by ALAN GREENBLATT · October 9, 2017
As Trump continues his Nixonian campaign of white cultural-grievance politics, Democrats appear consumed by the same squabbles that destroyed them in 1972.
Four decades ago, Richard Nixon lived out the fantasy many liberals harbor about Donald Trump, stepping down in the face of possible impeachment over a slow-moving scandal long before his term was up. Before that happened, however, Nixon was reelected by a resounding margin, in large part because progressives made strategic errors that Democrats today appear hellbent on repeating.
In 1968, as in 2016, Democrats narrowly lost the White House after nominating a relatively moderate, establishment candidate instead of a more liberal alternative who had inspired a raging enthusiasm among younger voters. Democrats spent much of the next four years arguing about what direction the party should take. White working-class voters—traditionally a Democratic bloc—were sluicing away, and progressives, convinced the party needed to change both its policy direction and its coalition of supporters, demanded a new approach: a “loose peace coalition” of minorities, young voters and educated white Democrats, as strategist Fred Dutton wrote in his 1971 book, Changing Sources of Power. One year later, the party’s presidential nominee, the ultra-liberal Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, went on to lose 49 states in one of the most lopsided victories in American history.
We’re a long, long way from 2020, but it’s abundantly evident that Trump will again run a Nixonian campaign, tearing down his opponent and presenting himself as the champion of an aggrieved coalition that Nixon called the “silent majority” and Trump calls “the forgotten men and women” of America.
Consumed by internecine battles and the idea of opposition, Democrats run the risk of again nominating someone like McGovern who pleases progressives but steers a course too far from the country’s center of political gravity to win, even as Trump continues his funhouse mirror impression of Nixon as the avatar of white cultural-grievance politics.
Politics today are much different than they were then, as is the shape of the American electorate. But there are parallels that Democrats should bear in mind as they nurse their hopes of driving Trump from the Oval Office. Trump is a culture warrior, and progressives today are perfectly willing to engage that sideshow—just as they did 45 years with Nixon.
Look no further than the recent controversy over NFL players’ protests over police violence and racism, which Trump has successfully portrayed for most voters as an insult to men and women in uniform, the American flag, mom and apple pie.
“If the Democrats become the party of those in favor of kneeling rather than standing for the national anthem,” says historian Jeffrey Bloodworth, author of Losing the Center: A History of American Liberalism, 1968-1992, “that would be a full McGovern.”
Like Bernie Sanders and his supporters today, progressives heading into the 1972 cycle complained about the Democratic Party itself and the way its nominating rules were set against insurgents. Back then, the complaints arguably had greater merit.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson had been forced to drop his bid for reelection due to growing opposition to the Vietnam War. Two progressive anti-war senators, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, took the lion’s share of the remaining primary votes (with Kennedy being assassinated on the night he won the California primary). But in that era, primaries were much less meaningful—only 15 were held in 1968. Instead, the presidential nominee was decided by the delegates to the Democratic National Convention—a majority of whom had been picked through secretive processes dominated by machine bosses and labor leaders, with many delegates anointed before the election year even began. Amid the chaos of a riot-torn convention in Chicago, the party regulars went with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, even though he hadn’t entered a single primary. Humphrey went on to lose against Nixon by less than 1 percent of the popular vote.
In response, Democrats set about reforming their presidential nomination process, appointing a commission led by McGovern to propose changes. The McGovern commission was a self-conscious effort to reduce the influence of the old party establishment, including union leaders, who were viewed as retrograde not only on policy but also in terms of acceptance of what was already viewed as the rising electorate of minorities, college-educated professionals and the young. The commission wed Eugene McCarthy’s call for convention delegates to be chosen during the election year itself through “procedures open to public participation” with McGovern’s idea of having delegations reflect the demographic compositions of their states. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, the archetypal machine boss of his era, was denied a seat at the 1972 convention in favor of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.
All the while, the Democratic Party became increasingly comfortable embracing hard-left positions—pushed, in large part, by the same forces demanding a change to the nomination process. By the time of the 1972 Democratic National Convention, the party’s platform was perhaps further left than it had ever been, calling for, among other planks, “a decent job for every American” and income supports for those out of work, as well as a universal single-payer health care system.
The party’s presidential nominee would be the same man who’d been tapped to overhaul the nominating process: George McGovern—whose candidacy was “a backlash against 1968 and the old Democratic machine politics,” says University of Minnesota political scientist Lawrence Jacobs.
McGovern won the battle, but lost the working class. He was never able to escape Nixon’s characterizations of him as a supporter of liberal causes like forced busing to integrate schools. Misrepresenting McGovern’s positions to some extent, Nixon tarred the Democrat as the candidate of “acid, amnesty and abortion.” (‘Amnesty’ in those days referred to forgiveness for draft dodgers, not undocumented immigrants.) Nixon promised to promote the “work ethic,” not the “welfare ethic.”
The AFL-CIO, long a pillar of Democratic organizing efforts, refused to endorse a presidential candidate for the first time in its history. Long before the advent of the Reagan Democrats, Nixon managed to eat into traditionally Democratic constituencies such as the Roman Catholic vote. Nixon won reelection by a historic margin, carrying 49 states and 61 percent of the popular vote—including one-third of Democrats.
McGovern long regretted his failure to oust Nixon, whom he described in his memoir as “the most discredited man ever to occupy the White House”—a characterization today’s Democrats might well dispute. But to the extent they remember him at all, Democrats seem to regard McGovern not as a historic loser, but as a visionary who helped shape the party’s coalition as it currently stands: a combination of women, minorities, educated professionals and young people. In their 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority, Ruy Teixeira and John B. Judis even called the changing makeup of party supporters “George McGovern’s revenge.”
There’s no question a McGovernesque candidate in 2020 would fare better than in 1972, simply because the demographics of the country have shifted so dramatically. The white working class cast nearly three-quarters of the vote back in 1972, notes Steve Phillips, founder of Democracy in Color, an organization focused on race and politics. Now, it’s well below half. “There’s a strong argument that the same coalition that backed McGovern is the coalition that elected and reelected Obama and almost elected Clinton,” Phillips says—“almost” being the operative word.
Democrats are really only starting the debate among themselves about whether they can achieve better results without changing their electoral strategy or demographic formula. Last month, Judis published a mea culpa in The New Republic for having suggested that demographics inevitably favor Democrats. Since November, Democrats have continually consoled themselves with the knowledge that Hillary Clinton beat Trump by nearly 3 million votes. That only meant that for the second time in five elections, a popular vote victory wasn’t good enough in the Electoral College. “While Democrats are advantaged by how demographics are changing and have a hold on the future,” says political demographer (and Judis’ former co-author) Ruy Teixeira, “the way the population is divided up and distributed around the country is not to their advantage.”
In terms of rules changes, there’s next to no chance the party’s current Unity Review Commission—meant to resolve disputes left over from last year about superdelegates and other nominating procedures—will have the same impact as McGovern’s. But as in the run up to 1972, the progressive wing of the party, having lost the previous nomination battle, is again setting the terms of debate for the next one, in terms of ideology if not procedure. Sanders is having a much bigger effect on the party’s direction than the actual prior nominee, with his Our Revolution group endorsing progressive candidates around the country and Sanders persuading a majority of the Senate Democratic caucus to sign on to his Medicare for All health-care bill. “If the Democrats move to the left and focus on free tuition for college and single-payer health care,” says Fredrik Logevall, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of Vietnam, “I do get 1972 popping into my head.”
Trump’s approval ratings are abysmal for a first-year president. But then, his numbers last year were also horrible, showing him as the least popular presidential candidate in the history of modern polling, yet he won anyway. And it’s worth remembering that polls at the beginning of 1972 suggested that Nixon was beatable, too. Nixon began 1972 with an approval rating in the 40s; a Harris poll in mid-January showed him leading Ed Muskie, the Maine senator who was the early Democratic front-runner, by a single point.
In the Democrats’ 2020 maneuvering, there will likely be a lane wide open for a pragmatist among the many progressives preparing to make a run. So far, this seems to be the posture Joe Biden is taking, repeatedly criticizing populism in his recent speeches. But Biden is about to turn 75. For the most part, the rising generation of Democrats appear intent on doubling down on lefty ideas like universal health care and a guaranteed basic income (ironically, an idea the Nixon administration explored). “There is a radicalization going on within the Democratic Party that’s a reaction to the last presidential election,” Jacobs says. “It’s being driven by a deep sense of aggrievement with regard to Republican behavior.”
Yet for all the chances of a 1972 redux in the Democratic future, there is one major caveat: As a candidate and president, Trump is like Nixon without the positives. He shares a sense of grievance and seemingly low-self esteem, but Trump has nothing like Nixon’s experience or depth of knowledge about government and foreign policy. Like Nixon, Trump hates the press but hungers for its approval. Trump claims to speak for Nixon’s “silent majority,” which today we see as shorthand for the white working class. Trump, too, presents himself as the defender of “law and order” in a season of protest.
So far at least, Trump can’t claim any major policy victories. He has nothing to brag about on the order of Nixon’s diplomatic breakthroughs in 1972, which included the opening of relations with China and a nuclear arms reduction agreement with the Soviet Union. And, by 1972, Nixon was able to boast that he’d negotiated an agreement to remove American soldiers from Vietnam.
There are other differences. “Nixon was in a far stronger position to coast to reelection capitalizing on racial and anti-counterculture resentments, without being defined by those impulses,” says Sam Rosenfeld, a political scientist at Colgate University. “Nixon was in various ways the candidate of grown-up, staid, majority-culture rule, standing athwart the forces of disorder and weirdness. Trump has never been a force of staid normalcy.”
As things turned out, American soldiers remained in Vietnam longer than Nixon remained in the White House. Nixon’s 1974 resignation hints at ways events could play out in favor of the Democrats. The scandal that doomed his presidency, after all, began with a real, brick-and-mortar break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building during an election year—which sounds almost quaint after last year’s cyber attack on the DNC. The chestnut Watergate question—what did the president know, and when did he know it?—has already been invoked ad nauseum this year.
As yet, there’s no evidence Trump knew anything. But his presidency has been like Watergate on fast-forward, with a special prosecutor appointed after four months in office, rather than in his second term. And where Nixon gave up his tapes kicking and screaming, Trump continuously broadcasts his thoughts to the world via Twitter.
Maybe 2020 won’t be a repeat of 1972 after all, but could end up more like 1976, with a scandal-fatigued country ushering Republicans out of the White House. But Democrats shouldn’t count on it.