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Is This the Blueprint for Sanders and AOC to Take Over the Democratic Party?

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“When [Donald] Trump assumed the presidency after a 2016 election that Democrats should have won by a landslide …” writes John Nichols in his new book, “the crisis came into focus. It was not the Republican Party that was ruining our politics. Rather, the lack of a coherent and appealing opposition to the Republicans was the problem.”

You have probably seen versions of this argument hundreds of times. It is the standard left-wing critique of the Democratic Party. The feckless Democrats keep losing because they stand for nothing. Having abandoned their progressive principles and sold out to the corporate Establishment, they have forfeited the trust voters had given them during the glorious New Deal era. Most of these critiques point to the 1970s as the moment when the party turned neoliberal and set itself along the path of political and moral ruin.

But Nichols advances a different argument. In his new book, The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party, Nichols, the Nation’s national correspondent, locates the pivotal moment some three decades earlier. The Democrats lost their way in 1944, when they removed vice-president Henry Wallace from the ticket, denying him his place as Franklin Roosevelt’s successor. Wallace, argues Nichols, would have kept alive the New Deal flame that was instead extinguished by the moderate Harry Truman. Instead, Truman’s “great betrayal” (in Wallace’s words, which Nichols endorses) of Roosevelt’s legacy veered the Democrats onto the neoliberal path. “The lost soul of the Democratic Party was a man,” he argues, “and his name was Henry Wallace.”

Nichols has ambitions beyond mere historical reinterpretation. He presents his history as a blueprint for the revival of the Democratic Party’s left wing, concluding with a rousing chapter casting Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as heirs to the Wallace tradition. His blurbs — from progressives like Sanders, Ro Khannna, Ilhan Omar, and Democratic Socialists of America director Maria Svart, rather than from historians — underscore Nichols’s vision of his protagonist as a redemptive model.

Nichols is correct to see parallels between Wallace and the left-wing movement built around Sanders. What he fails to understand is that many of the same errors that destroyed Wallace as a political force also drove Sanders to his demise.

Nichols’s emphasis on Wallace as a model has one clear advantage over the traditional left-wing focus: He is able to account for the tension between liberals and leftists that long predated the 1970s. After all, if the “neoliberal turn” took place only after Nixon appeared on the scene, what would explain the left’s contempt for what it called the “corporate liberals” of the Kennedy-Johnson era? Or the bitter attacks on Truman that Nichols documents? Both the international economy changed and the Republican Party’s economic program changed in the 1970s, but the Democratic Party’s ideological orientation was relatively stable. It did not stop being a social democratic or labor-dominated party in the “neoliberal era” because it was not one before then, either.

But Nichols’s attempt to make Wallace the rightful heir to FDR runs into problems of its own. The most obvious one is that, if Wallace was a faithful adherent of Roosevelt’s legacy, and Truman a Judas, why did Roosevelt throw Wallace off the ticket and replace him with Truman?

Nichols tries to explain this away as a devious scheme foisted upon an unwitting Roosevelt by the party’s conservative elements. “The bosses took advantage of an ailing and distracted Franklin Roosevelt to force [Wallace] off the ticket,” he writes. This explanation gives too little credit to Roosevelt (who was ailing, but who was not too distracted to spend time in Georgia with his mistress). When recounting the narrative, Nichols notes in passing that Wallace himself was gone on a strenuous trip across Siberia and China” before the convention where he was replaced. He does not mention that Roosevelt sent Wallace on this trip in order to keep him from campaigning to save his job.

Second, Nichols’s attempt to bracket Roosevelt with Wallace as visionary progressives, and Truman as the first of a long line of corporate sellouts, requires him to judge Roosevelt and Truman by very different standards. Truman, to be sure, accomplished relatively little in the domestic sphere. But this was because he inherited a Congress dominated by a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats. Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms had already ground to a halt before Truman took office.

Nichols gets around this problem by judging Roosevelt by his rhetoric, and Truman by his practical results. He lavishes praise on Roosevelt for his soaring “Four Freedoms” speech, without acknowledging Roosevelt did not (and could not) turn those principles into policy. He doesn’t credit Truman for his own soaring populist rhetoric (like his proposal for a “Far Deal,” which would have created national health insurance, public housing, aid for education, and a rollback of Taft-Hartley anti-union legislation.)

At one point,........

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