An Interesting Analogy

A reader recently sent me a New York Times subscriber newsletter by Nate Cohn that drew an analogy between the upcoming Presidential race and the election in 1948. Most of us remember that election–if we remember it at all–for the iconic picture of a victorious President Truman holding up a newspaper with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Cohn goes through a number of ways in which the run-up to that election is strikingly similar to the run-up to this November. For example, voters were sour about the economy, despite the fact that it was doing well–his subtitle was “Americans were angry with Truman because of high prices in the aftermath of World War II, even as other economic signals looked promising.”

If there’s a time that might make sense of today’s political moment, postwar America might just be it. Many analysts today have been perplexed by public dissatisfaction with the economy, as unemployment and gross domestic product have remained strong and as inflation has slowed significantly after a steep rise. To some, public opinion and economic reality are so discordant that it requires a noneconomic explanation, sometimes called “vibes,” like the effect of social media or a pandemic hangover on the national mood.

But in the era of modern economic data, Harry Truman was the only president besides Joe Biden to oversee an economy with inflation over 7 percent while unemployment stayed under 4 percent and G.D.P. growth kept climbing. Voters weren’t overjoyed then, either. Instead, they saw Mr. Truman as incompetent, feared another depression and doubted their economic future, even though they were at the dawn of postwar economic prosperity.

As Cohn notes, the parallels are striking, although today, inflation followed a pandemic rather than a war. But there was a great housing crisis caused by excess demand, as troops returned from overseas, not unlike the shortage of affordable housing that we are facing today. It was also a time of labor unrest–an unrest we are also experiencing. As Cohn reports,”The most severe inflation of the last 100 years wasn’t in the 1970s, but in 1947, reaching around 20 percent.”

Mr. Truman’s popularity collapsed. By spring in 1948, an election year, his approval rating had fallen to 36 percent, down from over 90 percent at the end of World War II. He fell behind the Republican Thomas Dewey in the early head-to-head polling. He was seen as in over his head. The New Republic ran a front-page editorial titled: “As a candidate for president, Harry Truman should quit.”

We’ve been hearing that refrain recently, as well.

In retrospect, it’s hard to believe voters were so frustrated. Historians generally now consider Mr. Truman one of the great presidents, and the postwar period was the beginning of the greatest economic boom in American history. By any conceivable measure, Americans were unimaginably better off than during the Great Depression a decade earlier. Unemployment remained low by any standard, and consumers kept spending. The sales of seemingly every item — appliances, cars and so on — were an order of magnitude higher than before the war.

Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces wasn’t exactly met with applause, either.

Again, the similarities are stunning. The essay proceeds to report the results of that year’s polling on a variety of issues, and calling the results “grim” would be a massive understatement. But Harry Truman won, and Cohn goes into considerable detail about the themes of his campaign, and why he eked out a victory.

What Cohn doesn’t address is the single biggest difference between Truman versus Dewey and the likely upcoming contest between Biden and Trump.

The 1948 campaign was waged between a successful but undervalued President and a legitimate and sane contender; the upcoming election will pit a successful and undervalued President against an ignorant, narcissistic, mentally-ill cult leader who is poses an existential threat to the Constitution, democracy and the rule of law.

Thomas Dewey was a traditional candidate with a respectable and relevant resume. He understood government, having served as Governor of New York. There was no reason to fear that his occupancy of the Oval Office would bring about chaos, introduce fascism and/or destroy the Republic. (And after the votes were counted, he didn’t claim he’d “really” won…)

Cohn’s analysis is excellent as far as it goes. What it fails to highlight is what we all know: the biggest asset Joe Biden has in the upcoming election is Donald Trump. I agree with the reported sentiment of a participant in a focus group (of Republicans!): If the contest is between Trump and Joe Biden,  I’ll vote for Biden even if he’s in a coma.

Today is Martin Luther King day. Every vote for Donald Trump is a vote to reject King’s dream.


  1. As Pres Joe said “Don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative.”
    This should not be a difficult decision

  2. It is hard for me to believe that voters out there in Iowa are all excited about getting to go out and caucus with their neighbors tonight. Right now it is minus 15 degrees in Des Moines. After braving the weather this morning to get to work and then driving home tonight will they really be looking forward to freezing their tails off in order to vote FOR Trump? Or will the truly motivated voters of Iowa be heading into the icy air tonight to vote AGAINST Trump.
    We will see.

  3. As near as I can tell, Biden has the support of the progressive caucus in Congress. He also has the support of the party pros, those dusty old farts like Chuck and Nancy.

    He needs the youth vote, but he knows he needs to do something pro Palestinian and so far he hasn’t gone beyond verbal to convince Bebe to shut down the slaughter. I would like to see him cutting support, either weapons or cash. Bebe would like nothing better than to keep the war going. Nobody will seek to oust him from power during a war and, if he manages to wipe Gaza off the map, he will declare himself the greatest PM in history and never call another election. The younger generation needs to understand the stakes in order to come out for Biden.

    He might not get the entire coalition back together, but if the “Never Trumpers” really mean it, they will endorse Biden and not give voters a third party alternative. He can win.

  4. It is an interesting parallel to ponder.
    Other parallels from history to consider are the steps taken by fascists and dictators and the steps being taken by TFG. The playbook for authoritarians who successfully destroyed democracy in their countries were outlined in the book “How Democracies Die” by Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, written way back in 2018. And much of what they predicted about what T*ump was going to do has actually happened.
    And of course, if you look at the sequence of events around the rise of Mussolini and Hitler in the 1930’s you will see similarities that should chill you to the bone. They do me.

  5. Doubt that Dewey’s party was using a jackhammer to open up the fissures that permeate any society.

  6. As James put it, and as it is apparent, tfg has been all but channeling Hitler, and the demagogue’s script. and, while there are those who are mesmerized by that insanity, more, I believe, are on to it. Those latter need to get to the polls, in big numbers. The trials, and tribulations, of tfg ought to dismay at least as many of his ongoing followers as enliven some of the souls who are irretreviably lost to their bigotry, and/or anxiety and fear of replacement.

  7. I wonder if journalists in 1948 could be responsible for some of the economic dissatisfaction among voters that were polled. Sometimes pollsters ask leading questions with the intention of inducing a certain response or answer. However, unlike our current situation, the 1940s media didn’t contain a plethora of greedy individuals willing to say anything on the internet in order to get paid for clicks on their site. Back then there were respected national and local media sources that reported the actual truth.

    Over the past couple years I’ve been shocked to learn that many local people (both young and old) say they only get their news from facebook or tiktok. Someone at some point in time has convinced them that the regular news sources we’ve all known are actually the biased ones that always lie and I’ve no doubt that the ex president’s accusations of ‘fake news’ have made this situation worse.

  8. The so called ‘Evangelicals” like to say certain events happen because of something they don’t like being tolerated. Ie; Earthquakes or hurricanes are because of Gods displeasure at legalizing gay marriage. Maybe the Arctic blast is Gods way of saying “Don’t vote for any of these republican loons” . Sadly that message would be missed or ignored by the cult even if it came from a burning bush.

  9. Today we live in a dictatorial world pushed by a corrupt government pushing social issues and agendas. Its sad to see how a racist like Biden got into office. Hes Trump 2 on spending. Look at what Thomas Sowell said about how much people are being deceived by the money printers, its difficult to paint a good picture even though the theory of the MMT policy dismisses it.
    Nikki Haley vs Newson? Ok not going to hsppen.

  10. @Peggy Hannon, RE: The young vote

    It’s unbelievable, but this race will be decided on the margins – a few thousand votes in several swing states. He can’t afford to lose any votes.

    That said, the “young vote” is very fickle. They will kick up a huge fuss over one thing or another – and then stay home on election day because a candidate didn’t speak forcefully enough about some obscure issue. Or worse yet, vote for a third party that has no possibility of winning and thus hands the victory to the Republicans. Chasing after the “young vote” at the expense of older voters who reliably vote every time is a fool’s errand.

    I wish it were someone younger and more dynamic than Joe Biden (Mayor Pete!), but I completely agree that you don’t compare him to some mythical ideal, you compare him to the alternative….. and it should be a no-brainer.

    I’m getting older… I’m looking for younger folks to step up. But the flighty idealism and not having a great grasp on how things really work isn’t very encouraging.

  11. John S. I do not believe that Biden is a racist. Certainly he does not support racism the way Trump does. If you are basing that opinion on some way he voted many years ago, consider his present positions. I know some people think that all white Americans are racists because of the prevailing culture, but that in itself is a racist attitude. If you have evidence to support your opinion, please cite it.

  12. It will not be the voters who will decide. It will be the non-voters and “other party” voters who do.

  13. In 1948, Harry Truman went on a nation-wide whistle stop tour to rally voters. The voters loved him. He was elected over Dewey with a majority vote, not some faux victory from the vagaries of the electoral college.

    I read this morning where one Iowa Trump-ite stated that this nation actually NEEDS a dictator now. Does that help explain why these non-thinking fools will brave a -35 degree chill factor to caucus for the orange hairball? They are him and he is them: INSANE. Irretrievably insane.

  14. If the eventual candidates are Biden and Trump, the nation must choose between lawless and lawful candidates. Awful vs lawful. Do we think the average American is incapable of wisdom when faced with that choice?

  15. Pete – NO – in our current culture both what is “awful” and what is “lawful” are whatever an individual believes – shared norms/rules/values have been shattered…

  16. Watched a rebroadcast of the movie “Network” last night. Did not remember how prophetic it is. It was not meant to be at the time it came out – it was meant to be a satire.

    I hope all thinking women out there are “as mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!”

  17. Truman was a veteran, a Captain of Artillery in WW I who in his youth walked behind animals who ploughed his folks’ farm, a lifelong Baptist (his wife was an Episcopalian), a U.S. senator, a drug store clerk who swept the floors, a vice president, and a president both by succession and (in 1948) an election. He was put down by an elite press as a rube but was later elevated by that same press as a “great” president, which tells us something about the criteria for “greatness” employed by such public communicators, and had to make awesome decisions ranging from use of the atomic bomb and (along with Churchill and Stalin) for a postwar economic world where the dollar became the world’s reserve currency (and still is) and arrange for a flattened Axis to be rebuilt via the Marshall Plan. This farmer who served his country in both WW I and WW II, who ploughed land, clerked in a drug store, stood up to Stalin, carried on FDR’s New Deal policies and presided over the beginning of the greatest economic growth this country has ever known scored an A+ on every issue both foreign and domestic during his reign, during which and afterwards with Eisenhower Wall Street paid corporate taxes for as much at 92%, a far call from today when you and I frequently pay at a higher rate than Boeing, GE, Trump and others. What happened? Read Reagan, Trump, and other tax cutters, whose efforts are responsible for what they complain about, i.e., heavier deficits – which they leave for our grandchildren to pay.

    I have a friend who is the retired archivist of the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, Dr. Niel M. Johnson, and have visited both Niel and the Truman Library several times. Niel is also a retired impersonator of Truman and even resembles him. I here recommend that any reader hereof if in the vicinity of Independence (in the same Jackson County as Kansas City) visit the Truman Library located there. It is time well spent to an understanding of the impact of the 20 year span of FDR/HST in American history.

  18. Vern > Perhaps that Trumper you quoted today as having said that “It’s time to have a dictator” will change his or her mind when the gestapo arrive to take him or her to the gas chamber. Don’t these people know that the people the fascist Hitler murdered were Germans? What makes them think they will be spared if Trump is elected? One would think his talk of “revenge and retribution” would inform their cultish minds that no one is immune to being murdered by this power mad ignoramus, which he has demonstrated on 1/6 and his criminal negligence in managing Covid with his politicization of medicine, as in, Margie Tayolor Greene is smarter than Dr. Fauci, the jabs don’t work, etc.

  19. Gerald,

    Absolutely. The cult mindset of Trump-ites is part of the weakness of their minds added to and a product of disinformation networks, the abuse of free speech and the demagoguery of creatures like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones. These idiots added to the “modern” means of information distribution has contributed to this cult’s emerging power. Idiots like these have always been with us – the irretrievable 25% – but now they’re given a voice, a voice they do NOT know how to use responsibly and in the spirit of civility. MTG is the personification of that cultural vacuum.

  20. I was a Republican for most of my life. In 2016 I decided that I could not in good conscience vote for the orange headed guy because everything that I read said that he was an amoral and nasty person. As a Republican I was also firmly against voting for the smirking face of the Democratic party, so I voted third party. As we all know, the result was the orange headed guy.

    People!! Learn the lesson! All third parties do is spoil the election.

    In 2020 I learned my lesson, held my nose, and voted for Joe Biden. Yes, we have had more inflation than I want because inflation is robbing me of my limited assets that I need to live on for the rest of my life. It is true that Biden has not been firm enough about the Israeli-Hamas war. It is NOT True that Biden was the cause of the Afghanistan fiasco. The orange headed guy had made the decision and essentially locked it in before he left office. There was virtually nothing that Biden could have done. On balance, Biden has done a miraculous job as the President of ALL of the People! As Cohn said, I will be voting for Biden even if he is in a coma!
    The alternative is too grim to even contemplate!!

  21. I still believe if the Court can read the Constitution and realize states have sole jurisdiction over how electors are chosen. Exclusion by Amendment 14 has always been prima facie. So Trump the Terrible cannot be the mild mannered “Man the Wedding Cake” kind of loser. We lived in NYC then and my father made book on 1948 election results. Bookies gave good odds. He made $250 1948 dollars thanks to Harry. HST was the first POTUS I saw in the flesh.

  22. Young voters who believe that the Israeli/Hamas conflict is the greatest threat need to understand that Putin has had the intent and ability to disrupt the election process and if he orders the same or greater interference in the 2024 election cycle in favor of tfg, the results will be contested and even greater violence will occur. The likelihood of armed conflict between militias loyal to him and law enforcement/military personnel (if we can count on those men and women to uphold their oaths) is not only possible but probable.
    The Middle East conflict being fanned by Iran plays directly into Putin’s hands. distracting and misdirecting attention and arms away from the real threat in Ukraine and the rest of eastern Europe.
    Bibi is a criminal wannabe dictator who will use any means to stay in power and avoid prosecution for corruption.
    Chaos will reign if tfg is elected or not. He thrives personally and financially on it. Expecting a different outcome in 2024 than occurred in 2020 is insane by the usual definition.

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