J.R. Johnson

The Late Wendell Willkie:
The Politician Who Came Too Late

(October 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 43, 23 October 1944, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for MIA.

The career of Wendell Willkie is of significance to the labor movement. His “progressiveness” was similar to Roosevelt’s. In national politics it was aimed at getting sufficient votes from labor, the lower middle classes and the Negroes in order to win the election.

Willkie represented big business. One of his political enemies constantly and aptly called him “The barefoot boy from Wall Street.” But big business presents many different faces to the public and sometimes different faces to different sections of the public. Willkie had seen very clearly that the Republican Party had to gain some popular base in order to defeat the Democratic Party at the polls. In the present epoch of social crisis and change, the rise of organized labor and the crisis of the middle class, the old slogans of rugged individualism, free enterprise, the American way, etc., had little meaning for great numbers of the people and were actually offensive to many.

President Roosevelt had skillfully capitalized on this with his slogan of “the New Deal.” Willkie, energetic, with a gift for demagogic fireworks, tried to capture an expected reaction against Roosevelt by promising to carry out the New Deal better than the man who had originated it. At the same time, his past, his backers and his careful phrasing assured the conservative elements that his appeal to the masses was nothing to be scared of.

Background to Willkie’s Fight

Labor and the white collar workers of the cities, from whom Roosevelt drew his main popular support, rejected Willkie. But this year’s campaign showed that he had a strong popular following among the rank and file voters of the Republican Party. Various competent observers have reported that there were many Republicans who distrusted Dewey as a reactionary both in domestic and foreign politics, and wanted to see what Willkie would do. This is what is significant.

All capitalist parties have a mass base. The Republicans, with the prestige of winning the Civil War, started off in great style in 1868. The great Capitalist expansion of the next thirty years kept them in almost continuous power. Organized labor for the most part was content to follow the party. Near the end of the century the farmers began to feel the full weight of capitalist exploitation. The result was the rise of Populism, and William Jennings Bryan’s campaigns against the money powers. The socialist movement began to grow. The mass support of the Republican Party was threatened.

The man who saved it for a time was Theodore Roosevelt. He had a similar gift for publicity and popularity that Willkie had. He presented himself as the leader of a reform movement against the money powers. He stole some of Bryan’s thunder. He attacked Wall Street, the United States Steel Corporation, Standard Oil and other big corporations. He passed an Employers’ Liability Act. He shook up the country with his policy of conservation of the national resources. At the end of it all, however, the trusts were stronger than ever. Stronger than before also was the Socialist Party, led by Gene Debs, whom Roosevelt bracketed with the trusts as among the greatest enemies of the country. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt split the Republican Party by opposing Taft and the Democratic candidate, and Wilson won the election.

The post-war period after the First World War saw the Republican Party again in power for twelve years. This was another period of striking prosperity as the capitalists understand it. Once more the people as a whole followed those who claimed that they were responsible for the jobs and the wages. Then in 1929 came the crash. By 1932 the Republican Party had lost the confidence of millions and since that time the Democratic Party has reigned supreme. Labor and the poor farmers and the Negroes have supported the New Deal.

What Did Willkie Offer?

To the threat of Bryan, populism and socialism, the Republican Party responded with Theodore Roosevelt and got away with it for a time. In Willkie’s case, his significance is this: he is the best the Republicans could present, to do in this period what Theodore Roosevelt did in his. His failure is an index of the stage of development of capitalism as a whole. He had nothing really new to say in comparison with his rival, Franklin D. Roosevelt. All that capitalism could do had been done by Roosevelt. The result had been that there were still ten million unemployed in the spring of 1940.

On the question of the war there was no choice between Roosevelt and Willkie. Both of them, representatives of capitalism, were advocates of a war against German and Japanese capital. Willkie failed to capture the popular vote in 1940 and after that the Republican politicians and their capitalist masters had no use for him. Today Dewey, his successor, has no program. He also can only promise to continue with the social legislation of the New Deal. He also promises no change in the conduct of the war. He calls the New Deal Administration “bungling, incompetent, tired,” etc. But program he has none. He hopes to win on a wave of disgust with Roosevelt. “You ought to be tired of him by now,” says Dewey. “Take me instead.” And wearisomely he repeats, “It is time for a change.”

Yet the maneuvers of both Roosevelt and Dewey to win over Willkie showed that he had some strength. And the source of that strength is important to labor. The whole country is stirred by the feeling that great changes are needed both on a national and international scale. Even among many rank and file Republicans this feeling exists. They were enthusiastic for Willkie because they thought he represented something “progressive.”

But capitalism in 1944 is not capitalism in 1906. Theodore Roosevelt had scope to say plenty and do little. In these times, Willkie could say much less than Franklin Roosevelt, or only as much, and even if he got the chance could have done nothing substantially different. But the response he evoked shows that a political party with a real program can look for support not only from Roosevelt’s mass supporters, but even in the Republican Party itself.

What He Meant

There is a world of difference between Dewey and the interests he represents and the millions of middle class people and workers who vote Republican.

Organized labor can shake itself free of the Democratic Party, pull the rank and file vote from under the Southern Bourbons and tear away millions from the Republican Party. But it can do this only if it proposes what the people everywhere are looking for – a bold social program that means business.

We have the admission from Roosevelt himself that the New Deal is dead. That is a death certificate that nobody can question. The path is clear for organized labor. A Labor Party is the party of the future and can build itself on the ruin of both these corpses.

Last updated on 16 February 2016