The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

George Wallace:
The Different Faces of a Populist Demagogue

Apr 30, 1983

Last November 2, George Wallace won his fourth term as Governor of Alabama. Wallace defeated Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmar with 60 per cent of the vote. For Wallace to win the governorship is nothing new. But this time, according to Alabama pollsters, while Wallace received about half of the white vote, he got about 90 per cent of the votes cast by black people.

Wallace in the 1960s was not simply one more Southern politician. He was the very symbol of resistance to the civil rights movement. It was Wallace who, in his 1963 inaugural address, exclaimed: “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” Nevertheless, in 1982 he was able to win an overwhelming vote from black people in Alabama.

Undoubtedly that vote was in large part a vote against Folmar. Whatever Wallace’s reputation in the past, it was Folmar who campaigned openly this time on a racist basis.

In front of the open racist Folmar, it is understandable that the black voters could choose Wallace as the lesser of two evils. What was much more revealing in the election was the fact that a substantial number of black people voted for Wallace in the Democratic primary where one of Wallace’s opponents, the liberal Lieutenant Governor George McMillan, attacked Wallace’s record on segregation. McMillan won the endorsement of many black Alabama politicians, as well as Coretta Scott King and Jesse Jackson, who came to Alabama to speak for him. Nevertheless, Wallace still won about 30 per cent of the black vote in the three-way primary.

The Basis of Wallace’s Appeal: Champion of the Poor

First of all, Wallace made a special appeal for the votes of black people. And, in doing this, he dealt with the question of his record in the 1960s head-on. Claiming that he was never a racist personally (“I have respected and loved black people always.”), he argued that he was opposed to federal domination from Washington in the past and that he still is. But he says directly that his thinking on segregation has changed: “I was for school segregation in those days. I’ve had black leaders say to me, ‘We know why you said what you said.’ And I tell them, ‘No, you’re wrong. I wasn’t saying that for expediency. I believed in segregation.’ Now I believe that segregation is wrong. And I don’t want it to come back. I see now that we couldn’t live in a society like that. In those days, I thought segregation was best for both races. But a short time after that, I came to see that this society can’t exist with a dual system.”

Wallace is the kind of politician able to turn the disadvantage of his past to his own advantage. Wallace has cultivated a certain image: “You may not like me, but you know who I am.” Because of that stance, he has more of a chance than do the ordinary politicians to seem reliable.

But finally all this would be words if there weren’t something which reinforces his appeal. What gives Wallace his appeal is that he has always been able to present himself as the champion of the poor and dispossessed.

In the campaign, he emphasized his personal identification with the poor, saying, for example, “We’ve always been poor in the South.... I’ve been without a job. I came back from the war and tried to practice law, and I couldn’t hardly make a living at it. I was broke. I drove a dump truck for 30 cents an hour.” Citing polls showing support for him among low income voters, he commented, “I hope in the future there will be more high income whites and blacks in Alabama.” And it was George Wallace who campaigned, “My friends, we are in difficult times in this state. Some people are not eating right.... Some can’t take care of their children. But we overcame the Depression.... You young people remember: You’re going to have a bright future no matter how bleak it might seem now. We shall overcome.”

Wallace explained that his campaign did not have “millions of dollars” because his supporters were “either bankrupt or unemployed.” He also said, “... I have been representative of the average citizen of Alabama. I have not been the voice of the special interests in Birmingham and Montgomery. I didn’t let the big-money interests run me.... We will help the elderly, blind, handicapped, disadvantaged and mentally ill.”

In the closing days of the campaign against Republican Folmar, Wallace’s advertising focused on the slogan, “Tell the rich Republicans your governor’s office is not for sale.”

What gives his campaign credibility today is that he has always presented himself as the representative of the poor and dispossessed, both when he defended segregation and today when he criticizes it.

He draws on a certain number of things which happened during his terms of office to back up this sense. He reminds people of the economic growth and development of industry in Alabama, which included the opening of many industrial jobs to black workers in the state for the first time. He refers to the fact that money was spent to provide free textbooks to students for the first time and to establish a state-wide junior college system from funds which might otherwise have gone to the more exclusive universities. These things, of course, were the result of the times, not of Wallace per se. But in a state where many people, black and white, were living in extreme poverty, any small change could have seemed to open a door.

An Anti-Establishment Campaign

When Wallace presents himself as responsible to the poor layers of the population, he insists that he is not accountable to the political powers-that-be. He has continued to rail against federal bureaucrats and the New York bankers. He broke with the Democratic Party for a time in 1968, when he ran for president on the American Independent Party ticket. If that party clearly appeared as a creation in large part of the racism among the poor whites, it was also a reflection of their distrust of the federal government and the Eastern establishment. And it was not just in Alabama that Wallace found this response. When he ran in the Democratic primaries in 1972, he had a big success in Michigan and Wisconsin, campaigning on the same basis of a sort of populist hostility to the Eastern establishment, to the banks, to all the rich and powerful.

In last year’s campaign, he came back to the same themes. In attacking the federal government, Wallace said in a comment on Reconstruction: “... the reason we were poor in those days after the War Between the States was that instead of them coming in and rebuilding our country, like we rebuilt Japan and Italy and Germany and Europe, we had 14 years of occupation that made all the black and white people poor.”

The appeal of Wallace to the poor whites has been depicted as an appeal based solely on racism. If it had been, Wallace would have lost his support among the whites when he repudiated his stance on segregation and made his appeal to be the representative of both poor black and white. Certainly the most racist of the whites were attracted to Folmar, but Wallace has always appealed to something more than this. For the biggest share of the poor white voters, whether or not they approve what he says today about segregation, he has changed hardly at all on a host of other issues which concern them deeply.

What Role Could Wallace Play in the Future?

If Wallace re-emerges politically at this time, and with a broader electoral support than ever before, including black people, it’s a reflection of the political situation. There is no black movement nor any large black political organization which speaks to the concerns of the poor black people. In fact, this has been the case for several years now. And it has been a much longer time since the working class was mobilized in any significant way, even on a trade union basis, let alone a political basis.

The working class and other poor layers have been battered by the economic crisis. The unions have played a key role to impose a program of concessions on the workers. The liberals of the Democratic Party, who claim to be concerned for the workers and the poor, present a program virtually indistinguishable from Reagan’s. The stage seems perfectly set for someone like Wallace. With unemployment in Alabama the second highest in the U.S., it is not surprising that a politician like Wallace can use a demagogic appeal to the poor.

Today, Wallace can benefit from this vacuum simply to advance his career, just as any ordinary politician might. But tomorrow Wallace – or someone like him – could play another role. If the working class should begin to resist the bourgeoisie’s attacks, and even more if the fights of the workers take on a mass character, someone like Wallace could stand in the way of a political organization of the working class crystallizing. We have seen in the past other politicians of the same populist type who played such a role.

Huey Long, Democrat from Louisiana, became a national political figure in the early 1930s under the slogan, “Share Our Wealth,” which supposedly called for a redistribution of income from the wealthy to the masses. Long built his reputation in Louisiana in the 1920s in a period of ferment among farmers against the banks as well as among both the rural and urban poor against monopolists’ price-gouging and control of their lives. Long also railed against the New York banks. As head of the Louisiana Public Service Commission, he claimed the credit for reductions in utility rates in order to build his own standing. To farmers fighting foreclosures and to workers organizing unions, Long’s message was precisely to rely on him, to vote for him – that is, he tried to divert them from the organizing drive starting in the country.

We saw something similar in Minnesota during the 1930s, with Floyd Olsen. Olsen and Long took different stances; while Olsen appeared as a progressive, Long was openly reactionary. Nonetheless, they were basically the same kind of politicians: bourgeois politicians who presented themselves as populist representatives of the poor.

Olsen was the Governor of Minnesota, elected as the candidate of the Farmer-Labor Party. Supposedly independent of the Democratic Party, Olsen addressed himself to the poor farmers and working people. But in fact he stood as an obstacle to the independent political organization of the workers. In 1934 there was a general strike of the working class in Minneapolis with ties to the farmers in the surrounding region. In such a situation, Olsen could more easily throw up an obstacle to the working class, than could the traditional Democratic Party politicians. He presented his party as the workers’ party. He was able to lead the ranks of the Farmer-Labor Party to support Roosevelt and eventually go back into the Democratic Party.

Long and Olsen played a role to block the development of political activity of the working class or of other poor layers of the population. They tied the workers to electoral politics and to the Democratic Party, when the workers were posing at least the possibility of something else. In these examples, we can see the potential of someone like Wallace, if the situation would demand it. If tomorrow a movement in the working class should start to grow, Wallace, like Long and Olsen before him, could be at the least an obstacle to the development of that movement. Or, even as Long might have done if he had lived, he might be the kind of politician around which a right-wing movement among the poor could crystallize.