One of the prevailing historical narratives of the last fifty years is that our country has veered in a sharply conservative direction. It’s not just the Republican political axis of Nixon, Reagan, the two Bushes, and Trump but also the corresponding Democratic presidents of the same era: lackluster Jimmy Carter, neoliberal Bill Clinton, secret neoliberal Barack Obama (okay, maybe not so secret, but he did fool us all into believing we’d witness some hope and change before appointing pro-Wall St. figures like Timothy Geithner and Larry Sommers and continuing most of Bush’s War on Terror policies). Republican conservatism we can easily understand — it was a vicious backlash to the big government liberalism, civil rights laws, and countercultural leftism of the 1960s, stimulated by the economic problems of the 1970s and tapping into Americans’ latent racism and sexism to advance a deregulatory and socially conservative right-wing agenda. But why did the Democrats instead of standing up and challenging this sharp rightward turn instead essentially capitulate to the same conservative vision? Why did they abandon the leftist principles of the 1960s and become neoliberal New Democrats, offering only token gestures towards social liberalism while committing themselves to the same narrow ideology of small government laissez-faire pro-business capitalism and neo-imperialist regime-change “spread Democracy” wars abroad? The answer is two words: George McGovern.
George McGovern, World War II pilot and history professor, son of a Methodist minister from South Dakota, eventually Congressman and Senator from that small state, described as gentle, soft-spoken, and decent, became the unlikely face of leftism in America after he won the Democratic nomination in 1972 in an upset. His campaign centered on opposition to the Vietnam War, which set him apart from his more hawkish centrist rivals, most notably Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President from 1964–1968 and failed Democratic presidential candidate in the election of 1968, when he lost to Nixon. Humphrey, of course, was also infamous for his role at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, when he was chosen as the nominee by the party elites even though most voters had voted for anti-war candidates like Robert Kennedy (unfortunately assassinated a few months before) and Eugene McCarthy. The 1968 convention was also where anti-war protesters were attacked by the Chicago Police at the behest of Mayor Richard Daley, a centrist Democratic with close ties to LBJ and Humphrey. McGovern, in response to the 1968 fiasco, led a commission to reform the party’s nominating procedures and make the process much more democratic, leading essentially to our modern primary system (without these new rules, of course, McGovern would never have won the 1972 nomination, as party insiders would likely just have picked Humphrey again).
In his 2008 book Nixonland, which is not only one of the best accounts of the rise of Nixon but also an incredible social history of the counterculture movement of the 1960s, author Rick Perlstein paints a vivid picture of the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami, when McGovern became the nominee, a confluence of Hollywood celebrities, yippies, hippies, civil rights activists, gay rights activists, feminists, and major countercultural figures from Allen Ginsberg to Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Essentially, McGovern’s nomination was a chance at redemption for the 1960s counterculture movement and the New Left, which had suffered a major setback in 1968 with Humphrey stealing the nomination and then losing the country to Nixon, a new possibility for an anti-war candidate who represented a more progressive liberalism than LBJ and who even called for the decriminalization of marijuana (“Acid, amnesty, and abortion,” was how centrist Democrats portrayed him).
But then, in November, McGovern lost. And he didn’t just lose by a razor-thin margin, like Humphrey back in 1968 — instead it was one of the biggest landslides in American history. Nixon won every state except Massachusetts, over 60% of the popular vote, and even the majority of the coveted youth vote that McGovern was counting on. It was an embarrassment for McGovern and a seemingly devastating rebuke of the left. Perhaps then it’s no wonder that the Democratic party turned sharply to the right — after all, what hope was there for leftist politics in a country that had reelected Richard Nixon by such a margin? (About a year and a half later, of course, Nixon would resign after the public learned of his full role in the Watergate Scandal.)
But what if this narrative of the crash and burn of leftism is oversimplified? What if Democrats actually learned the wrong lessons from McGovern’s loss? After all, arch-conservative Barry Goldwater had lost in 1964 in a similar landslide to LBJ — but (as Rick Perlstein effectively describes in another book of his, Before the Storm), Goldwater’s conservatism became the model for future Republicans, especially Reagan, the Bushes, and Trump. So, why was Goldwater, despite his huge loss, a harbinger of a darker conservatism yet to come but McGovern, despite a similar loss, not an augury for future leftist hopes? If the Democrats hadn’t run from McGovern’s vision but instead committed themselves to it, would we have a stronger left in America today?
In his Gonzo journalistic account of the 1972 election, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, ’72, Hunter S. Thompson makes the compelling suggestion that perhaps McGovern didn’t lose because he was too far to the left but instead because he went too far back to the center in the general election, alienating the voters who’d chosen him in the primary as a symbol of a “new politics.” McGovern’s biggest mistake here, according to Thompson, was picking Thomas Eagleton as his running mate. It wasn’t just the fallout from the “Eagleton Affair,” as it became known in the media (essentially, soon after McGovern announced Eagleton as his VP pick, it was revealed that Eagleton had been hospitalized for depression and undergone electroshock therapy, something he’d kept hidden from McGovern; McGovern at first stood behind his running mate, but then changed his mind and decided to replace him — the whole controversy made voters question McGovern’s competence and judgement and significantly affected his poll numbers). No, Thompson argued that picking Eagleton, a run-of-the-mill centrist Democratic Senator from Missouri (who, ironically, was the one who coined the anti-McGovern “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion” smear), was itself a mistake, as it suggested that maybe McGovern wasn’t as liberal as he’d claimed (Thompson, in his classic fashion, describes Eagleton in a post-election interview he did with McGovern, which appears at the end of his book, as a “cheap hack” and a “useless little bastard,” directly to McGovern’s face) and that he was willing to sell out his liberal ideals to stay in the good graces of the centrist wing of the party — after all, McGovern had even asked Humphrey to be his running mate, and Humphrey had turned him down. Thompson’s analysis, then, suggests that McGovern had mobilized a large section of voters in the primaries, people who might not have voted for a traditional Democratic politician, but then alienated those same voters by acting like a traditional politician in the general election. Thus, if McGovern had actually been more consistently a leftist, perhaps he wouldn’t have lost in such a fashion to Nixon — perhaps he might even have won.
This argument challenges the traditional idea that when running in the general election, politicians must move to the center. Instead, it suggests that elections aren’t about appealing to this mythical center of the American electorate but that instead they’re about mobilizing a base of voters who will follow you through the general. Given the fact that turnout in most American elections is extremely low (in both 1972 and 2016 it was around 55%) this theory makes sense — winning is not about appealing to moderate voters but about galvanizing enough non-voters to come out and vote. And the only way you can do that is to give them something to vote for.
Trump, sadly, managed to do just that in 2016. He didn’t moderate his neo-fascism in the general election to try to appeal to the mythical center. He continued to be racist, sexist, Islamophobic, and overall aggressively conservative — and he won. In 2020, then, the Democrats need to remember that they’re not going to win by appealing to the center. The “center” is actually smaller than we all think, especially given how polarized our country is today. Instead, they’ll only win by galvanizing a base of voters in the primaries that don’t usually vote — part of the 45% of Americans who sat out in 2016. If a Democratic candidate can bring even 10% of those non-voters to the polls, they’ll easily beat Trump.
So how then can you mobilize non-voters into action? This is where the lessons from McGovern’s 1972 campaign can apply. McGovern won that primary by appealing to the left, to a group of Americans who existed in large numbers but who had rarely felt represented by other Democratic candidates . McGovern also, as Thompson notes, ran as a “new politician,” someone who wasn’t going to be like Humphrey and the traditional Democratic elite. But after winning the primary, McGovern moved to the center — and his voters deserted him.
A Democratic candidate then needs to appeal to the left, a constituency that since 1972 has never really been represented by a major Democratic candidate, except for maybe Obama (and Obama, of course, betrayed the left that voted him into office by governing from the center and, arguably, the center-right). This kind of appeal can bring non-voters into the party, something Bernie Sanders did moderately effectively in 2016. Of course, if you want those voters to follow you into the general, you need to continue to speak to them, instead of running to the center like most politicians do. This is why many voters who’d voted for Bernie in the 2016 Democratic primaries ended up voting for Jill Stein in the general instead of Hillary Clinton or else just staying home(there’s an argument that many of them voted for Trump, but actually, only about 12% did, which is less than the number of Clinton voters who voted for McCain in 2008).
And so, the ideal Democratic candidate is one who can run a strong leftist campaign not just in the primary but also in the general election, mobilizing voters who’ve been so disillusioned that they no longer vote. It’s Nixon’s “silent majority” strategy, but for the left and not the right. And I believe (no surprises here if you’ve read my previous pieces) that Bernie Sanders is the best candidate capable of doing this, not just because he attempted something similar in 2016, but because his idea of a “political revolution” is essentially this — that there are a majority of people in America who are opposed to corporate greed and want leftist policies like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. All they need is a politician willing to speak for them.
The ghost of George McGovern, therefore, shouldn’t be a specter that haunts the Democratic party and keeps it cowering in the center. Instead, it should be a reminder that there was a moment once when the left was poised to win political power and that it failed not because Americans were too conservative but because the candidate was too uncertain about his own leftist principles. It’s a melancholy story, that 1972 campaign, an American tragedy that plunged the country into fifty years of conservative darkness. But it can also be a hopeful story if we read it the right way, a sign that there is a left in America who will vote if we wake them up.