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1948 elections and the Progressive Party

12/19/02 12:00AM By Ellen David Friedman

(Host) Commentator Ellen David Friedman takes a look a back at third party candidates and the roots of the Progressive Party.

Contrary to what you might think given recent headlines, Strom Thurmond wasn't the only third party candidate running for president in 1948. That year Henry Wallace, who'd already served as vice-president under Franklin Roosevelt, ran on the Progressive Party line. That year, the Democrats were facing two split-off parties: the one composed of southern Dixiecrats hostile to Truman's civil rights agenda, and the other made up of liberals and progressives who were alarmed about the Truman administration's build-up of the cold war. Both splinter parties fielded a candidate, but Wallace and Thurmond ran on radically different platforms. The two men ended up each winning about a million votes, a nearly identical showing. But now 50 years later, while the racist legacy of Thurmond's States' Rights Party is a shameful historic relic, the Progressive Party's goals seem amazingly modern.

The roots of that Progressive Party can be traced to the earlier Bull Moose Progressive Party of Teddy Roosevelt, in sharing a populist and anti-corporate stance. When Henry Wallace was Harry Truman's secretary of commerce in 1945, his agenda was full post-war employment, stimulating foreign trade, providing technical assistance to small businesses, and achieving equal pay for equal work. When he ran for president in 1948, the Progressive Party platform called for national health insurance, a guaranteed minimum wage, monopoly control, and equal employment opportunities for women. Wallace favored diplomatic relations with and humanitarian aid to the Soviet Union and China. He fought Truman's support of the military industrial complex.

Wallace and his political program inspired an ardent following, and party chapters sprang up all over the country, including right here. The 1948 platform of the Vermont Progressive Party rings with both high ambition and pragmatism. It called for some things we've actually gone and done, like the guarantee of free education through twelth grade, establishing sewage disposal systems, and eliminating the poll tax. But we're still working on other platform goals, for example a "more equitable system of taxation based on ability to pay," or "greater financial security against the hazards of old age, sickness, and unemployment."

Those Progressives of 50 years ago had something to tell us about the pending disaster of war when they said we shouldn't be a nation which "quote places the greed of vested interest above the needs of the people," or which encumbers the struggle for international peace with the pitfalls and hazards of selfish aggrandizement.

And they had something to say to the Strom Thurmonds and Trent Lotts of their time and ours when they proudly called for "the abolition of all forms of segregation and discrimination based on race, creed, or color." Vermonters can be proud of these political roots, and we continue to tend them.

Ellen David Friedman is vice chair of the Vermont Progressive Party and has been active in the labor movement for 25 years.
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