Reviewed by Bob Bonner
The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party by John Nichols. Verso 2020. London and Brooklyn, N.Y. $26.95. 286 pages.
John Nichols, correspondent for the Nation, host of the podcast Next Left, a contributing writer for The Progressive, associate editor of Madison, Wisconsin’s Capital Times, and author of several books including, The Genius of Impeachment and The “S” Word has penned a history of the Democratic Party from the 1930s to the campaign of 2020.
The book is well written and contains a wealth of information on former Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President, Henry A. Wallace. After eight years as US Secretary of Agriculture, Wallace would become FDR’s 1940 running mate. Wallace, descendant of a line of Iowa Republicans, had resuscitated a farm economy that had been devastated in the 1920s and was in crisis by 1933. Wallace proposed paying farmers to reduce production, thereby raising prices, plowing under cotton fields, slaughtering 6 million pigs weighing under 100 pounds and delivering 100 million pounds of pork, lard, and soap to needy Americans. His belief in government intervention in the economy to aid working people was not limited to the farm sector.
Wallace was also an avowed anti-fascist whose nomination riled the big city bosses and segregationists – though he inspired young people, organizers in the CIO, civil rights activists, and the rural populists. He helped frame the 1940 campaign as the struggle for political and economic democracy and against fascism.
Four years later, Wallace would be forced off the ticket when former Pittsburgh mayor and Pennsylvania governor, Dave Lawrence, shut down the 1944 Democratic convention to keep Wallace off the ticket to appease corporate donors and segregationists. Lawrence and his minions portrayed Wallace’s candidacy as a struggle between capitalism and socialism.
Those forces ensured that Harry S. Truman would be nominated the next day with doors to the convention locked to keep Wallace supporters out. Roosevelt would be dead nine months later and Truman would usher out of his administration supporters of the New Deal including Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. And of course, Truman would commit the heinous act of dropping atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
While the title purports to tell the tale of a struggle between forces for and against change in the Democratic Party, I came away from with the conviction that the author demonstrates an absence of internal debate over corporate control of the Democratic Party with only occasional minor challenges easily swatted away by party leadership. Nichols documents several of those including Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, Tom Hayden in 1976, Ted Kennedy in 1980 and the Jesse Jackson and Bernie Sanders campaigns.
The Democratic Party has demonstrated its disdain for change with the elimination of the reforms that enabled George McGovern to win the nomination in 1972. DNC Chair Robert Strauss cancelled the midterm party convention following McGovern’s November 1972 defeat. The DNC in its counter-reforms strengthened the power of Southern Democrats, created “superdelegates” and displayed a willingness to rig debates, caucuses, and influence media coverage. This heightened the propensity of the party to select moderate or right-wing candidates over more progressive party loyalists, especially under the stewardship of people like Rahm Emmanuel who famously responded to suggestions that the Democratic Party should stand for something as “fucking retarded.”
The author rightfully takes aim at Bill Clinton and Barack Obama for moving the party farther to the right to the detriment of its influence and power. He quotes Jesse Jackson in 1984 describing the Democratic Leadership Council as “Democrats for the Leisure Class.” He attacks Obama’s opposition to single payer health care, suggesting Obama must have believed there was something defective in the DNA of federal employees when he opposed entrusting health care to “government bureaucrats or insurance company bureaucrats”. He acknowledges Obama’s two presidential victories against the backdrop of the 2010 midterm election where 63 Democratic seats were lost in the House, seven seats lost in the Senate coupled with a 28 percent loss in Democratic-controlled legislatures and 13 fewer Democratic governors.
Mysteriously, Nichols avoids the presidency of JFK. He is fawning in his respect for Henry Wallace and FDR and apparently harbors hope that the Democratic Party will become the vanguard of the democratic socialist reforms in which he believes. He is hopeful that Bernie and “the Squad” will gain enough influence to lead us down the road to a Scandinavian welfare state. There is no discussion about how this metamorphosis will occur and, with the exception of the Vietnam War, little discussion of the Democratic Party’s role in supporting a foreign policy that wreaks death and destruction across the globe.
The struggles for equality, education, for peace, and an end to hunger, homelessness, racism, and xenophobia, are far too important to be entrusted to a party that has demonstrated a greater affinity for corporate donors than the welfare of working people, children, and the planet.
–Bob Bonner is former president of AFGE Local 2028 in Pittsburgh, PA where he represented US Veterans Administration workers.