Democrats Must Beware the Curse of 1972

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Mr. Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for the History News Service.

Now that the Obama-Clinton battle is over, the Democrats face another fight that could split the party. In July, when the 186 members of the platform committee meet, they'll have to write a plank on the war in Iraq. The argument for a strong antiwar position -- "bring 'em all home now" -- is compelling. But it could well be politically fatal.

The Democrats learned that in 1972. That's when antiwar forces took control of the party and nominated Sen. George McGovern. Richard Nixon won re-election in a landslide.

If the Democrats hope to win in 2008, they have to remember the lesson of 1972: For millions of voters, war is not a policy problem to be solved by analytical reasoning. It's a cultural symbol that stirs powerful passions. A more cautious war position, one that respects the power of symbolism, could be the Democrats' ticket to victory in November.

Today's advocates of a strong antiwar plank insist that in 1972 most voters were ready to accept a staunch antiwar program. McGovern lost, they argue, because of a host of factors largely unrelated to the war. But their own arguments reveal the crucial role that cultural symbolism played in McGovern's defeat.

Some blame that defeat on intraparty warfare. Though by November 1972 George Wallace had been shot and removed from the race, many of his supporters deserted the Democrats. Though Hubert Humphrey belatedly adopted an antiwar stance, in the primaries he charged that McGovern was too weak to stand up to America's enemies. After McGovern won the nomination, many Humphrey supporters, especially those in the then-powerful labor unions, deserted the campaign.

Others argue that even if the party had been united, McGovern would have suffered from two fatal deficiencies. He chose Thomas Eagleton as his running mate but quickly dropped him when Eagleton's history of depression was disclosed. And he could never overcome the oft-repeated Republican charge that he stood for "acid, amnesty and abortion." It was the emerging culture war, some Democrats say, that led so many who opposed the Vietnam war to vote nonetheless against the antiwar candidate in 1972.

But in fact such large numbers of white Southerners, labor union members and moderate Democrats defected mainly because they drew a direct connection between the culture war and Vietnam. Even many who opposed the Vietnam war heard McGovern's harsh attacks on U.S. policy as attacks on the nation, its troops and its cherished values.

It made perfect sense to them that "amnesty" for draft evaders was sandwiched between "acid" and "abortion." They could not separate noisy antiwar sentiment from all the other images of radicalism that had filled the media for the preceding five years, making it seem as if the United States was falling apart.

Nixon successfully presented himself as a bulwark against cultural catastrophe. He promised to withdraw U.S. troops gradually and bring peace while preserving American honor. For millions of voters, "honor" was a code word for keeping the nation's moorings in familiar cultural traditions of the past. They voted for Nixon as a symbolic way of resisting a tide of change that they saw as far too rapid and radical.

Millions of voters still worry about that tide. Few now list abortion, the drug war or other social issues as their highest political priority. The Iraq war has now become the main symbolic battleground for the broader debate between clinging to and crossing, or even erasing, traditional cultural boundary lines. Yet in some sense we're still stuck in 1972. The debate about Iraq is to a large extent another chapter in the ongoing cultural battle about Vietnam and "the '60s."

That's what gives John McCain hope. He wants to take the electorate back to 1972, when he was still suffering in a North Vietnamese prison. He hopes that image will send a clear message: His patriotic wartime fortitude proves he will always hold a firm line against the nation's enemies, at home as well as abroad, and "never surrender."

On the other hand, Barack Obama symbolizes the breaking of America's historically strongest taboo: crossing the once-rigid boundary line between the races. No matter what he says about the war, national unity or any other issue, the color of his skin sends that message of radical change to many voters.

Crossing boundaries and breaking taboos was just what the '60s counterculture was all about. In 1972, Republicans portrayed that as the ultimate danger of a McGovern victory, and they won resoundingly. It could happen again this year, despite the growing opposition to the war.

Antiwar activists need to frame their message in ways that speak to the cultural hopes and fears of a majority of the voters. Until they learn how to do that, they should not saddle Obama with a war plank that could help put a Republican in the White House.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are c

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/21/2008

The last time I looked, our elections are not decided by popular votes.

In fact, any margin like the 100,000 you attribute to blacks in North Carolina in 1960, would be multiplied SEVERAL TIMES by the fraudulent votes in virtually every American big city, which are always delivered to the Democrat. If you just call the roll of names you can hear the cemeteries voting for Democrats: Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Kansas City, St. Louis, New Orleans, Cleveland, New York, etc., etc., etc. And that does not count the illegal illegal alien votes for Democrats, by the hundreds of thousands. It is very doubtful, in fact, adjusted for fraud, that Al Gore actually won the popular vote from Bush in 2000.

Philip B. Plowe - 6/20/2008

I don't believe that the war is going to be Obama's problem. If he sticks to his "I was right about the war and Bush was wrong" position, he will be better off. Most Americans are done with it. They want our government to re-focus on problems with our economy and (unfortunately) healthcare.

However, I think you are correct about the cultural impact of an Obama presidency. There are a lot of people who are very nervous that Obama will turn the U.S. into a haven for left wing radicalism. That is the issue what will make this election very very close.

John L. Godwin - 6/20/2008

Yes. We've heard various organized crime figures attempt to take credit for the election. And we've heard CIA outlets state the same. But JFK and RFK worked tirelessly to win those campaigns, and they did it by confronting the issues and speaking to the people.
In North Carolina, the results were important. We know that in N.C. around 38% of black voters were registered, for a total of 210,250 potential voters. Because JFK spoke up for civil rights and worked effectively to win black voters, estimates run around 90% of black voters polling for JFK.
Now, JFK won the popular vote by only around 118,000 votes. This means that Tarheel blacks really provided the margin of victory for JFK in 1960.
These voters swung the election by doing the honorable and patriotic thing-- sinking the Bismark with ballots instead of bullets.
Now, don't you think their ballots ought to count for as much as the testimony of a handful of thugs and spooks?

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/19/2008

I'm surprised you want to look more closely at the election of 1960, which was decided by fraud in Texas and Illinois.

John L. Godwin - 6/17/2008

Obama vs. McCain in 2008--the comparison to 1972 is drawn purely on the basis of the war as the leading issue. And this is appropriate up to a point. In both cases, 1972 and 2008, the popular swing against the war had already taken place. But the argument by Professor Chernus shows little effort to understand Nixon and the means by which his election victory was actually brought off. Nixon sought to misrepresent himself deliberately to the American people as a candidate favoring peace, at the same time that he intensified the bombing of North Vietnam and supported the South Vietnamese invasion of Laos with U.S. forces. School integration in the South became a mass movement ordered by Republican dominated courts and implemented by Nixon's agencies--but Dixie demagogues and right wing presses covered up the truth and blamed the liberals, playing the race card and manipulating popular prejudices. Hired thugs, in some cases paid with the tax dollars of the American people were used to disrupt and discredit the peace movement-- creating an image of extremism that properly belonged to Nixon and his gang. Assassinations, lies, dirty tricks, and a deliberate campaign of racial manipulation known today as "the Southern strategy" characterized this outrageous election. Saddest of all is that much of this has been covered up and so many people still have little idea of the crimes against the law, the U.S. constitution, and the people of the U.S. and Vietnam that were carried out by this American style of fascism.
Let's learn to use the Reason that God gave us and undertake a more thorough enquiry into our history before we make comparisons. When American leaders decided to foment violence, lies and the suppression of truth while resorting to gutter demagoguery—this isn’t just some nameless “curse” wrought by the irrational. Let’s hope that the elections of 1932 and 1960 also will invite comparison, since it appears that in these years Americans chose leadership that would move the country toward the nation's enduring values instead of away from them.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/16/2008

1. In 1972 it was the Democrats who had taken us into the Vietnam War.
Eisenhower took us out of Truman's war in Korea, and Nixon was seen as taking us out of the JFK-LBJ war in Vietnam. No Democrat really had a chance in 1972, because the worm turned in 1968 with the smash-up of the FDR coalition, when Nixon and Wallace together received just under 60% of the vote. The country had turned conservative. Jimmy Carter never would have won had it not been for the Watergate scandal and the high rate of inflation under Ford. Bill Clinton probably wouldn't have won without Ross Perot, though the senior Bush ran a dreadful campaign, symbolized by looking at his watch in the debate.

2. In 1972 the nation had just been appalled by the anarchy and race riots of the late 1960s--people of all classes were horrified by that--those events were generally caused and supported by Democrats of the McGovern stripe.

3. In 1972 it was becoming apparent that the "Great Society" programs of LBJ were failing, yet McGovern only promised more of them, with his centerpiece an offer of $1,000 per capita in cash to each citizen. That proposal (despite being hastily withdrawn, I think), marked him as scatterbrained, and led to his humiliating rejection. (The public was more intelligent then than it is today with respect to the "stimulus" payments).

Having lived through those times, I don't believe you can overestimate the part his $1,000 offer played. It was one of those little things, like the dirty language in the Nixon tapes, which turned public opinion in a big way.