You can tell a lot about a political party by its demonology. For the Right, this is a relatively simple affair. They hate Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, George Soros, socialists, black and brown people, and especially black and brown socialists.
American liberalism, however, has an appropriately more complex retinue of monsters. Trump and his ilk, of course, take up a lot of space here. But, as befits a creed so impressed with its own complexity and nuance, there are also a number of monsters from the Left. Some still rage against Jill Stein, implausibly blaming her campaign for Trump’s victory. Many still hold a special hatred for Ralph Nader, whose 2000 campaign supposedly brought us Bush, the Iraq War, and all that followed.
For the party’s real cognoscenti, however, one name still towers above all others as the ultimate example of the irresponsible left: George McGovern, fierce critic of the Vietnam War, and loser of the 1972 presidential election in one of the most lopsided popular votes in American history.
Today, many Democrats see in Bernie Sanders a revival of McGovernism. The lesson of 1972, they argue, is that the party can’t get so caught up chasing its left wing base that it forgets about where middle America is at. Today, Sanders and his supporters risk losing what will undoubtedly be described as “the most important election in our lifetimes,” in a tragic repeat of McGovern’s journey into the wilderness in 1972.
But the Democrats, as usual, have learned all the wrong lessons from history. McGovern didn’t lose because he was too left-wing. He lost because he was confronting a very popular and savvy incumbent in Richard Milhouse Nixon. Even more importantly, McGovern and his left-wing politics rose to the top because the party was confronting a devastating crisis over its prosecution of the Vietnam War. The fissures the war carved in the party made politics as usual an impossibility.
Today, the party confronts a similar crisis, as Obama’s neoliberalism with a human face bequeathed us the Trump administration’s inhumanity. It’s not Bernie Sanders, in this context, who is a political fantasist. Rather, it’s those who imagine that the same politics that lost to Trump in 2016 will put Trumpism to rest in 2020. It’s not George McGovern that the Democrats should be afraid of, but Hubert Humphrey.
New Politics, Then and Now
The problem with the McGovern-Sanders comparison isn’t that it’s totally off-base. The two candidates do have a lot in common. Both were voices in the darkin the Democratic Party before finally ascending to the very center of its political existence. Sanders, of course, carved out a career for himself in Vermont politics, rising from mayor to congressperson to senator, all while identifying as an independent and a socialist. McGovern distinguished himself in the early 1960s as a prescient critic of the American war in Vietnam, at a time when the war was being prosecuted by liberal heroes John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
Indeed, McGovern’s principled critique of American violence revealed a radicalism that shares a great deal with that of Bernie Sanders. Though McGovern never joined up with the antiwar movement, quixotically attempting to maintain a certain political respectability, his criticism of the war was scathing. In 1970, he gave a speech in the Senate in which he declared
Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval…There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed.
When a fellow Senator came up to McGovern after the speech, and told him how offended he was, McGovern replied, “That’s what I meant to do.”
The verdict of many liberals is that this radicalism is what doomed McGovern in 1972. They charged that such radicalism, though it endeared McGovern to the antiwar forces in the Democratic primary, put him solidly out of step with the American mainstream, allowing Richard Nixon to easily defeat him. This narrative was buttressed by the AFL-CIO, whose leader, George Meaney, refused to allow the federation to endorse McGovern, condemning him as the candidate of spoiled college kids who didn’t care about average working Americans. The year 1972, in this narrative, was an own goal by liberals who refused to see how far out of step they were with the vital center.
There’s a lot wrong with this narrative. For one thing, the idea that McGovern was out of step with the labor movement was a myth spread by the fanatically anticommunist hawk George Meaney. In fact, McGovern had a 95% voting record with the AFL-CIO. The delegates who nominated him at the convention had a higher percentage of union members than the previous convention, and more delegates earning a typical working-class income. And, of course, despite the myth of the hard hat hawk, support for the war was inversely correlated with education and occupational status.
The narrative that McGovern was too far to the left actually originated in the Democratic primaries. There, establishment candidates like Hubert Humphrey and Henry Jackson ran “Anybody but McGovern” campaigns, viciously smearing him the entire time. Humphrey, for example, took a position firmly to McGovern’s right, accusing him of wanting to turn America into a “second-class power.” The slur that McGovern was the candidate of “acid, abortion, and amnesty [for Vietnam draft resisters],” deployed ably by the Nixon team in the general election, originated with Humphrey’s campaign.
These attacks were damaging, and certainly helped Nixon. But they were ultimately unable to deny McGovern the nomination. The Democratic Party was still in the same crisis it had been in four years earlier. In 1968, in the wake of the Tet Offensive, Lyndon Johnson, who had won re-election in a landslide four years earlier, announced he would not be seeking another term. In the primaries that year, antiwar figures like Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy racked up win after win. Yet when the convention came around, the party handed the nomination to Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice president, who hadn’t even run in the primaries. Humphrey proceeded to campaign on a platform of staying the course in Vietnam, and trailed behind Nixon until the last two weeks before election day, when he finally came out against the war and closed the gap, to come within a hair’s breadth of winning. The party’s commitment to the war shattered it. In the aftermath, the legions of young volunteers inspired by McGovern’s image of moral purity decisively out-organized the disoriented and demoralized establishment.
The general election, however, was never close. Nixon was, hard as it is to believe today, a popular president. While his subsequent downfall in Watergate has cast a shadow backwards over Nixon’s administration, in 1972 he was an incumbent president presiding over a booming economy. Nixon was nothing if not a canny politician, and in his first term, he wrong-footed liberals on every possible issue. Unwilling to be the candidate of austerity, Nixon pursued a committed Keynesian economic policy at home, while constantly talking of peace in Vietnam and drawing down troop levels (even as he escalated the war in other ways). These kinds of maneuvers kept Nixon’s approval rating around 60% as he headed into the election. McGovern made his own mistakes as well, including a disastrously mishandled swapping out of his vice-presidential candidate over mental health issues. But Nixon would have been difficult for anyone to beat in 1972.
McGovern lost, then, not because he was too far-left. It was because he faced a strong opponent, and because his own party pulled out all the stops to smear him as unelectable. For figures like Meaney, McGovern’s defeat was a victory, as it allowed them to immediately begin organizing to restore top-down control over the party. This organizing bore fruit in a series of party commissions in the seventies and eighties, culminating in the introduction of the superdelegate system in 1981.
The Wrong Lessons
As political analogies go, there are worse ones than McGovern-Sanders. Both are political outsiders who rose to prominence in the wake of party crises, running under the banner of a far more radical critique of mainstream politics than any of their fellows. Those bandying the analogy about today, however, want it to mean a great deal more than this. They want McGovern to stand as an example of the electoral catastrophe that inevitably awaits candidates who stray to the left of, say, the Washington Post’seditorial line. This argument is only possible, however, with a kind of myopia that ignores everything else happening in 1972.
Most crucially, it ignores the deep crisis the Democratic Party found itself in after 1968, and the way that crisis made continuing in the old ways impossible. This is, of course, another similarity between 1972 and today. And like in 1972, there are plenty of Democrats today who want to act as if a retread of the Obama administration is a live possibility. Indeed, Joe Biden’s entire message seems to be little more than Obama nostalgia. Beto O’Rourke likewise seems to think that the lesson of the Obama years is that charisma and platitudinous politics will take you straight to the top. Appealing to a Democratic electorate moving to the left, they are likely to meet the same fate as Humphrey and Jackson.
Of course, Donald Trump is no Richard Nixon. He is deeply unpopular, and dependent, as ever, on what he has inherited — the economic recovery that began under Obama. With a recession quite possible by November 2020, Trump could easily be the most vulnerable incumbent since Jimmy Carter. Just as the Democrats were able to clean up in the 2018 midterms without a particularly inspiring vision, it is entirely possible that whoever they nominate will be able to defeat Trump.
Yet Trump was brought to office by a crisis that he did not create. And if, say, Joe Biden defeats Trump, and consummates the “Grand Bargain” with Republicans he’s been discussing, cutting Social Security and Medicare, the Republican that follows him may make Trump look like Mitt Romney.
Ultimately, this is the lesson Democrats refused to learn in 1972, and refuse to learn now. McGovern’s defeat initiated a series of transformationsin the party, leading to Jimmy Carter’s embrace of Paul Volcker, the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council, Bill Clinton’s Third Way neoliberalism, and Obama’s orchestration of a recovery every bit as unequal as what preceded it. While Democratic concern trolls accuse Sanders of not learning the lessons of McGovern, the lessons theylearned from 1972 have been exactly what has brought us to our current state.
Though the party doesn’t want to learn any new lessons, Bernie Sanders, starting from an infinitely stronger position today than McGovern ever did, just might teach them one anyway.