vision 2020

Why Bernie Is Not George McGovern and 2020 Isn’t 1972

Two insurgent Democrats, very different times. Photo: Getty Images

We’ve known for a long time that the GOP strategy for victory in 2020 is to rev up the Trump-loving MAGA base while convincing swing voters that Democrats are a bunch of baby-killing, job-killing hippies obsessed with political correctness and resentment toward virtuous middle-class folk (and the billionaires who employ them). While wallowing in a chronic extremism that Trump has mostly just exacerbated, Republicans can’t legitimately “reach out” to the unconverted to expand their coalition, so they have to pretend the other side is even more dangerous and irresponsible. Until very recently, this task was pursued by the generalized claim that Democrats were “moving to the left” at a breakneck pace, letting socialists like Bernie Sanders call the shots.

Now, of course, it looks like Republicans may be able to leave out a step in this train of illogic if Bernie Sanders is in fact calling the shots as presidential nominee. So you can expect a barrage of propaganda from both the right and some panicked centrists treating a Sanders-led ticket as a once-in-a-generation calamity. And inevitably, comparisons will be drawn between Bernie and the last left-bent Democratic insurgent to win a presidential nomination, George McGovern in 1972.

McGovern is a useful devil-figure for Republicans and a cautionary tale for Democrats because, of course, he managed to lose 49 states to Richard Nixon, a president who, before his second term was halfway done, was forced to resign the presidency in disgrace. So before too much myth-making is incorporated into the conventional wisdom, it’s a good idea to revisit 1972 and see what lessons can and cannot be derived.

I weighed in on this topic last August, when I argued that much of the demonization of McGovern was misplaced. The New Deal coalition he was alleged to have destroyed with his extremism was already kaput. The party abandoned his candidacy more than he abandoned the party. A second Nixon term seemed acceptable to a lot of Democrats, in part because he systematically tailored his policies and his political operation to expand his coalition. And the habit of massive ticket-splitting meant that down-ballot Democrats could sacrifice McGovern without consequences for their own campaigns.

To the extent that McGovern was responsible for his own demise, it was less a matter of ideology than of inept campaign mechanics and tactics, exemplified by his disastrous process for selecting a running mate (an entirely non-vetted senator who turned out to have an undisclosed history of electroshock treatments and apparent alcohol abuse), leading to an even more disastrous decision to dump him and start over mid-campaign.

So what does this history have to do with Bernie Sanders? Derek Thompson asks this question, and finds some similarities as well as differences. The former include a major overlap in policy positions; an effective grassroots-fundraising operation (unheard of before 1972); a similar appeal to young voters (without publicly released exit polls it’s hard to tell, but McGovern may have actually won among first-time voters despite a calamitous performance overall); and even a nomination campaign that depended on steadily increasing strength among minority voters (McGovern’s campaign chief in the final primary in California was none other than future assembly speaker and San Francisco mayor Willie Brown).

Thompson thinks the single biggest difference between then and now is that Nixon in 1972 was a lot more popular than Trump is now. And that’s absolutely true: Even though Trump’s job-approval rating is currently drifting up into the higher 40s in some measurements, there’s no way he will approach the 62 percent Nixon had on Election Day in 1972.

But I would draw attention to other differences as well. Partisan polarization and a radical decline in ticket-splitting means that down-ballot Democrats will have little incentive to abandon their presidential candidate even if they think he can’t beat Trump in their areas. And just as importantly, today’s Democratic Party and its constituent elements are a lot closer to Bernie Sanders than they were to McGovern in 1972.

If you get too caught up in today’s “warring factions” of the Democratic Party you can forget that it used to be far, far more diverse ideologically. McGovern was dealing with a party that still had hosts of open segregationists, Cold War militants, law-and-order enthusiasts, and culturally conservative Catholics. His Democratic Party was still divided over the Vietnam War. The famous claim that McGovern was the candidate of the “three A’s — acid, amnesty [for draft evaders] and abortion” wasn’t invented by Nixon’s dirty trick artists, but by fellow Democrats (including his future running mate, Thomas Eagleton).

And most notably, McGovern’s abandonment by the Democratic Party was exemplified by the exceptional hostility of the labor movement. The AFL-CIO was neutral in the 1972 general election for the first and only time since it was formed. That’s not going to happen to Bernie Sanders in 2020. He has a 98 percent lifetime rating from the AFL-CIO on congressional votes, and attracted significant labor support in both 2016 and 2020 despite heavy pressure to support Clinton in the former year and nobody in the latter.

A changing Democratic Party reflects a changing country, too. In retrospect, the McGovern campaign reflected the first effort to put together a new coalition of upscale professionals along with minority voters to replace some of the white-working class voters Democrats were already beginning to lose. The demographics for that sort of effort are obviously much, much better now, in part because of an enormously more diverse population and in part because the ancient hold of the GOP on professionals has long been broken.

The residual question is whether Bernie Sanders will run a general election campaign anything like McGovern’s. Keep in mind that the South Dakotan’s primary campaign (run by future senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart) was then and later adjudged as quite good. But it’s as though the same people lost their minds once the nomination was in hand. It’s impossible to entirely separate cause from effect, but the abandonment of McGovern by Democrats was made easier by the perception that his campaign was bumbling and amateurish, and unsure about its own relationship to the party Establishment it had temporarily toppled.

Can the Sanders campaign fulfill its potential of uniting Democrats while expanding the party’s coalition to include previously disengaged nonvoters and perhaps even a share of the alienated white working-class voters Trump won? Or will it be psychologically incapable of abandoning its quality as an insurgency and imagine it can win while spurning regular Democrats? To put it another way, does Team Bernie want to conquer the Democratic Party, purge its impure elements, and begin rebuilding the party for the long-term future? Or does it want to beat Trump in 2020, even if that means passing up the opportunity to settle intra-party scores and dance on the political graves of its former persecutors? These questions may need to be answered even before the convention in Milwaukee, because Sanders may need help from Democrats who fear his nomination to get over the top.

The Sanders campaign has an opportunity to make history in 2020, but that may require skill and tolerance as well as grassroots energy and audacity. Bernie’s “revolution” won’t ultimately amount to a hill of beans if he wins the nomination and loses to Trump, even if it’s not his fault. So he and his fans would be well advised not to drink the Kool-Aid and believe in electability arguments that depend on the idea that there’s a hidden majority of nonvoters out there who have been waiting for a democratic socialist option all these years. More likely, the electorate we already know about will decide 2020. But if Sanders does win, it will lay to rest once and for all the myth that Democratic progressives are doomed to McGovern’s fate.

Why Bernie Is Not George McGovern and 2020 Isn’t 1972