Why Do Democrats Have an Identity Crisis? It Goes Back to the McGovern Landslide Loss

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tags: Democratic Party, McGovern

Mr. Miroff is a professor of political science at the State University of New York, Albany.  His most recent book is The Liberals’ Moment:  The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party (Lawrence:  University Press of Kansas, 2007).       

For the Democrats, all of the signs for the 2008 elections currently look favorable.  Yet if they do control the presidency and Congress starting in 2009, what will they stand for and how will they govern?  Once Democrats look past the prospect of electoral victory, the picture becomes blurry.  Republican political ascendancy since the Reagan presidency has centered on a few core—and clear—principles:  limited government, the free market, a strong military, traditional values.  The Democrats’ alternative public philosophy is far less distinct.  For decades, their party had had trouble articulating what it cares about and what it believes.  Republicans have been proud to call themselves conservatives.  Democrats have not really wanted to call themselves anything in particular.

My effort to understand this identity crisis in the Democratic Party—a malady that will not be cured simply by winning another election—led me back to the McGovern presidential campaign of 1972.  I argue in my recently published book, The Liberals’ Moment:  The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party, that the McGovern campaign was the last time that a presidential nominee of the Democratic Party voiced a full-fledged public philosophy:  liberalism.  It was the last time that a Democratic nominee ran on a platform of peace, economic justice, and social equality.  It was the last time that a Democratic presidential candidate spoke passionately to the hearts of Democratic activists.

But McGovern lost by a huge margin, crushed by a landslide in which forty-nine states voted for the incumbent, none other than Richard Nixon.  The landslide defeat was propelled by a confluence of problems:  Nixon’s incumbency advantages and dirty campaign, negative perceptions of McGovern’s character, largely formed in the Eagleton Affair, and an ideological backlash sparked by the impression, cultivated by his political enemies, that McGovern was far to the left and outside the political mainstream.   Many Democrats seized upon the last of these factors and drew a stark conclusion:  speak from your heart, let your convictions show, articulate a liberal vision, and you are setting up the party for disaster.  A legacy of the McGovern campaign was that it made Democrats lose confidence in their longstanding public philosophy even as Republicans were gaining confidence in their new one.  The McGovern defeat can thus be seen as a profound trauma for contemporary Democrats, a political and psychic wound that has been covered over with layers of denial and defensiveness.

The political repercussions of McGovern’s defeat would have faded away if Democrats had abandoned his political values after 1972.  Yet after that year the party base actually became more liberal.  The conservative southern Democrats largely left the party, as did many of the Cold Warriors, prominent in the Scoop Jackson and Hubert Humphrey campaigns of 1972, who gravitated over the course of the next decade toward Ronald Reagan.  McGovern’s most implacable foe within the party, AFL-CIO president George Meany, represented a dying breed of old-style labor leaders.  Thus, even as McGovern’s values, rooted in the passionate struggles of the 1960s for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam, were shared by an increasing percentage of Democrats, the party’s later presidential candidates muffled liberal convictions out of a fear of their anticipated electoral costs.

We need to look back to the McGovern campaign, then, to observe the origins of the Democrats’ ongoing identity crisis.  We need to reexamine this campaign to understand what has happened to the Democratic Party since its heyday from Franklin D. Roosevelt through Lyndon B. Johnson.  The dimensions of McGovern’s defeat appear to have discouraged close attention to his remarkable insurgency; my book is the first on McGovern’s bid for the presidency since the campaign memoirs of the 1970s.  The insurgencies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 have drawn greater interest from historians, even though neither captured the party’s nomination and was tested against an emerging conservatism.  Yet if 1972 cannot match in sheer dramatic power the cataclysmic events of 1968, much of what is characteristic of today’s Democrats took shape in the later year.

Consider the transformative features of McGovern’s nomination in 1972:

  1. It was his campaign that shifted power in the Democratic Party from the urban, blue-collar coalition forged during the New Deal to a coalition dominated by suburban, college-educated, and issue-oriented activists.  McGovern defeated the aging chieftains of the Old Guard, such as Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago and George Meany, while recruiting into the party such future leaders as Gary Hart and Bill Clinton.
  2. It was his campaign that introduced cultural politics into the Democratic Party.  It was in 1972 that the women’s rights and gay rights movements first emerged as controversial but crucial fixtures in the Democratic coalition.
  3. It was his campaign that put a period to Cold War liberalism and established an antiwar orientation in the Democratic Party.  After 1972, militant interventionism would mainly become the Republicans’ property, while the Democratic base, seared by the experience of Vietnam, protested against new military adventures from Central America to Iraq.
  4. It was his campaign that demonstrated to Democrats how to win in the brand-new electoral game of primaries and caucuses through grassroots organizing and mobilization.  This was one feature of the McGovern campaign that was largely stifled after 1972, as the party leaders who took over after McGovern’s defeat turned, out a fear of liberal grassroots activism of the McGovernite stripe, toward wealthy contributors and the political consultants who used their donations for media politics.  Yet it has remained a powerful undercurrent in the party, from Jesse Jackson through Paul Wellstone to the contemporary netroots.

Both the committed liberals who look back on the McGovern campaign with nostalgia and the skeptical centrists who look back on it with derision are, in different senses, its heirs.  Both need to understand the repercussions from the landslide defeat of 1972, the first to come to terms with their persisting electoral vulnerabilities, the second to recognize their persisting ideological equivocations.  Democrats will only resolve their identity crisis when they confront this traumatic watershed in their party’s history and learn from the encounter how to heal the divisions it has bequeathed to them.