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.Comments