(to be published Tribune, UK) April 2010

The decline in American industry has been compensated, in a way, by the rise in the export of services. Surely, one of the most egregious of these has been the vending of electoral counsel by our political consultants. Along with its bastard sibling, lobbying, in Washington and the state capitals, political consultancy is a recession-proof source of income, if not always of status. Consultancy often approximates the dignity and cultural weight usually attached to piano playing in brothels . In the current British campaign, I gather that the parties are using native talents—such as they are.

One person (not a professional consultant but with a certain experience of electoral politics) who could have helped Gordon Brown and our Labour comrades is, alas, long dead. His name is Harry Truman, he was a New Deal Senator from Missouri, a strong ally of the labor movement, Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice-President from January to April of 1945, and then President. When he sought election on his own account, in 1948, he was regarded as defeated before he started.

The Democratic Party had split into three. Racist and segregationist southerners implacably opposed to Truman’s efforts to obtain legal equality for Afro-Americans (including his abolition of segregation in the armed forces) formed the Dixiecrat Party. Led by the later Republican Senator Thurmond (who was privately sufficiently free of prejudice to father an illegitimate child with an Afro-American lady), the party won four normally Democratic southern states. On the left, especially in foreign policy, former Vice-President and Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace led a Progressive Party which opposed confrontation with Communist China and the Soviet Union and argued for an early version of co-existence.. In the end, Wallace (despite and maybe in part because of support from a rapidly shrinking American Communist Party) only won two and one half percent of the vote. Truman was left with the urban machines, and their often corrupt ethnic coalitions—and the American trade union movement.

What Truman knew, without having to be told, was that the New Deal and its many social reforms was still very much present in the living memory of the citizenry. He had been defeated in a proposal for national health insurance, but Social Security pensions were beginning to alter for the better the final years of millions of Americans. The agricultural policies of the New Deal provided life support and decent income minima for small holding farmers, then a considerable consituency in many states. His efforts at enfranchisement of Afro-Americans consolidated their movement from the Republicans (the party of Lincoln) to the Democrats, begun under Franklin Roosevelt. The large wartime migration northward of Afro-Americans greatly enlarged the Democratic electorate in states like California, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio. Moreover, what had been the heartland of small town, Protestant, Republican, America, the mid-west, had been industrialized during the war. That concentrated as well as enlarged the membership and expanded the ideological reach of the trade unions, which spared no effort to obtain Truman’s re-election.

There were cultural factors at work, as well. If ever there was anyone who personified the obtuseness, rigidity and self-righteousness of Protestant America, it was the Governor of New York, Thomas Dewey, who was Truman’s opponent. He lent the American term, “up tight” flesh and (a matter of doubt) blood. A former prosecutor of the mob, he had limited appeal for working class Catholics and none to the progressive intelligentsia. The older universities were still, primarily, Republican—but Berkeley, Chicago and Harvard as well as the state universities were dominated by New Deal technocrats and their allies. (John Kenneth Galbraith, fired by Harvard as a Keynesian in 1938, was back there in 1948 as a professor.)

Truman emphasized the political malfeasance of the Republican Congress elected in 1946 , depicted Dewey as political kinsman of the lamentable Herbert Hoover, the Depression President, insisted on the defense of the New Deal social gains, and condensed it all in his slogan, “Don’t let them take it away.” His rambunctious style, as he spoke from the open platform of the Presidential train, pleased the crowds. (“It isn’t t my fault that Dewey rhymes with hooey….”) “Give them hell, Harry” was their response. Despite the large and enthusiastic crowds he began to draw, the political class was adamant: he could not win.

I would not expect the learned Pastor’s son who is Prime Minister to adopt that slogan—at least, not literally. However, Labour does seem to be aware of the potential advantages of a campaign which would mobilize public doubt as to the bona fides of the Conservative Party in its new found role as defender of the common good.

All historical analogies are that, analogies—but there may be more for Labour to learn in its present situation from Truman than from either Clinton or Obama. 1948 was the first election I voted in (the minimum age was then 21 and I was 22.) I was studying for a doctorate at Harvard, did vote to re-elect John Kennedy as our Congressman, but did not vote for Truman. I voted for the Socialist, Norman Thomas—but was glad enough, in the end, that Truman won.

Facebooktwitter
Print  •  Email