For nearly a half century, the specter of George McGovern’s landslide defeat in 1972 at the hands of President Richard Nixon has haunted the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Each quadrennial election year that an insurgent left-liberal Democratic candidate has made a plausible bid for the party’s presidential nomination, opponents have warned of a political catastrophe similar to McGovern’s in the general election.
Now that Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, has emerged as the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2020, the old warnings echo even louder. Veteran media commentator Chris Matthews is typical of alarmists in prophesying that Sanders as nominee would match McGovern in losing 49 states (presumably Vermont would be the sole exception).
Assessing the Sanders/McGovern parallels being drawn in centrist Democratic quarters requires care in sorting out where the predictions of Democratic doom are overblown — and where they register reasonable fears.
Perhaps the largest flaw in the argument that Sanders will be another McGovern is its ahistorical character. Data-driven analyses conducted shortly after the 1972 election identified the primary source of the Nixon landslide victory as the unprecedented defection of self-identified Democrats from McGovern: more than a third of Democratic voters cast their ballots for President Nixon. White southern Democrats (there were still a large number of them in 1972) and northern white workers were the chief defectors. Issues of foreign policy (McGovern as the peace candidate) and social change (McGovern’s association with the sixties counterculture) also alienated many moderate and conservative Democrats. McGovern was stronger among college-educated voters, professionals, women, young people, and communities of color.
The Democratic coalition of 2020 is very different than that of 1972. The groups in the party that were most opposed to McGovern — southerners, workers, foreign policy hawks, cultural traditionalists — have mostly become Republicans. Over the same span of time, groups that were supportive of the Democratic candidate in 1972 have grown substantially in size. To take just one example, the Latinx vote, a tiny percentage of the electorate in 1972, has mushroomed dramatically.
Today’s Democratic Party is both more liberal and more cohesive than it was in 1972; differences between left-liberals and centrists are considerably smaller than they were when McGovern was the presidential candidate. Add to this picture mounting partisan polarization, with most Democrats increasingly hostile to the Republican Party, and it is hard to imagine large numbers of self-identified Democrats defecting to President Trump, even if Sanders becomes the party’s nominee.
The argument that a self-professed socialist at the top of the ticket will ensure defeat for many down-ballot Democratic candidates, possibly even restoring Republicans to majority status in the House of Representatives, also warrants skepticism. As in Sanders’s case, before McGovern clinched the Democratic nomination he was assailed by opponents as an albatross for the entire party ticket. But there was hardly any connection in the end between his fate, and that of fellow Democratic candidates. While McGovern was losing the national popular vote by 23 percentage points, the Democrats lost only 12 seats in the House and actually gained two seats in the Senate. If Sanders is the nominee, down-ballot centrist Democrats will be free to distinguish themselves ideologically from the democratic socialist. Furthermore, those who might vote reluctantly for Trump due to Sanders’ socialist policy proposals might want to maintain a congressional check on the president.
If Sanders is unlikely to face a drubbing comparable to McGovern’s, and if the Democratic Party as a whole is not likely to be dragged down by his candidacy, there are still some remaining parallels between Sanders and McGovern that ought to concern Democrats. After all, even a narrow loss to President Trump, similar to 2016, conjures up nightmares for them.
One concern for Democrats is that Sanders’s radical past, not yet publicized widely either by the press or by his fellow candidates for the nomination, will be weaponized by the Trump campaign. His youthful activism in the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party, his kind words for the Soviet Union, his praise for Marxist regimes in Cuba and Nicaragua — all these and more will be dredged up and dramatized to paint Sanders as an alien, unpatriotic leftist. Sanders could become the target of a modern-day, Trumpian red scare.
On the other hand, surveys have suggested that many Americans have a hazy awareness of history. An anecdote from the McGovern campaign is apropos in this regard. According to Nixon speechwriter William Safire, the Republican campaign initially planned to tar McGovern with his activism in the left-wing presidential campaign of Henry Wallace in 1948. The plan was scrapped when GOP strategists realized that conservative voters might confuse Henry Wallace with George Wallace, just as they had earlier confused Eugene McCarthy with Joseph McCarthy.
Whatever the potential impact of revelations about Sanders’s past, his current radical image is sure to be a centerpiece of a Trump matchup. No-holds-barred attack politics has been a mainstay of Republican presidential campaigns since 1972. Indeed, Richard Nixon crafted what has been in essence the textbook for Republican attack politics during the campaign against McGovern. His acolytes, among them Roger Stone, have been revising and applying that textbook ever since, often with devastating effectiveness. With a Republican president in the White House whose lack of scruples easily matches Nixon’s, Sanders is in for a season of smears. It is instructive to recall Nixon’s approach to McGovern as a way to imagine how Trump and his aides might go after Sanders.
Nixon despised McGovern, depicting him in private conversations as a “Communist son of a bitch.” (Unlike Sanders, McGovern in fact had never been a socialist–never mind a Communist.) But the president and his strategists also viewed McGovern as the weakest candidate in the large Democratic field of prospective nominees, and they made efforts to boost his chances, putting out fake poll numbers to make him look stronger. Once McGovern won the California primary and became the likely Democratic nominee, Nixon announced his fall strategy to his top aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. In his memoir, Ehrlichman reproduced Nixon’s instructions:
There should be more “savage attack lines” in our literature…Attack McGovern
on his wildest, most radical position. We must always stay with his worst
positions, keeping him over on the left. He is always to appear to be a
fanatical, dedicated leftist extremist…Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Angela
Davis (the first two Yippies, the last an African-American Marxist)
are around his neck…The issues are radicalism; peace-at-any-price;
a second-rate United States; running down the United States; square
America versus radical America.
Nixon saw a huge advantage in defining McGovern as far to the left of the average voter. He was right: a major study by four political scientists at the University of Michigan found that defecting Democrats placed themselves considerably closer to Nixon than to McGovern on an ideological scale. Nixon also saw a huge advantage in pounding on McGovern positions that might prove worrisome to many voters regardless of party. Here too there are similarities between 1972 and 2020, especially when considering the bold — and expensive — proposals made by both McGovern and Sanders.
McGovern’s signature issue in 1972 was rapidly terminating America’s war in Vietnam. But on the domestic side, his most novel and controversial proposal was the “demogrant,” a form of guaranteed annual income. Under this plan, every American would be given an amount — like Andrew Yang, McGovern set it at $1,000 — as a substitute for the bureaucratic and demeaning federal welfare system. Low-wage workers and welfare recipients would keep most or all of the grant; families up to a middle-class level would keep a diminishing amount based on their income; above the middle class the grant would be taxed away. Paid for by higher taxes on the wealthy, the “demogrant” was designed to be an income transfer from the haves to the have-nots.
The proposal was a political disaster with McGovern’s own party. His last rival in the nomination contest, former vice-president Hubert Humphrey, jumped on the “demogrant” in a televised debate: “It would be an unbelievable burden on the taxpayer…It’s an estimated $72 billion cost to put 104 million Americans on welfare.” In response, McGovern blundered by retorting that “there’s no way that you can make an exact estimate of my proposal.” Humphrey’s charge became a gift to the Nixon campaign: one of its most effective televised ads had a construction worker on a skyscraper looking down at the crowds below and thinking that “McGovern wants to put everybody on welfare. I still believe in the right to work. It’s sacred.” When I was conducting research for my book on McGovern’s campaign, The Liberals’ Moment (2007), the architect of the “demogrant,” McGovern aide Gordon Weil, told me that although the substance of the plan was defensible, “it was a terrible idea to inject in a political campaign.”
Like McGovern with his “demogrant,” Bernie Sanders has proposed three controversial big-ticket items in his policy agenda: Medicare for All, free college at public institutions, and the elimination of student loan debt. Like McGovern, Sanders is aiming for economic redistribution from the haves to the have nots, in an effort to create a more just society. But paying for the enormous costs of these initiatives, which Sanders has not satisfactorily explained to doubters, is likely to be highlighted by the Trump campaign should Sanders be the Democratic nominee.
In the demagogic mold of Humphrey and Nixon, the Trump campaign is likely to warn of frightening potential consequences from Sanders’s agenda: The federal debt will spiral out of control. Taxpayers who are content with their present health insurance and do not need free college or forgiveness of student loan debt will be saddled with higher tax rates to pay for others’ benefits. A growing economy will be thrown out of whack. At the hands of the Trump attack machine, a generous progressive platform will be caricatured as the epitome of radical impracticality and folly.
Promising a historic turnout attracted by his progressive vision, and signaling a pugnacious stance that can go toe to toe with an unpopular bully in the White House, Bernie Sanders can hardly be counted out if he makes it to the 2020 general election. If he is the Democrat’s Presidential candidate, he will be leading a party that is already far more progressive than the one McGovern led. Predictions that he will be routed by Donald Trump, as George McGovern was routed by Richard Nixon, have little basis, once what happened in 1972 is clearly understood.
Yet the lessons to be drawn from 1972 cut against Sanders as well as for him. McGovern was the last full-throated liberal to run for the presidency. Sanders is further to the left than McGovern. There is no precedent for a leftist candidate winning a presidential election. There is precedent for the dark arts of distortion and fear-mongering prevailing in a contest with a radical vision of change.
Bruce Miroff, Professor of Political Science, University at Albany, SUNY, and author of The Liberals’ Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party.
Photo By Kheel Center – George McGovern speaks to many ILGWU supporters at an open-air campaign rally, October 15, 1972., CC BY 2.0.