Imagine, for a moment, that you are in the thick of the Democratic presidential primary of 1972. Figures like Edmund Muskie, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, and Shirley Chisholm are vying for the nomination. In the course of a discussion over who is the best choice to take on Nixon, someone offers a word of warning: “We don’t want another Cox, do we?”
If that name means little to you in the context of Democratic politics today, it’s not because you’re missing some vital part of the political conversation from 1972. Indeed, it probably would have meant little more to someone hearing it in that year. It refers to James M. Cox, the Democratic nominee in 1920, who lost to Warren Harding by a whopping twenty-four points, the most decisive margin in US history.
If the idea of bringing up a bad loss from the 1920s in the context of the 1970s seems strange, it is worth asking why, today, the comparison between Bernie Sanders and George McGovern’s ill-fated campaign half a century ago seems somehow less strange. Indeed, since Sanders’s first run in 2016, the comparison with McGovern has been raised again and again by his opponents.
The persistence of the comparison has obscured its strangeness. It is easy, after all, to imagine how people would have responded to someone bringing up Cox in 1972 — that race was half a century ago, and US politics has changed immeasurably since then, making the comparison implausible.
This same reply applies to those making the comparison between McGovern and Sanders. The attachment to it reveals less about Sanders and more about the way the Democratic establishment and its apologists remain fixated on a political context that no longer exists. As Talleyrand is said to have remarked of the French Bourbon dynasty, they have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.
For those comparing McGovern to Sanders, the lessons of the 1972 election are clear: if Democrats run too far to the left, they risk a landslide defeat. In making this argument, however, they both mythologize what happened in 1972, and ignore the salient differences in the political situation today.
Unlike Bernie Sanders, George McGovern never looked like he was going to beat the Republican incumbent. From the beginning, he ran at least ten points behind Nixon in polling, though that’s in large part a result of the Democratic Party’s active effort to deny him the nomination.
The establishment was quite open about its strategy for “anybody but McGovern,” and smeared him relentlessly. Humphrey, for example, took a position firmly to McGovern’s right, accusing him of wanting to turn America into a “second-class power.” The slur that McGovern was the candidate of “acid, abortion, and amnesty [for Vietnam draft resisters],” deployed ably by the Nixon team in the general election, originated with Humphrey’s campaign.
Moreover, AFL-CIO head George Meaney, a kingmaker in the Democratic coalition, actually prevented the federation from endorsing McGovern. Meaney was a Vietnam hawk and hated McGovern for his strident criticisms of the war. Purporting to speak for the working class (who in reality opposed the war), Meaney heaped salacious abuse on McGovern supporters, deriding them as “people named Jack who look like Jills and smell like johns.”
In other words, the verdict that McGovern was too far to the left wasn’t simply delivered by the electorate, but actively cultivated by his own party well in advance of the election. Figures like Humphrey made it seem like McGovern was a bigger threat to the country than Nixon, and managed to convince many Democrats to vote accordingly.
If the Democratic establishment today obscures its predecessors’ role in sabotaging McGovern, they also fail to see how different Sanders’s campaign is. McGovern didn’t look like a strong candidate in 1972 until the New Hampshire primary, when he ran an unexpectedly strong second in a race Maine senator Edmund Muskie was supposed to walk away with. Muskie, a victim of Nixon’s dirty tricks campaign, collapsed shortly thereafter, winning only one other primary.
But McGovern didn’t actually win a primary until he won Wisconsin on April 4. By the end of the primaries, though McGovern racked up by far the most primary wins, he actually had won fewer votes than Hubert Humphrey. In 1972, there really was a deeply divided primary field with no clear winner.
The situation today couldn’t be more different. Bernie Sanders won the first three primaries and has a commanding lead across most of the Super Tuesday states. Despite virtually the entire media working overtime to portray him as controversial and divisive, he is more popular across the Democratic Party than any of his opponents. Bernie Sanders may be controversial on MSNBC, but among Democratic voters, he really isn’t. He is in a far stronger position to resist and overcome the opposition hurled at him.
Then as Farce
If Sanders has managed to shift the party somewhat to the left, the Democratic establishment has shown that it is less willing to change. All candidates except Sanders have declared their intention to take the race to an incredibly damaging divided convention, suggesting that, like the establishment of 1972, they care more about keeping the Left out of power than defeating the Right.
When I wrote on this subject last year, I suggested that the party would do better to fear the example of Hubert Humphrey than George McGovern. It seems they haven’t listened, however, as now superdelegates are floating rumors of pushing figures who aren’t even running in the primaries, like Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, for second-round ballots at the convention. In 1968, Humphrey was selected as the Democratic candidate in this same manner, despite not having run in a single primary. His nomination shattered the party, and his insistence on refusing to criticize the Vietnam War led to his defeat by Nixon. First as tragedy, then as farce.
It’s already clear that the Democratic establishment is happy to repeat this scenario if it means keeping Sanders out. But it’s unlikely that they’ll have the support of most Democratic voters. Sanders is right when he says it will take a social movement to defeat Trump in November. The Democratic establishment is increasingly making it clear that they won’t be a part of it.