Rhyming with 1972
Published February 20, 2020
By Thomas Mills
In poll after poll, Bernie Sanders is surging, Joe Biden is tanking and Mike Bloomberg is filling the gap. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight predicts that Sanders will sweep up enough delegates by Super Tuesday to have an insurmountable lead. I’m trying to get my head around a Sanders nomination. Right now, it’s just depressing.
As a friend of mine says, we’ve been in this movie before. At a time of great social upheaval, the vanguard of change convinces itself and enough left-leaning Democrats that the country is ready for a virtual revolution. Back in 1968, they lined up behind Eugene McCarthy, storming the Democratic convention and leaving the party divided and torn. The result was Richard Nixon. Four years later, convinced that Democrats lost because 1968 nominee, Hubert Humphrey, was too much of a moderate, they nominated George McGovern, an anti-war Senator who promised to offer amnesty for draft dodgers and a guaranteed minimum income.
Like Sanders, McGovern excited and motivated young activists. His campaign inspired a generation of young people who would shape the Democratic Party for the next thirty years. Gary Hart was his campaign manager. Bill Clinton ran Texas. Many of the consultants who ran campaigns during the 1980s and 1990s got their start working for McGovern.
Support for McGovern was fueled partially by anger at a Democratic establishment that had not adequately embraced the social change that was happening in the nation. Unfortunately, neither had much of the country. Blue-collar voters who supported McGovern during the primaries abandoned him as they learned more about his more liberal positions on cultural issues. In the end, McGovern lost in the largest landslide in modern political history, winning only the District of Columbia.
As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes. This year feels like it’s rhyming with 1972. We have a deeply immoral man in the White House who harbors authoritarian instincts running for re-election. The Republican Party has embraced him despite his obvious ethical flaws.
On the Democratic side, the establishment frontrunner is collapsing as the primaries start, not unlike Edmund Muskie in 1972. The moderate candidates, Muskie, Hubert Humphrey and Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, split the vote, giving McGovern a clear lead in delegates heading into the convention. Similarly, the relative strength of Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg and Klobuchar is preventing the centrists from coalescing around one candidate to challenge Sanders.
Back in 1972, the young anti-war and civil rights activists interpreted the public support for their causes as a broad demand for social and economic change. Today, as we re-examine and reinterpret our racial history, embrace LGBT rights, acknowledge the truth of the #MeToo movement and watch the courage of the #NeverAgain survivors, young activists believe the nation is ready for a political revolution that will end economic and cultural inequality. For them, Bernie Sanders is the leader of that movement and in the reinforcing bubble of social media, they believe a majority of the country is with them. I hope they’re right but I don’t think they are.
Despite all of the media attention and the hype of the presidential primary, most voters didn’t know much about George McGovern when he was nominated. They don’t know much about Bernie Sanders yet, either. Between the convention in 1972 and election day, Richard Nixon used McGovern’s own positions against him. In the fall of this year, you can bet Donald Trump will do the same to Sanders if he’s the nominee. What crushed McGovern is that his positions really were out of sync with most middle class and working class voters. What will crush Sanders is that his positions are, too and the GOP will use his own words against him.