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Democrats are Haunted by 1972
Re-examining McGovern's devastating loss -- and the collapse of party unity that changed everything
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One of the most striking aspects of the 2020 Democratic primary cycle is the steady proliferation of anxiety, unwarranted speculation, and gross over-generalization about what voters want. This is most obvious in expressions of fear that the failure to remove Donald Trump from office during the impeachment process, a likely outcome from the outset and a reason that the Democratic leadership was reluctant to undertake it, signals a tragic fate for Democrats in the 2020 election.
Worse, the pundit class, which should be challenging the electorate with ideas and analysis and instead seems to be taking a cultural studies approach to covering the candidates, is engaged in endless handwringing, triggered by the emergence of a viable left in the Democratic party. Because if this, they predicted a Biden boom that has yet to appear, and may also be overestimating Michael Bloomberg’s as-yet untested appeal to voters outside New York City. Superficial analyses of candidates’ policy programs, and their past missteps, abound. This is a particularly serious problem in relation to healthcare policy, where increasingly frightened voters need honest information, from experts, about the relative cost of taxation versus the cost – and limited benefits – of private, employer-based insurance.
This lack of analysis and fact-based reporting, and the insistence that everyone who knows how to type gets to express an opinion, no matter how ill informed, produces relentless fault-finding about all candidates who still have a viable path to the Democratic nomination. It also leads to baseless claims about what Democrats, independent voters, and disaffected Republicans will think and do when offered a choice between the status quo and a more equitable future in which the cronyism, corruption and outright cruelty of the Trump administration is reversed.
This substitution of opinion for intellectual leadership is demoralizing, long before Democrats have any real reason to be fearful of what the outcome of the election 2020 will be. Those of us who are canvassing have heard the fear first-hand, and seen how has paralyzed Iowa and New Hampshire voters, the majority of whom have characterized themselves as “undecided” until the last minute. As Princeton historian and CNN political commenter Julian Zelizer put it in a tweet this morning, “There are moments when it feels as if Democrats are going to psych themselves into conceding to Trump before the general election even begins.” Zelizer pointed out that no one would have predicted that Nixon, who won 49 states and 60.7% of the popular vote in 1972, would win presidency with the widest margin in American political history. Nixon was also the first Republican ever to run the table of former Confederate states, making the election a turning point for the Democratic party to become solidly liberal and the GOP the party of conservatism.
Indeed, 1972 induced a fair amount of trauma in the Democratic political class. We can see the residual fear of another McGovern debacle, both in the party’s shift to the center in the 1990s, and today’s distress about the possibility that Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren might become the de facto leader of the party. Pundits, members of the Democratic establishment, and competing campaigns urge Democratic voters to play it safe, to not choose a candidate who will be “out of step” with what they characterize as an essentially moderate electorate.
This fear mongering may only seem reasonable, however, because we aren’t taking the correct lessons from history. Journalist Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008), agrees. As Perlstein put it in a review essay for Democracy (Winter, 2008) that he forwarded to me when I asked him this question: “Losing campaigns–especially thumpingly, head-spinningly losing campaigns–are objects of talismanic power in the minds of politicians. Their response is almost pre-rational.”
When I asked him why McGovern lost, Perlstein told me that what actually happened in the 1972 campaign was that Nixon “cheated” and it worked. His campaign engaged in an ongoing campaign of “ratfucking” (an actual term used by political consultants) “meaning sabotaging [other primary candidates] in a way that made it appear their DEMOCRATIC opponents had sabotaged them — all the candidates except for McGovern.” This guaranteed, Perlstein emphasizes, that Nixon “would run against [McGovern] and a divided party.”
Minus the “ratfucking,” Edmund Muskie, a far stronger and equally liberal candidate, was on track to face Nixon in 1972. Furthermore, Perlstein points out, having set up McGovern, the Nixon administration then engaged in a concerted campaign of lies and manipulation, sucking the air out of the anti-war movement’s appeal to moderate voters and wooing workers with the mirage of a strong economy.
“[Henry] Kissinger,” Perlstein reminded me, “announced the end of the Vietnam war without `surrender.’” This was a patent falsehood. The policy of “Vietnamization” — imagined under the Johnson administration and implemented by Nixon after 1968 that put the feckless and corrupt government of South Vietnam and its reluctant army in charge of preserving democracy in that country— was, in fact, a tacit path to American surrender. Nixon also “shamelessly gamed the economy,” Perlstein continued, “instituting price controls to artificially stanch inflation (and guaranteeing greater inflation later) and ordering bulk purchases of things our government needed (like toilet paper), implemented to create an economic `boom’ at election time.”
Anything sound familiar here?
The takeaway is that in order to win this election, Democratic strategists, the pundit class, and political campaigns need to follow Elizabeth Warren’s warning after the New Hampshire primary that the path to victory for Democrats is to to reverse divisive tactics and unify the party.
In other political news:
Historian Michael Kazin predicts a long and difficult road ahead for Bernie Sanders, but argues that Sanders has already won a victory by “transforming the ideology and program of a major party.” (New York Times, February 12, 2020)
People who focus at all when Pete Buttigieg speaks know that he opens his mouth and a jumble of words emerge, in a very serious tone of voice, that mean very little. To cheer me up after Elizabeth Warren’s dismal showing in New Hampshire, a friend sent me “The Mayor Pete Platitude Generator,” which kicks out Pete-isms like: “You can’t just let voter suppression suffer, and I gotta think they know that too” and “Obamacare is reflected in a society that doesn’t value everyday lives.”
Monica Hesse of The Washington Post explains that yes, Elizabeth Warren is struggling in the primaries because she is a woman. (February 10, 2020)
At The Bulwark, political communications consultant Tim Miller looks at the decisions Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden face going into Nevada and South Carolina.(February 11, 2020)