The long and short of modern American politics is that the Democrats let their demoralizing 1972 loss traumatize them for a generation, while the Republican Party followed up President Obama’s overwhelming 2012 victory by eschewing the RNC autopsy which concluded the GOP needed to reach out to the Latinx community in order to electorally survive in the 21st century. Instead, the GOP leaned heavily in to the worst instincts of their base, all while using state power to disenfranchise the Democratic vote en route to a 2016 victory for Donald J. Trump—who at 85% average approval amongst Republicans is currently a more popular president within the party than Reagan ever was, as he maxed out at 84% GOP approval.
Given the warp speed at which our politics moves today, 2012 feels like it happened a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, but we all have the same general fuzzy memory: President Obama sweeping the floor with a Sears Catalog model—claiming crucial swing states like Florida and Ohio that added up to a widely expected 332-206 romp. This was no 1972-style avalanche by any means, but that election was never close—and the GOP left 2012 feeling a need to make a massive reset, just like the Democrats felt after Nixon obliterated them in the age of “acid, amnesty and abortion.”
If 2012 is light years away, then 1972 is basically a fictional universe, but to recap the context surrounding one of the most important elections in this country’s history:
— The landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act fractured the Democratic Party, and gifted the south to the GOP for (at least) a generation.
— 1968 was host to some of the worst political violence America has ever experienced. As we escalated our presence in Vietnam to the highest level at any time during the war, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Robert Kennedy, who was supposed to assume his brother’s mantle at the top of the party, was also assassinated that year, coming five years after President Kennedy’s assassination. The communist Weather Underground bombed America throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, including sites like the United States Capitol. The list goes on and on and on.
— After shockingly announcing that he will not run for reelection, the Democrats quickly turned from President Lyndon Johnson to Vice President Hubert Humphrey as their standard bearer, and Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968.
In 1972, the Democrats nominated a progressive Senator from South Dakota, George McGovern. The main reason why LBJ did not seek reelection was the rising unpopularity of the Vietnam War he was escalating, and McGovern gained momentum as an anti-war candidate promising leftist reforms like a guaranteed minimum income. Senator McGovern lost in large part because he was successfully branded by Nixon as the candidate of “amnesty, abortion, and acid.” The Republican President was able to do this thanks to an anonymous Democratic Senator (later revealed to be Thomas Eagleton) telling journalist Robert Novak that “the people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion, and legalization of pot. Once middle America — Catholic middle America, in particular — finds this out, he’s dead.”
Despite actively harming his party by giving its opponent their battle cry without attaching himself to it, Eagleton had a point. The Washington Generals are more consistently competitive against the Harlem Globetrotters than George McGovern was with Nixon in 1972.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
It’s almost a consensus at this point that the Democratic Party elite is woefully unprepared for our rapidly changing modern nightmare. Nancy Pelosi decries Trump to be a criminal president, then refuses to formally accuse him of crimes, in defiance of her constitutionally mandated non-negotiable oversight role over the executive. Joe Biden is…well, he’s always been Joe Biden. Chuck Schumer’s legacy is going to be laying out the red carpet for Trump’s generations of control over our judiciary. Mark Warner and several other Democrats voted with Trump and the GOP to roll back the Obama Administration’s signature victory over Wall Street after the Greed Is Good crew tanked the economy in 2008. It is apparent to everyone that a new generation of leadership is necessary if we are to escape the world that created, nurtured, and promoted Trump.
The biggest question of current longstanding leadership is why are they so afraid to utilize the constitutional power given to them to try to neutralize Republican malfeasance and criminality?
The short answer: because politics and 1972. The long answer: because politics and 1980. The story from ’72 goes that we tried a leftist candidate who the country hated, and we lost in a historic landslide. Many longtime establishment Democrats now use that single election to justify years of inaction—all in fear of being portrayed as hysteric hippies hellbent on dropping acid with immigrants on the way to abortion clinics. Reagan’s overwhelming victories a decade later internalized the notion in politics that this is a center-right country, and the beltway consensus has accepted it as a self-evident fact—tantamount to the existence of gravity.
But who could blame them? It was the only logical conclusion one could arrive at given the devastating losses the Democrats took in 1980, as Ryan Grim noted in his must-read Washington Post piece on this topic from last week:
That November saw not just Jimmy Carter defeated but a generation of liberal lions poached from the Senate. A net loss of 12 Democrats flipped the chamber to the Republicans. The Democratic nominee for president in 1972, war hero George McGovern, was ousted. Frank Church, first elected in 1956, had been chairman of the forerunner to the Select Committee on Intelligence. In 1976, he was a credible presidential candidate; in 1980, he was out of a job. Same with Birch Bayh, another presidential hopeful who’d served nearly 20 years in the Senate. Warren Magnuson, first elected in 1944, was chairman of the Appropriations Committee and the senior-most member of the Senate. Even Mike Gravel, a hero of the Pentagon Papers battle and a voice of the antiwar left, was beaten that year in a primary, leading to a fall GOP pickup of his seat. Collectively, the defeated Democrats represented every plank of liberalism — whether it was support for workers or the environment or opposition to militarism or racism. They were the party.
This is the world that Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden walked in to, so it’s understandable that they would be in a defensive position from the start. The vital point Grim makes in his WaPo piece is how this defensive posture is no longer needed in a world where an aggressive and aspirational campaign elected America’s first black president in 2008. Not only are the new generations added to the electorate since 1972 a mathematical juggernaut in the context of electoral politics, but we were all raised in a different political world than those who can remember the humiliations of 1972, 1980 and 1984.
I was born in 1986, and the first Republican politician I really knew about was Newt Gingrich. It makes complete and total sense to me how the GOP embraced Trump, and I am absolutely flabbergasted at those who suggest that the Republican Party has ever been anything but a racist criminal organization in my lifetime. I truly believe that Joe Biden’s assertion that the GOP will have an “epiphany” when Trump leaves office is more detached from reality than most of the nonsense you will hear over in MAGAland.
If you ask Americans how we classify ourselves, we largely claim to be center-right. But according to a new CNN poll, roughly 30 million Americans have never heard of Vice President Mike Pence. Our highest voter turnout in any presidential election since 1972 occurred when 58.2% of the electorate showed up to elect Barack Obama in 2008. On the whole, we Americans are not exactly well-informed about our democracy (which is far more the media and our education system’s fault than our own). Plus, we like to think of ourselves as reasonable people, and this creates a dynamic that conservatives have masterfully exploited to their benefit—and their benefit only—for decades.
Because we are taught a half-truth about the “compromise” that led to the creation of this country, we like to believe that politics is where we can become our better selves and rise above the fray of social conflict. Thing is, it’s not. Politics is a war for power, and conservatives have been winning at U.S. Women’s National Soccer team-rates for half a century because they understand this fact better than anyone else in this country. Ronald Reagan won a historic victory that will reverberate for generations because he shifted the entire debate on to his terms.
“Socially liberal and economically conservative” has become the go-to acceptable response for Americans to define their political views, as it instantly defangs any political conversation of its hyper-partisanship. Because the great lie of this country is that through hard work, we will all have a chance to be rich some day, this supposed “fiscal conservatism” from America’s right leads us to embrace libertarian economic positions that only benefit a small cabal of plutocrats—or America’s “real owners” as the great George Carlin said.
But when you ask Americans about specific policy positions—our actual politics—we mostly skew left. In fact, definitionally “economically conservative but socially liberal” voters practically don’t exist according to this study of the 2016 electorate’s political views, and somewhere around half of Republicans could be defined as economically liberal.
Americans are liberal and becoming more so—in fact, a recent study found that the current public sentiment is the most liberal ever recorded. Large majorities have always agreed that corruption is a major problem that must be addressed immediately, and the fact that no presidential candidate before 2008 aggressively picked up the mantle of the largest bipartisan agreement among the electorate tells you how much power America's “real owners” have over our “democracy.” Two of the last three presidential elections have been “change” elections, because people are sick of the narrow political and economic establishment actively trying to hoard more for themselves and less for us. According to Gallup, Pew and other polling organizations:
— 82 percent of Americans think wealthy people have too much power and influence in Washington.
— 69 percent think large businesses have too much power and influence in Washington.
— 59 percent—and 72 percent of likely voters—think Wall Street has too much power and influence in Washington.
— 78 percent of likely voters support stronger rules and enforcement on the financial industry.
— 65 percent of Americans think our economic system “unfairly favors powerful interests.”
— 59 percent of Americans—and 43 percent of Republicans—think corporations make “too much profit.”
The fact is that the lessons of 1972 apply to a world which no longer exists. The Democratic Party was still in disarray—losing both a president and a massive chunk of its membership to the racism embraced by the GOP—all while overseeing a failed, unpopular and illegal war that gave rise to its left flank. This story is typically painted as a failure of McGovern's and the far-left, despite the fact that the center of the party did not coalesce around him after he won the nomination. In fact, some staffers on other failed Democratic campaigns even went to work for the Nixon campaign after the primary. The blowout in 1972 happened because America really did have a more conservative electorate, and the “Dems in Disarray” narrative so beloved by our national media actually was true. LBJ's abrupt retirement from Democratic politics left a gaping power vacuum in the party that took over two decades to fill.
The story of Bill Clinton's supposed genius in 1992 was that he pulled the Democrats out of the doldrums and to the right. In effect, the Democrats acknowledged that Ronald Reagan was right, and Clinton declared that “the era of big government was over.” President Clinton spent a significant chunk of his presidency loosening Wall Street regulations—like repealing two planks of the landmark Glass-Steagall nomination enacted in the wake of the Great Depression—and if not for the entire country turning its ire on a White House intern for two years, Bill Clinton may have achieved the ultimate Republican dream and privatized Social Security.
What we are currently experiencing is a gravitational shift in Democratic Party politics. The Democrats of the last 40-ish years were a center-right party, per leadership's own admission. Reagan won a victory few leaders in history had achieved, as he essentially co-opted the opposition party into his ideology. For the Democratic Party electorate, that is no longer true, thanks in large part to the folks for whom 1972 is either a faint memory or a time before our own.
We already have.
One of the major stories from the 2018 midterms is the under-50 crowd’s ascendance into the center of the electorate.
RIP that tired talking point.
The simplest explanation for why Democrats need not worry about the ghosts of 1972 haunting our upcoming 2020 exorcism is very simple: the electorate of 1972 is not the electorate of 2020. There have been three new generations added to the voter pool since Nixon’s demoralizing rout of liberalism, and the two largest are also the two most liberal in U.S. history. Not only are millennials and Gen Z major assets for the Democratic Party, but we view power differently than the previous political generation. The Democrats demoralized by 1972 adopted a political philosophy entirely centered around trying to be everything to everyone at all times. Newer political generations don’t care if they make some voters mad so long as the cause is righteous and the right people are upset.
A conflict-less politics is a contradiction that cannot exist, and the Democratic leadership constantly trying to compromise with a party only interested in dominating power have branded the Dems as a fundamentally gullible and cowardly party, and no one in this country respects a foolish coward. The new generation of Democrats not only sees an opportunity—but a responsibility—to shape public opinion in favor of the massive reforms needed to fight the plutocrats controlling our Trumpocalypse. Democrats in this new era are proposing bold solutions, and the electorate is responding. This is what the last generation of Democratic politics was missing—what it had in 1972 and subsequently abandoned in the face of demoralizing losses—a righteous clarion call. The true lesson from Nixon and Reagan’s victories is that shifting the Overton Window is effective politics, can be very popular, and helps to preserve lasting victories.
A lot of Democrats stuck in the demoralized 1972 mindset are very nervous about Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren potentially being too liberal for this electorate, and are fearful that they will repeat the failures of McGovern, and lose to Trump because of the supposed self-evident fact of America being a center-right nation. While their fear of committing unforced errors in an election this important is wholly rational—policy does not matter unless we occupy the seat of power—not only does this ignore polling that suggests damn near every relevant Democrat can beat Trump, but it erases the two largest generations in history from this ultimately cynical and wrongheaded mathematical analysis.
1972 is as far away from 2020 as 1924 is from 1972. Things have changed. The Democratic Party has finally begun to grow a spine. Some Democratic politicians are itching to truly go on the offensive against the failures of conservatism for the first time in over a generation, and voters are responding. Democratic leaders do not need to be afraid of liberalism, as most Americans understand that it is the only logical route out of this hellish dystopia created by decades of bipartisan conservatism.
Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.