Monday, March 28, 2016

George McGovern

Several times over the course of this election cycle I've heard people, particularly Democrats, explain their reservations about Bernie Sanders by comparing him to George McGovern, the Democratic candidate from the race in 1972.

The presidential election of 1972 is a fascinating case study. It was an election with high emotional investment and high stakes, and it resulted in a spectacular defeat for the Democrats. I do think that election cycle has several parallels to the current election, but I don't think those parallels necessarily lie where these Democrats claim they do.

So, in today's post, I'm going to discuss a presidential election that happened 13 years before I was born and draw what parallels I can between that election and the current one.

In 1972, the United States was reeling after nearly two decades of conflict in Vietnam. The Cold War was still going, but Richard Nixon's focus during his first term as President was on his foreign policy; specifically, détente. Détente was the process through which the United States, China, and the Soviet Union attempted to ease their animosity to each other through trade deals, arms agreement, and just generally allowing their leaders to be seen together. Both the Democrats and the Republicans had liberal and conservative wings at the time. Integration was a major issue, and neither party was entirely for the idea.

Richard Nixon was, of course, the Republican frontrunner since he was the sitting President. At the time, Nixon was considered a moderate, so both the liberal and conservative wings of the party offered token candidates to oppose him. However, Nixon swept the nomination, taking all but one of the Republican primary delegates. The Republican party was basically united as one.

The Democrats were not. Their primary was hotly contested. This first presumptive frontrunner, Ted Kennedy, declined to run. The second, Ed Muskie, lost favor before the New Hampshire primary and never really got his campaign off the ground. Shirley Crisholm, the first ever black woman in Congress, became both the first black Democratic candidate and the first female Democratic candidate. However, as if to hammer home how different the Democrats were then than they are now, Crisholm's popularity was vastly overshadowed by by the segregationist, Democratic governor of Alabama, George Wallace. However, the most popular candidates were Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern.

Hubert Humphrey served as Vice President to Lyndon Johnson and was the Democratic candidate in 1968, where he lost to Richard Nixon. Typically, candidates who lost the general election did not get a second chance, but Humphrey still had a lot of pull with the Democratic establishment. In the end, Humphrey narrowly won the popular vote over McGovern in the 1972 primary, but due to the electoral system McGovern had more delegates.

George McGovern ran on a platform of ending the Vietnam War and granting amnesty to draft dodgers. He was pro-choice, and he proposed a sort of guaranteed income plan, among other progressive ideas. His grassroot campaign energized enough of the Democratic base to get the nomination... narrowly, and with much opposition. A large sect of the party organized a "Stop McGovern" campaign, and the 1972 Democratic National Convention was a heated affair. Though McGovern received the party's nomination, it was the nomination of a fractured party.

Nixon won the general election in a landslide. It was very nearly a sweep: 49 states sided with Nixon, with McGovern winning only Massachusetts and Washington D.C. It was a massive blow to the Democrats, and they never lost an election that badly again... until 1984, when Ronald Reagan swept up 49 states as well, just four years after he unseated Jimmy Carter by carrying 44 states in 1980.

Comparing the 1972 presidential race to the 2016 presidential race doesn't make much sense on the surface. In 1972 it was a moderate incumbent with a united party against a radical candidate whose own party was working against him. This year, neither party is terribly united, and neither party is fielding what the general populace would consider a moderate candidate. The Democrats may claim Clinton is moderate and the Republicans may claim the same of John Kasich, but that's only in comparison to their rivals for the nomination. Also, another major difference between the 1972 and 2016 elections is that the race is open; there is no incumbent, which makes a huge difference, since nobody's just coming back from signing peace deals with China and the Soviet Union right before running for reelection.

That said, there are a few similarities here that I've noticed:

First, there are some obvious parallels between Sanders and McGovern's idealist platforms. They're both anti-establishment, anti-war, and pro-choice. Also, I have no doubt that the concept of guaranteed income has crossed Sanders's mind. That said, while these platforms hurt McGovern's campaign, the political climate has changed significantly in the past 40 years. To many, their platforms are not as radical as they once seemed. However, McGovern's failure 40 years ago sparked a fear of idealism that's haunted the Democrats ever since.

Second, just as there was an "anybody but McGovern" faction in 1972, there's an "anybody but" faction this year as well. However, this faction is aimed at the establishment candidate this time; Clinton, not Sanders. Clinton supporters dismiss this movement as sexism, and some of it is, but regardless there's no denying that Hillary Clinton is a polarizing figure. This faction is likely to cause significant trouble for Clinton in the general election, and it seems like the party is more likely to fracture with a Clinton nomination than with a Sanders nomination. However, it may only seem that way because Hillary has maintained a lead in the primary since the beginning. There's no need for a "Stop Bernie" faction if he doesn't need to be stopped, after all

Finally, there's the way the Democratic party in 1972 seemed to be fracturing over a crisis of identity. That was around the time the Democrats were losing the last of their southern appeal, as the last vestige of the party's racist past, George Wallace, failed to win the nomination (though he pulled a significant percentage of the popular vote). The party was struggling to figure out what it was and what it would become.

This seems to have a parallel, not with the Democrats in 2016, but with the Republicans. The GOP has been struggling with the Tea Party movement, xenophobic nationalists, and the religious right all expecting the Republican party to wrest control of the party from its establishment. As a result, the party isn't sure what it represents anymore.

In fact, if there's a parallel to be drawn here at all, Donald Trump seems to be the George McGovern of this election. He's a radical candidate that's infuriating the establishment. There's definitely a "Stop Trump" movement within the party, but his populism seems to be securing him a victory anyway, jsut as it did for McGovern. And though he's winning within his party, it seems unlikely that he will do well in the general election due to his radical views and the fact that many people seem to think he's kind of a joke.

If Trump was going up against an incumbent, we might actually have been looking at another sweep the likes of which we haven't seen since 1984. He isn't, though, so a repeat of the 1972 election isn't likely. Trump may win, because it isn't 1972 and things no longer work the way they did 40 years ago.

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