Al Gore and Hillary Clinton aside, Henry A. Wallace, a third-generation Iowa farmer, is probably the most famous person in American politics to lose the presidential election. He might also be one of the most important political figures in post-war American history, and a revival of the platform he ran for president on would be intoxicatingly dreamlike.

The third in the American agricultural czar lineup that is the Wallace family, he became the third consecutive Wallace to serve as Secretary of Agriculture but became most famous as the thirty-third vice president, serving under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and for arguably architecting the New Deal.

Throughout his political career (and after essentially inventing hybrid corn), he opposed and regretted the development of nuclear weapons after World War II, revolutionized and modernized farming techniques in Mexico that saved an estimated one billion lives, and opposed Euro-American imperialism. Had Wallace been reelected vice president in 1954, “there might have been no atomic bombings, no nuclear arms race, and no Cold War,” according to filmmaker Oliver Stone. And since he broke with the Democratic Party over the Korean War, it’s possible to imagine an undivided Korean peninsula in this scenario.

As a presidential candidate, he became the first candidate from either major party to give an address in Spanish, and he refused to speak to segregated audiences or sleep in segregated hotels while campaigning twenty-five years before the civil rights movement. He was also a Christian mystic.

But what makes his platform incandescently dreamy eight decades later are his proposals of “economic democracy” and a “full employment budget.” Economic democracy, though loosely defined, stood in contrast to “political democracy.” He believed the United States had only achieved the latter, and thus, according to his biographers John Chester Culver and John Hyde, “he argued for a middle course, something between the ‘planned economy’ of socialist states and the traditional laissez-faire of capitalist economies.” Essentially, he argued for—and anticipated—something akin to the Nordic Model. Had Roosevelt died a few months earlier, it’s possible the “Nordic Model” would have been the “American Model.”

The highlight of this “economic democracy” was his “full employment budget,” which he wrote an entire book on. Under this proposal, the government would “take into account not only government receipts … but all economic activity, public and private,” allowing them to “reduce unemployment or combat inflation as necessary.” According to Wallace, the government would ensure employment opportunities “to all who are able and willing to work.” And in a fresh post-war world, where the military budget was hardly a fraction of what it is now, this was certainly doable without breaking the federal budget. It may have seemed too lofty for consideration just two years ago, but with COVID-19’s economic incursion and the federal government’s response in stimulus packages, a Wallace-esque full-employment budget is at least an entertainable idea, even if only temporarily.

He also foresaw the ways crumbling capitalism morphs into fascism—and for that alone, his platform is worth revisiting. He said,

“The American fascists are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity. … They claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest. Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.”

As Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times points out, it’s hard to imagine a more adept description of Donald Trump than this.

In his most famous speech, Wallace declared, “Some have spoken of the ‘American Century.’ I say that the century on which we are entering — the century which will come into being after this war — can be and must be the century of the common man.” He didn’t get his wish for the twentieth century, but perhaps it’s not too late to revive such a dream. With Democrats in control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, we can only pray that they look to the ideas and the man of Henry A. Wallace.

 

Photo courtesy Kheel Center (CC BY 2.0)

2 Comments

  1. Courtney Zonnefeld

    Thanks for this peek into the past, Josh. I grew up in Des Moines, vaguely familiar with Henry Wallace’s life and legacy. (The nearby elementary school was named after him, and he was a less-despised “native son” than fellow Iowan politician of the 30s, Herbert Hoover.) Fascinating to ponder what could’ve been and what might be.

    Reply
  2. Kyric Koning

    People have always underappreciated the past, it seems, thinking it outdated and lacking, but those are only true if one remains there. The future is built on the past and we must respect past and present in order to attain a worthwhile future.

    You seem to share a similar hope.

    Reply

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