Last week in my local library--which has been open to patrons for at least six months now--I picked up a new book by the journalist A. J. Baine, Dewey Defeats Truman, about the 1948 Presidential election. It turned out to be a well-researched piece of history, drawing on the papers of both Truman and Dewey, and many other sources. It's a thrilling story of an almost entirely personal triumph. Harry Truman as 1948 began appeared to have lost the confidence of the American people. For a year and a half he had struggled with the 80th Congress, the Republican-dominated body that had come into power in the 1948 election and tried to undo some of the New Deal. Two wings of the Democratic Party, as we shall see, defected from him and ran candidates of their own. Truman didn't face any opposition for the nomination during the short primary season, but on the eve of the Democratic convention, FDR's son James Roosevelt, liberal Senator Claude Pepper of Florida, former Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, and the machine bosses of Chicago and Jersey City all called for the convention to dump Truman and draft General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Truman in the early part of the year seemed to have almost no campaign funds at his disposal--although his decision to extend de facto recognition to the new State of Israel opened up one important source of funds. Polls showed him way behind Dewey up until the eve of the election. Truman had an extraordinary self-confidence without a shred of grandiosity, and he believed, almost by himself, from the beginning of the campaign to the end, that he was going to win. And in the end, he did. 73 years later, however, I am more interested in what the events of that campaign tell us about the difference between that America and this one, than about the pure drama of the story, even though that drama stirred some very powerful emotions in me as I read through the book.
Both the major parties had emerged from the Roosevelt era in a divided state. The Democrats' divisions burst into the open during 1948. First, former Secretary of Agriculture (1933-41), Vice President (1941-5) and Secretary of Commerce (1945-46) Henry Wallace, the darling of left wing Democrats, became a candidate of the new Progressive Party. FDR had selected Wallace, a staunch New Dealer, to appeal to farmers and labor in 1940, but he had allowed the party to drop him in favor of Truman in 1944, when, as I have learned, everyone at the convention--and probably FDR himself--knew that the vice-presidential pick was almost certain to succeed to the presidency. Wallace wanted the wartime alliance with the USSR to continue, and he had opposed some of Truman's early steps in the Cold War, such as the Truman Doctrine. The Progressive Party, however, had fallen under the control of the Communist Party of the USA, and Wallace in 1948 was now parroting the party line in foreign affairs, arguing that Truman sought war with the Soviet Union. Wallace could never have believed that he would be elected, but he wanted to discredit Truman and pave the way for a more leftwing leadersip of the Democratic Party.
The second splinter from the Democratic Party was the Dixiecrats from the Deep South, led by the Governor of South Carolina, J. Strom Thurmond. As William Leuchtenberg detailed more than a decade ago on racial politics, Harry Truman had emerged in 1945-8 as the most effective civil rights advocate ever to occupy the White House. There were several reasons for this. First, Truman came from Missouri, where significant numbers of black citizens could vote. Secondly, Truman was appalled by acts of violence, including several lynchings against black veterans, and he spoke out against them, and formed a commission to make recommendations for assuring all Americans their rights. That sparked some bitter personal attacks from white southern politicians, and Truman, when faced attacks, doubled down on his positions. In early 1948 he sent Congress a program including an anti-lynching law, new protections for voting rights, and a permanent commission to fight employment discrimination. Then, in June of that year, he ordered the desegregation of the armed forces. When the Democratic convention adopted a platform embodying these proposals, a number of southern delegates walked out, formed the States Rights Party, and nominated Thurmond for President. Thurmond ran on an avowed white supremacist platform.
One could argue, then, that extremism on the left and right was more vocal and better organized in 1948, when extreme parties fielded two presidential candidates who each won about 2% of the total vote, than it was today. Both Wallace and Thurmond took positions that no major politician would take in public today. Yet that picture turned out to be misleading, for two reasons. First of all, neither of those candidates managed to do what they had hoped to do--to deny Truman election in his own right. More importantly, the major party candidates both occupied a left of center position on major issues, and supported the basic principles of the New Deal.
The Republican Party was also split, as it had been to varying degrees at least since 1912. The bulk of the Congressional Republicans, such as Speaker of the House Joe Martin and Senate Majority leader Robert Taft, had opposed the New Deal from the beginning and still favored free enterprise above all. Yet Taft's own campaign for president had never gotten off the ground in 1948 against two relatively liberal Republican governors, Harold Stassen of Minnesota and Dewey of New York--who had already been the party's candidate in 1944. Dewey, like Truman, favored expanded social security, the rights of labor, and big federal housing programs. He also supported mainstream Cold War foreign policy. Truman in fact kicked off his campaign by calling Congress back into session to consider a number of bills that both he and Dewey seemed to favor, to show the nation that the Republican Congress would not pass them. After his defeat Dewey himself talked openly about the split in the Republican Party and looked down upon those who clearly wanted to return to the ethos and the economic policies of the late 19th century. And in 1952, although Dewey did not try to run again, he anointed Eisenhower as the heir to his brand of Republicanism, and when Ike was elected he never challenged the most important achievements of the New Deal.
Truman, as it turned out, won election with a popular vote plurality of several million votes over Dewey, and 303 electoral votes to Dewey's 189. He demonstrated an extraordinary personal connection to the American people, illustrated, as Baime documents at length, by the huge crowds that greeted him at whistle-stop after whistle-stop as his campaign train traveled around the country. Wallace won enough votes in New York to swing that state--then the nation's largest--over to Dewey, and Massachusetts was the only northeastern state to vote for Truman. Truman, however, won Ohio, Illinois, and California--all by very close margins--most of the farm belt, and every western state except Oregon. The Democratic vote in those states came mostly from organized labor--a much larger share of the electorate then than now--from the black vote, and from many farmers, also a larger share of the electorate, whose federal support Republicans had managed to cut. Thurmond, meanwhile, took only four southern states--South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, the biggest bastions of white supremacy. But the New Deal had had an enormous positive impact on the South, and Truman carried every other southern state, even beating Thurmond by a 3-1 margin in Georgia and a larger margin in Virginia. Evidently Truman's civil rights program was not a deal breaker for most of the white Democrats of the South--whom Roosevelt had benefited in so many other ways. Even Alabama had two New Deal Senators, and Truman might have beaten Thurmond there had not state authorities kept him off the ballot entirely.
Throughout the campaign, Truman cleverly argued that the 80th Congress, not Dewey, represented the real Republican Party, and that the economic future of the average voter was at stake. It probably wasn't. Even though the Democrats also regained control of Congress in 1948, Truman failed to get any civil rights legislation through, or to repeal the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Law or pass a national health insurance program. It is hard to see how things would be much different today if Dewey had won--although it is interesting to ask how Dewey would have done in 1952, if he had had to bear the political burden of the Korean War. In the long run Truman's biggest contribution was to make civil rights and national health programs part of the standard Democratic litany, even though it took another 20 years or so for them to bear fruit.
Today, on the other hand, the Republican Party rejects two of the fundamental principles of American democracy: the Enlightenment idea that rational investigation can design effective policy--for instance, to fight an epidemic--and the democratic process itself, which Republican legislatures around the country are working to undermine. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, collaborated in the economic policies that largely wiped out the independent farmers and industrial workers that were its greatest sources of strength The Democrats are now the party of the highly educated, and education has become a critical dividing line between the two parties. Race, for both whites and minorities, appears to be a much larger factor in voting behavior than it was then. President Biden, unlike President Obama, appears to understand that he has to prove to the mass of American voters than he can dramatically improve their lot in the next two years. If he can, he will have taken a big first step towards restoring some of the civic virtue and civic engagement that the country enjoyed in 1948.