Writers Voice interviewed John Nichols about his book The Fight For The Soul Of The Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace’s Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist Politics. In this transcript of a clip from the interview, Francesca begins by asking about parallels in the situation during the New Deal and now. (The transcript has been edited for smoother reading.)
Francesca: This gets to the heart of a very big question, which is the US was a capitalist country. There was a tremendous amount of power that was vested in the ruling class, you know, no question about it. You had a much bigger labor movement than you have now. I mean the labor movement was key to the New Deal. It’s hard to play this kind of history, but I guess I’m asking a question about the relative power of, on the one hand what we would call the ruling class, which we still have, and the people’s power that was created in this [Democratic] Party and through labor unions and the New Deal coalition. Is it possible for that people’s movement to win when there is so much power invested in an oligopoly like what we have?
John Nichols: Yes, it is possible and it has won at times and it’s usually with a broad coalition that sometimes involves people working with folks that they don’t always agree with on everything but I don’t think there’s any question that in the 1930s and early 1940s, especially, frankly, in the early 1940s, it’s a much underestimated period in our history, where you really did see something akin to social democracy taking form in states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, in New York City itself but also influencing the national politics, so I don’t think that we should we should allow ourselves to fail to believe in the possibility.
But I say that all to counsel that we have to be realistic. We have to understand what we’re up against and that’s why my book doesn’t end with Wallace. It begins with Wallace and tells all the stories that we keep telling here, but then it comes right up to the current era. And the argument I make is that there has been frankly an 80 year long fight for the soul of the Democratic Party and that at almost every turn when progressive forces have sometimes succeeded in that fight and other times come close, they’ve been thwarted by a political power and economic power in combination and that, in doing so, the Democratic party has not done enough again and again to advance economic and social and racial justice and peace. And in those failures it has created a void in our politics, where people become increasingly frustrated, increasingly dissatisfied and that void has been exploited by the Right.
And so my core argument is that to create a politics that gets to some of things you’re talking about, a people’s politics, the Democratic Party has to change. And it has to change for two reasons: number one, because it is morally right. It is right to advance the cause of economic, social and racial justice. We need a political party in this country that does that.
But also it is practically, politically correct because when the Democratic Party fails to push as hard as it should, it stumbles again and again. Truman became president in 1945 with Roosevelt’s death but in 1946, because he was insufficiently committed to a big bold jobs program and housing programs and other programs that were necessary in the moment, the Republicans effectively got enough power in Congress to thwart Truman’s initiatives. They actually passed the Taft-Hartley law, which undermined the Trade union movement–it was Republicans in combination with Southern segregationists in the Democratic party–but that was not the only time that happened.
In 1976 Jimmy Carter came to office after Watergate with very solid majorities in the House and Senate but did not govern boldly in 1978. He lost a lot of his governing authority in the Congress in the mid-term elections and lost the presidency in 1980. Clinton came to power in 1992 with very strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. He did NAFTA. He did a host of other things that basically let down huge parts of his coalition, really depressed a lot of progressives and ended up in 1994 losing his governing majority and effectively governing in ways through the remainder of his administration that often undermined and literally took apart New Deal programs. And in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected with a epic coalition and tremendous potential, he was undermined not just by Republicans who thwarted him in Congress, but also by centrist Democrats who kept arguing for compromise and kept arguing for doing less. And you ended up in a situation where in 2010, once again Obama lost his governing majority and was forced during the remainder of his presidency–and I do think that Obama was a dramatically more Progressive figure than Clinton by the way, there are many criticisms of Obama, but he really was undermined severely in the remainder of his presidency.
So now we have this question. It’s 2020. We have a presidential election. That election is against Donald Trump. I would argue it needs to be won because Donald Trump is such an absolutely destructive and dangerous force, but the question is, how will Democrats govern if they do get power? What if they win the presidency, vice-presidency and also flip the Senate and have control of the House? This is a real possibility and how will they govern in 2021? Will they govern boldly with a sufficient commitment to do the things that need to be done to address covid-19, mass unemployment, racial injustice that has been so brought to the forefront by recent police shootings and violence, a climate crisis that is overwhelming with a very short time line in what we can do, and frankly always the great challenge of peace and the great challenge of our international relations? Will they govern insufficiently?
Because if they govern insufficiently, then the Republicans will come back in 2022 and 2024 and we will have a Republican Party I would argue that would come back as something more dangerous even than Donald Trump. And so this is why the book is a history but it’s also an urgent argument about the moment in which we find ourselves.
Francesca: Yes. And I think it’s interesting that Henry Wallace, when he was thwarted with the vice presidency went to do a third party bid for president that was a disaster and there are many on the Left now who are saying, we’re giving up on the Democratic Party.
As you say, Donald Trump must be defeated. How do you feel that progressives can influence the Democratic Party, which after all now has a presidential candidate in Joe Biden who some people call Republican lite; he is very much in the center right of the the Democratic Party. It’s unclear how progressive Kamala Harris is. What do you see in terms of the forces that are available to push the top of the ticket to the Left, should they win?
John Nichols: Look, we’re at a point now in our politics where clearly the Democratic Party is in transition. There is a change going on. We see it in the primary results across the country and it’s fascinating from a political standpoint. You know, we thought 2018 was a year in which there was a lot of turbulence, a lot of change, in the Democratic Party: Alexandria Ocasio Cortez defeating the fourth-ranked Democrat in the US House; Ayanna Pressley defeating a long-term member of the Democratic caucus in the House; Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib winning key primaries. And other folks rising up across the country.
It just seemed that, yeah, 2018 was a big deal. Well, 2020 has seen far more transition in this regard and more incumbents defeated, more progressives prevail. And again, Bernie Sanders did not get nominated for president, but he certainly built out his movement in so many ways and there’s a movement that he began to initiate.
And so we find ourselves at a point now where Joe Biden is running for president of the United States with a kind of hybrid. He is who he’s always been, a very Centrist and very cautious Democrat, but he does have pressure now on him to govern in a much more progressive way and he’s moved on some issues, particularly some of the climate issues. He’s saying some better things but it’s always whipsawed. It’s always back and forth. And so, you know, you’ll hear Biden send some pretty progressive signals and then he’ll give a speech in which he’ll say, “Hey, hey, hey, I’m no radical.”
And so I think that that the best way to understand Biden is in many ways the way that we understand Roosevelt in the early years of his presidency. Franklin Roosevelt was a more progressive figure in his time than Biden is today, but Franklin Roosevelt did not come to the presidency as the man he was when he left the presidency. And what I mean by that is that in 1932 Franklin Roosevelt ran a more progressive campaign than Herbert Hoover, but it was still a campaign that had many cautious signals and cautious messages when he got to power. However, it became clear to Roosevelt that the Depression was such an overwhelming reality that he had to respond in bigger and bolder ways and that if he didn’t respond in bigger and bolder ways, there was a Left that had become increasingly powerful and that it would in fact become a challenge for him. And so he did move to the left. There’s no doubt of that.
And so one would think that there is at least the possibility that Biden will find himself in the same circumstance. What I mean by that, is the challenges are, to my mind, of a Depression level. We have a pandemic that is overwhelming, we have mass unemployment, we have fundamental issues in policing, in systemic racism, in climate crisis and in so many other areas in the basic inequalities in our society that have to be addressed. That’s an overwhelming set of issues coming at him. Small steps will not be sufficient. So we should talk about doing what is necessary in such a moment. Biden will face the pressure of history and that’s a big deal.
And frankly also there is a Left. It’s a stronger left; it has more of an ability to put pressure on the Party and on a president and I think that that many of these folks have been elected, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and like Cori Bush who just won her primary in Missouri, who are really willing to push much harder than we saw in the past or at least the recent past. So I do think there’s a lot of space here for progressives to influence this administration.
If I was to divide it up though, I would tell you that, even with the changes that have gone on in the Party, there’s going to be resistance and there’s going to be a debate and the deficit hawks will resurface and they will say, “oh we can’t do as much, we can’t go as big, we can’t respond to the pain in sufficient ways. And that’s going to be a real battle. I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that I think if Biden’s elected, that’s going to be a fight for the soul of the Biden Administration.