You can’t go far these days without hearing Bernie Sanders compared to George McGovern, the ill-starred progressive South Dakota senator who lost forty-nine states to Richard Nixon in a presidential election almost half a century ago. That defeat, the Atlantic reminded us recently, was “then the largest Republican landslide in U.S. history.” But that same article never mentions which election currently stands as the largest Republican landslide in US history: Ronald Reagan’s reelection in 1984. In fact, in the swell of discourse about the lessons of 1972, it’s hard to find any mention of Walter Mondale’s similarly monumental — and more recent — defeat. When the New York Times quotes Mondale in his capacity as a superdelegate, they mention his decades of experience but somehow avoid mentioning that he lost forty-nine states in the electoral college. It’s impossible to imagine the same newspaper mentioning McGovern without emphasizing his defeat.
The reason for this is not hard to understand — the Mondale experience yields opposite implications from the 1972 analogy, implications which are distinctly inconvenient for critics of Sanders.
In 1984, Democrats faced the unenviable challenge of running against an incumbent in the early stages of economic recovery. This much was similar to 1972. Nixon, declaring himself “now a Keynesian in economics,” pressed fiscal, monetary, and trade policy to their limits to drive the economy out of its post-Vietnam slump and into a manufacturing boom. Given our knowledge of the oil crisis and the years-long recession that followed, it is easy to forget how high animal spirits were in the lead-up to the 1973 War in the Middle East. It was no wonder McGovern lost in 1972, a year the US economy grew more than 6 percent — in fact, I have never seen a serious argument that a non-McGovern candidate could have won that year. A month after Nixon’s landslide, Business Week predicted: “Consumers, businessmen, and investors can plan with confidence — 1973 will be an excellent year for the economy. That is the clear consensus of the vast majority of economists, the economic consulting companies, and all of the widely known econometric models. Expectations of good business ahead are nearly unanimous.”
In 1984, the mood was similar. The devastating double-dip recession of 1979–82, which had ensured Jimmy Carter’s defeat in 1980, had reached rock bottom and recovery had begun. Though Reagan, unlike Nixon, rejected the Keynesian label, his economic expansion similarly depended on opportunistic stimulus on a grand scale — this time, with tax cuts and military spending in the driver’s seat. But even as campaign ads began to promote the idea of “Morning in America,” there remained large-scale discontents: unemployment in November 1984 remained above 7 percent and whole regions of the country were devastated by factory closures. Reagan’s slashing of civil rights, social spending, and environmental regulations energized protest movements, while his nuclear buildup and Central American misadventures mobilized mass campaigns for peace on a level not seen since the early 1970s.
But, in 1984 even more than in 2020, everyone remembered McGovern. The Democratic establishment, and many voters, were dead set on avoiding the errors of a liberal “movement” candidate. The contemporary embodiment of such a politics was Jesse Jackson, whose social-democratic program and multiracial constituency marked him as a spiritual descendant of McGovern’s “New Politics.”
But it wasn’t just the Rainbow Coalition that was deemed unelectable. Organized labor, which in 1972 had been powerful enough to help sink McGovern, failed to meaningfully shape the Democratic nomination in 1984. The AFL-CIO backed Mondale, but Mondale’s weakness on labor issues like industrial policy and jobs programs drove union members in early primaries to support Gary Hart instead, an embarrassment for the labor federation. Describing the party convention, Harold Meyerson (whose organization, DSA, was reported to be split between Mondale and Jackson) lamented that “this year’s Democratic platform abandoned the party’s longstanding commitment to full employment and national health insurance, and this retreat was borne with equanimity by leaders of organizations that have championed these causes for decades.” Ultimately, the AFL-CIO helped push Mondale through but had to accept a subordinate role in his campaign, at one point failing even to raise the money they had initially pledged to the DNC, leaving business donations to make up the difference.
In every respect, Mondale’s strategy was to tack to the center. He endorsed Reagan’s invasion of Grenada and vowed to “quarantine” Nicaragua and keep US military “advisers” in Honduras and El Salvador. These moves, the New York Times reported, were supposed to “toughen” Mondale’s “positions on what his aides call ‘strength issues’ to broaden his appeal to moderates and conservatives.” Under pressure from AIPAC, he canned a campaign manager over ties to Arab business interests. Mondale’s running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, was the first woman to be so nominated but also, in the words of Mike Davis, “a white backlash candidate from the most segregated neighborhood of New York.” As a “law and order” prosecutor-turned-politician, she passionately supported the death penalty and favored a constitutional amendment to ban busing.
Fiscally, Mondale tried to outflank Reagan to the right by raving about the dangers of the deficit and promising to balance the budget with hundreds of billions of dollars in spending cuts and new taxes. He called the deficit the most important issue of the election. Naturally this austerity logic foreclosed any new programs that might help working and unemployed Americans in the Rust Belt and the cities. As Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers write in their still valuable Right Turn, he was “the first Democratic nominee in many years to fail even to put forward a major jobs program.” His campaign presented him as the spokesman for the politics of diminished expectations, the bearer of a tragic wisdom about the limits of liberalism. According to his former chief of staff, “When he arrived in Washington, it was the time of the Great Society. The economy was expanding and all things seemed possible. By the late 70’s, obviously those realities had changed. We didn’t have a rapidly expanding economic pie. There were severe budget restraints, and all things were not possible.” But even with slowing growth, there were some expenses Mondale was unwilling to touch: on defense spending, he said only that “The rate of defense spending increase can be slowed,” never that the military budget could be frozen or even returned to pre-Reagan levels.
Mondale’s triangulating rhetoric grew out of his campaign’s major social base: corporate donors.
As Ferguson and Rogers show in some detail, members of the business community — concerned by Reagan’s deficits and protectionism, but otherwise satisfied with the political coordinates of neoliberalism — became the most influential (and free-spending) group shaping Mondale’s campaign. A bevy of supportive businessmen spoke regularly to the press about how well Mondale understood the business perspective. These friends knew that even when Mondale occasionally attacked Reaganism as “government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich,” he shouldn’t be taken at his word. One investment banker, described by the New York Times as a “close friend” of Mondale, dismissed these vestigial populist slogans as “some unfortunate choosing of words.” According to another fundraiser, a group of business backers once told Mondale, “Fritz, quit knocking the rich; they’re financing your campaign,” to which the nominee responded “Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry. There’s nothing wrong with being rich. I want to be rich.” This is a timely reminder that we need to pay attention to whose money candidates are taking, not just whether they say vaguely social-democratic things from time to time.
Come election day, Mondale got clobbered. Like McGovern, he lost every state except one (both candidates also won Washington, DC). Since Mondale’s citadel in Minnesota had fewer electoral votes than McGovern’s (Massachusetts), the electoral college defeat in 1984 was even more complete than in 1972. In the popular vote, Mondale lost by 18.2 points, a shade better than the 23.2 percent loss of 1972, but hardly any closer to threatening the incumbent. Business turned out to be good enough under Reagan that Mondale’s overtures to capitalists missed their mark; conversely, Mondale’s promise of austerity was not a winner with the working class (he won only 53 percent of union members). If the lesson of 1972 was not to run a left-wing candidate, the Democrats of 1984 had learned their lesson well. But Mondale’s “new realism” came up just as short.
If Bernie — an insurgent from the Left, an older man beloved by the young, dreaming of assembling a new coalition — bears more than a passing resemblance to George McGovern, it’s not hard to spot the Mondales and Ferraros of the 2020 campaign. Pete Buttigieg’s macabre deficit hawkery was especially reminiscent. Here is the young mayor: “I think the time has come for my party to get a lot more comfortable owning this issue, because I see what’s happening under this president — a $1 trillion deficit — and his allies in Congress do not care.” Here is Mondale: “Here is the truth about the future: We are living on borrowed money and borrowed time. These deficits hike interest rates, clobber exports, stunt investment, kill jobs, undermine growth, cheat our kids, and shrink our future. Whoever is inaugurated in January, the American people will have to pay Mr. Reagan’s bills.” Ferraro’s opposition to busing came from the same place as Biden’s. And the campaign’s fear of social movements and deference to wealthy donors — occasionally leavened with calls for economic justice — was a moment in the capture of the party by the rich that Bloomberg sought to consummate in his effort to purchase the nomination.
None of this is to say that Sanders would surely win in a general election, nor that Buttigieg or Bloomberg would necessarily have lost. There’s no way to foresee future political events from the evidence of a thirty-six-year-old election. But by the same token, comparisons to McGovern should not be treated as serious arguments about contemporary politics. The constant references to 1972 are not just the compulsive repetition of an aging Baby Boom generation grappling with its youthful traumas. They are a motivated selective memory that functions to emphasize the risks of progressive politics while effacing the plain empirical reality that centrist campaigns have also gone down to landslide defeats.
Perhaps the McGovern obsession also reflects an understandable defense mechanism: it is easier to believe that youthful exuberance gave us Richard Nixon, rather than facing up to the immense popularity that would have made Nixon a difficult candidate for any Democrat to defeat. It’s frightening to admit that the macroeconomy may be a determining factor in presidential elections, but a strong economy is what Nixon and Reagan had in common, even as they faced such different Democratic opponents. It’s still unknowable what kind of economy Trump (who has shown himself an adept bastard-Keynesian in the Nixon-Reagan tradition) will have going for him in November. But whether it’s an expansion or a recession, history offers no reason to expect that “fiscal responsibility” or coziness with rich people represent a better electoral proposition than left populism.