Monday, August 28, 2017
The left wing of the Democratic party is searching for a hero and seems to have found one in the ghost of George McGovern. A new biography frames McGovern as the champion of social democracy long before Bernie. This was a guy from the heartland of South Dakota, who served with distinction in WWII and went on to be one of the most progressive legislators in Congress. Mercifully, the first volume of this two-part biography stops at 1968, leaving him as a hero in liberal Democrats' minds.
It's hard to believe that at one time liberal social policy got you elected in states like South Dakota. Today, even Wisconsin and Michigan have turned Republican, as social democratic values have been soundly rejected at the polls. This doesn't stop liberal Democrats from resurrecting a bygone era. After all, Bernie scored well among socialist-minded Democrats in last year's primaries, which seems like an eternity ago now.
We'll never know how Bernie would have done in the general election. He never rose above the status of a folk hero thanks to the collusion of the DNC and Hillary's campaign personified in Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, and the media treating Sanders as a fringe figure. In the end, Trump was able to sponge off some of Bernie's more ardent supporters because of the bad taste that was left from the Democratic primaries. It proved enough for Trump to win the states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by a total of 70,000 votes.
It behooves the DNC to not write off the left wing again, but at the same time it can't let itself become hog tied by it, the way the RNC has with the radical right wing of its party. America will always swing right, it rarely ever swings left. McGovern is a case in point.
Gorgeous George represented everything good in the Democratic party at one time. He swept through the 1972 primaries, dispensing with stodgy old Ed Muskie and conservative "Scoop" Jackson to gain the nomination at a highly contentious convention. He might have even challenged Nixon had not his campaign got mired in the bad publicity surrounding his first choice for Vice-President -- Thomas Eagleton, whose psychological profile the Republicans mercilessly attacked.
It is still doubtful McGovern would have won the election even with the country still mired in Vietnam and an economic recession of category 3 proportions forming on the horizon, but he certainly wouldn't have been trounced like he was. McGovern was unable to overcome the ignominy of having failed to control his convention. There was a lot of desertion among the Democratic ranks and Nixon won every state except Massachusetts and DC. Even South Dakotans turned their backs on their senator.
With that in mind, it will be far more interesting to read the second volume of Thomas Knock's biography, helping to explain why McGovern lost so "bigly." This is the object lesson Democrats will need to learn before leaning too far to the left in the upcoming elections. They will have a litmus test of sorts in 2018. There will be highly progressive candidates running for Congressional seats in key states. How they do will tell us a lot about which direction the Democrats should go in 2020.
My guess is they won't do very well outside liberal states. "Social Democracy," as Bernie Sanders insisted on calling it, has a limited audience, namely twenty- and early thirty-somethings, the generation that grew up with "Friends." There will be a time this generation comes to define America but not by 2020. With this in mind, Democrats should tread very carefully on this new found "McGovernism" lest they want to repeat the mistakes of the 70s.
As we've seen time and again, this country moves forward in baby steps. It took 100 years to pass a civil rights bill, despite decades of beastly Jim Crow laws resulting in chain gangs, lynchings and many other horrible forms of torture throughout the South. FDR was so worried he might lose Southern Democrats that he dreaded the anti-lynching bill that was being pushed through Congress. Fortunately for him, the bill never got through the Senate.
The Southern states no longer represent a powerful political bloc like they did then, but sadly much of that recalcitrance has spread through the Midwest and even into the Northeast. Trump broke through the "Blue Wall" in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Even Maine and New Hampshire can not be counted on, which Hillary narrowly won. Their 7 electoral votes have to be considered in the strange calculus that determines our president every four years.
Populism may have worked for Trump, but it won't necessarily work for a Democratic populist. Like it or not, we live in a conservative country. This is what Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all recognized. They knew their limitations and played their campaign to the middle, not to the outer edges, despite whatever progressive ideas they had in mind.
There was good reason for this cautious approach, which Hillary stuck to. Even though she lost the electoral college, she still won the popular vote as did Al Gore in 2000. Playing to the middle keeps Democrats competitive in a general election. If they swing too far to the left they go down badly in defeat.
Yet, we see all the early warning signs that the Democrats are ready to swing left again. Democrats are sick of their Congressional leaders and are looking for a younger version of Bernie to lead the nation against "Trumpism." You can't really blame them when the best Chuck and Nancy can come up with is a "Better Deal." Not very inspiring.
Whether there is another "McGovern" waiting to emerge in 2020 remains to be seen. So far, the closest we have come is Bernie and he isn't even a Democrat. Whoever this mystery man or woman is, Democrats better prepare themselves for the media onslaught from the right. If you thought their attacks on Obama and Hillary were vicious, just wait to hear what they will say about someone who proudly proclaims himself or herself to be a Social Democrat.