How Progressives can Shake Off the Biden Doldrums and Start Winning
(Essential Viewing for all Progressive Activists: Harry Truman’s Acceptance Speech at the 1948 Democratic Convention)
President Harry Truman is not my idea of a Valiant Progressive. However, Harry Truman is a man who knew how Democrats and Progressives could revive their campaigns and win. I am annexing to this essay Harry Truman’s exhilarating and incendiary speech at the 1948 Democratic Convention, a speech which gave the Republicans all the hell fire and brimstone of Baptist preachers, socialist orators and the teeming urban slums salivating for a fight with the mercantile monarchs of dog-eat-dog capitalism. This speech might teach Democrats how to fight Republicans and win. Although the party that has the presidency usually loses congressional seats in the mid-terms, the right political tactics and ideology might lead to Democratic gains in 2022.
Almost everyone thought Harry Truman would lose the 1948 election. First, the Democrats had the presidency since 1933 and the normal cycles of politics made a republican victory all but preordained. Second, the country was rife with labor strife and fears that the country would either revert toward the pre-War economic depression or be consumed by inflation. Third, the Democratic Party was split in two ways: Segregationists left the party to support the presidential candidacy of Strom Thermond of South Carolina. (Thurmond won 3 Southern states which had been reliably Democratic). Socialists and some progressives bolted to support the presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace. (Wallace took enough progressives away from Truman to put New York in the Republican column: In New York, Dewey, the Republican, got 45 percent, Truman got 44 percent and Wallace had 11 percent). Nevertheless, Harry Truman won.
Truman had the right strategy. Contrary to the counsel of phony Democrats or chronic appeasers of republicans who counsel moderation and “bipartisanship” (often a euphemism for surrender), Truman opted to fight. He looked at the stark electoral facts: The last four elections had been won by Franklyn Roosevelt, and he had won by assuming a proud, defiant progressive stance. For example, on the eve of the 1936 election, Roosevelt gave a speech, in Madison Square Garden, in New York City, in which he said that economic royalists and millionaires hated him, and Roosevelt said, “I WELCOME THEIR HATRED.” And in November 1936, Roosevelt won every state in the Union except Vermont and Maine. So much for the idea that Democrats must mute their progressive politics.
Very simply, Roosevelt understood what Bernie Sanders understands: There are plenty of people who would vote Democratic but don’t bother to vote because too many Democrats are mushy marshmallows who seem to be overdosing on barbiturates. Goddamn, on the day that Biden went to Congress to get his prick and balls chopped off by Kyrsten Sinema, he meekly, sheepishly, and feebly said that since we didn’t smash the anti-democratic filibuster and pass a voting rights act, we will simply, sometime in the future, have to try again. How long are people supposed to wait. If the voting rights act is not passed, Trump may very well take power in 2024 and when he takes power a second time, free elections will become a misty, wistful memory.
Democrats aren’t losing because they seem strident or abrasive. Democrats are losing because they are commonly seen as weak, hen-pecked, and castrated. I invite my fellow democrats to put down the New York Times for a moment and listen to the voices of working people. I remember hearing so many female secretaries in so many elections tell me that they were going to vote Republican because Democratic men were all “wimps,” “wooses,” and weaklings. I am sorry if I sound anti-feminist or anti-gay. (I am gay.) I merely contend that it is incumbent upon us to understand the prejudices of the populace. We should not surrender to prejudice. But we must understand peoples’ biases so we can surmount them and manipulate them for our purposes.
Listen to Harry Truman, understand why his supporters joyfully said that Harry was giving the Republicans hell, and hear the uncompromising roar of a man who may have been white-haired but had all the swagger and pizazz of a 17-year-old prize fighter in red trunks ready for a rumble.
Toward the beginning of his speech, he said that he was going to beat the Republicans and make them like it. He almost sounds like a man claiming that he will inseminate his woman and make that woman adore him.
And how does Truman speak to his potential supporters, industrial workers and farmers. He does not beg and plead for their support in the manner of a frightened white liberal begging black people for their votes. Instead, he concisely makes it overwhelmingly plain that workers and farmers had to vote Democratic. He says that farm income was 2 billion dollars in 1933. Then he says that farm income was 18 billion dollars in 1948. And then he says, “and if the farmers don’t do their duty by the Democratic Party, they’re the most ungrateful people I ever did see.” He could cajole and scold the farmers and workers because, to a large extent, he was one of them. He did not go to college because he had to grow crops on his family farm. When his mother had an appendectomy, the surgery was done on the kitchen table of the family farmhouse and Harry Truman held the lamp so the doctor could see. When he spoke, He sounded poor. He sounded country. He sounded real. (Of course, to a large extent this is one part of Truman’s playbook that today’s Democrats can’t copy. Today’s Democrats can’t recite great accomplishments and they can’t seem the least bit authentic. They are all too often as cultivated and as compromised as hot house flowers decorating a Cambridge, Massachusetts salon.)
And what does Harry Truman have to say about the Republican-dominated Congress. Does he sweet talk them? Does he wiggle out of his convictions to please Republicans like a Geisha girl wiggling her hips and ass. No way. He snaps at them like Fourth of July firecrackers and tells them to go to Hell like a B52 bomber. He does not shy away from out and our class war. He says that the Republicans only care about the rich and that’s the way it always was and always will be. He gives them that old time religions. And I’m not in any degree a Baptist, but I love it.
Truman does not pull his punches. Some people contend that Biden’s recent speech, suggesting that people had to choose between Martin Luther King and George Wallace, was a bit over the top as it may have suggested that the opposition was racist. Hell, they are racist, and Biden should say it loud and clear. In his ‘48 acceptance speech, Harry Truman said that Republicans in Congress had supported policies, regarding the DPs (the displaced persons of World War Two) that were anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic Listening to that speech, and the rousing cheers of the delegates, I could feel the hurrahs and cries of my boyhood home, Brooklyn, New York.
Truman tells us that the Republicans are liars, claiming that they say they want to do something about urban slums and poverty while always voting against measures which would attack these problems. And then Truman gives us the piece de resistance, claiming that if the Republicans really support helping the poor, they can put up or shut up at a special session of Congress that he announces will be held on July 26. And then, for an extra measure of country spice, he tells the delegates that July 26 is “Turnip Day.” And they loved this in Coney Island as much as they did in St Louis, Missouri.