is no reason to assume that a Dewey victory would have produced results worse than what occurred under Truman, with the expansion of the Cold War and the commencement of the Korean War.
The 1948 election is in many ways still with us. The longterm consequence of the rightward shift of the Democrats that began with Truman was the demise of the New Deal coalition. This is evident today in the fact that half the eligible electorate, and a majority of the working class, no longer votes, even in a presidential election. Tragically, the Democratic and Republican parties seem content at present to compete over an ever-diminishing share of actual to potential voters, focusing their attention on the so-called “center” of U.S. politics dominated by moneyed interests. Under these circumstances, third-party campaigns that address the needs of the forgotten “party of non-voters” should be welcomed as attempts to regenerate U.S. democracy by broadening the body politic. One thing is certain: no genuine progress—in this or any other election—is possible until the mass of the nonvoting, working population is drawn back into the political arena. The future rests entirely on the construction of an effective, working-class political majority.
We thought that readers would be interested in knowing more about the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles, which generously gave us permission to use the SNCC poster on this month’s cover. Their archive currently has approximately forty-four thousand international and domestic posters covering diverse human rights and social justice issues. The Center demonstrates the power and significance of these artistic expressions of social change through traveling exhibitions, lectures, publications, and workshops and is interested in receiving poster donations. Their address is 8124 West Third Street, Suite 211, Los Angeles, CA 90048-4039, and they can also be reached at (323) 653-4662.
The San Francisco Mime Troupe will be on tour across the United States through November. For more information, contact Jeremy Mage (thedepths [at] earthlink.net) or Greg Tate (gtate [at] sfmt.org).
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