The Politics Of Blacking Out The Past

Hillary, Bernie, McGovern & The Democratic Party’s History Of Forgetting.

As November approaches, Democrats are solidifying their nominee to combat Donald Trump. The 45th president has demonstrated a lot of authoritarian impulses, and many citizens are understandably invested in removing him from office. The psychic weight of all those expectations has already made 2020 an emotionally taxing year for people who follow politics (and many who don’t).

“I think he will win again” has been anxiously whispered by liberals and progressives across America, and the concern will only grow louder as election day nears.

This fear may seem familiar to astute observers of history. It has the potential to reshape the political order for decades to come, and that should both invigorate and concern progressives everywhere.

2016 led to a perceptual shift for many Americans. The idea that a man as “openly” racist and mysognistic as Trump could get elected viscerally shocked a lot of people out of their complacency. White liberals, in particular, have radicalized so quickly that journalist Matthew Yglesias has controversially labeled this shift “the great awokening.”

The trauma of 2016 has never died for this group of people. As Seth Masket wrote in the LA Times about several political activists he interviewed:

“…what’s unusual is how these people who, in many cases, have been volunteering and working in politics for decades, still talk about being traumatized by the 2016 presidential election and how it changed their understanding of politics.”

It’s fair to say that America, mainly white America, is not yet over 2016. We are still processing what this election means, and consequently, Trump as an idea has become an inescapable aspect of American culture. People have a strong urge to understand his rise to power, as well as the political strategies that will defeat the brand of authoritarianism he has come to symbolically represent.

On the media side, this has created an insatiable demand for anti-Trump content with no less than two comedic Trump based comedy shows (see Our Cartoon President and The President Show), as well as a host of other media inspired by his ascendency to the Oval Office.

When we aren’t thinking about him directly, we are thinking about the themes that we believe underscored his rise to power. For example, it’s well documented that The Handmaid’s Tale (2017) skyrocketed in popularity by catastrophizing (and capitalizing) on the fear of what some thought Trump’s presidency would lead to if unchallenged. As Matthew d’Ancona wrote in The Guardian:

“…[The Handmaid’s Tale] did more than a thousand news bulletins to capture all that was most toxic about the new populist right and the shredding of constitutional norms.”

Even in our dystopian pop culture, we are focused on him. Content has become all about Trump’s awfulness all the time.

On the political level, this anxiety over Trump has translated to an overwhelming and singular focus on “electability” — otherwise known as a voter’s perception of a candidate’s ability to win an election. We have seen voters decide to prioritize defeating Trump over all other ideological considerations, and this has translated into a call for their candidates to be “electable.”

It has become common to see articles that talk about how voters are deciding to back someone based on their perception of “other” voters’ perceptions of that candidate. For example, candidate Elizabeth Warren had high favorability ratings for a good chunk of the summer of 2019. Still, many of her supporters expressed concern that she couldn’t win against Donald Trump, and she promptly lost her frontrunner status. The same narrative befell Senator Kamala Harris.

While some of these concerns were about policy, a great deal of this anxiety comes from racist, sexist, and homophobic impulses. As one voter told NBC about her worries with Kamala Harris:

“How are they supposed to rebut someone like Trump? I want to see a woman in the White House, I really do. But I just don’t know if it can happen against him.”

Some voters are using their fear of how other people will react to openly discriminate against candidates based on their race and gender. It should be emphasized that this is an extreme type of utilitarian thinking that allows a voter to justify any decision under the pretext of preventing evil (i.e., stopping Trump). The perverted logic of thinking you can stop racism and misogyny with more racism and misogyny would be funny if it weren’t reinforcing some of our worst impulses.

These voters are trying to “gain the system” by backing the candidate they think is intrinsically electable, and it is a consideration drenched in 2016 anxiety. No one wants to lose again, and as we have just demonstrated, a large part of America has spent a lot of time analyzing how to avoid this outcome.

This electoral paralysis has voters wanting to be told something impossible: that a bad electoral outcome will never happen again if they turn all elections into a form of Fantasy football. Draft the perfect candidate with the right stats (i.e., white, centrist, male, rich), and you will go onwards to victory.

It’s a type of fear-based decision-making that has led to a reality where Americans are ready to decide the viability of entire political ideologies, not based on whether or not they or right, but if they can win.

This has happened before.

1972 was a pivotal shift in electoral politics. It was the first election cycle the Democratic party used the primary system we effectively know today. This election led to a disastrous defeat for the Democratic Party and shifted how the establishment viewed power decades into the future.

Primaries and caucuses technically existed before 1972 (the history can be traced as far back as the 1840s), but they were not the primary mechanism for selecting a party’s Presidential nominee. This honor belonged to party bosses — members of the party machine who hashed out their preferred choices in backroom deals, known disparagingly by reformers as “smoke-filled rooms.”

This arrangement froze the public out of the process until election day, and such elitism finally came under fire during the Democratic Presidential Nominating Convention of 1968. The Chicago convention broke out into a full-blown riot where protestors clashed with police officers after the Democratic establishment’s preferred choice, Hubert Humphrey, secured the nomination, despite having won zero primaries.

For context, America was in the midst of the Vietnam War. The draft was still in effect, and tens of thousands of American soldiers, as well as millions of Vietnamese, had already died. It also didn’t help that Robert Kennedy — the leading anti-war candidate — was assassinated earlier that year during the night of the California primary.

Many liberals viewed Hubert Humphrey as a supporter of the war (although the history’s more complicated), and it soured his nomination for them. While every previous candidate had been selected similarly, the American public’s increasing opposition to the war, placed renewed scrutiny on the selection process itself. The democratic vote fractured, and just like with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, many progressives viewed Humphrey and Richard Nixon as the same side of the corrupt coin.

Given what we retrospectively know about Nixon, this was a false equivalence.

Surprisingly, it was not the liberals who staged a protest candidacy in ’68, but conservative democrats. Southerner George Wallace ran a third-party bid under the American Independent Party that appealed to “civil” Americans tired of protestors. His bombastic rhetoric encouraged using military force to push for a swift end to the war (his running mate wanted to use nukes), and he talked jokingly about running over anarchist protestors in his car. He never got a serious plurality of votes, but his bid took enough votes away from Humphrey to secure the presidency for Republican Richard Nixon by a significant margin.

None of this was a good look for the Democratic Party, which promised to reform the way it selected its nominee. They tasked the ambitious Senator George McGovern to co-chair the committee to restructure the selection process (i.e., the progenitor for the current primary system). McGovern then used his insider understanding of the new primary system to deftly secure the democratic nomination for the ’72 election.

He ran on a progressive platform that resembles a lot of the planks of the modern-day Democratic party. For his time, he was a supporter of Indian country, gender parity, eliminating discrimination on sexuality, anti-war, as well as a host of other liberal issues.

These positions, however, would be overshadowed by his devastating loss against Nixon. He would lose by an even worse margin than Humphrey did in ’68, and in the end, he would only carry DC and Massachusetts. The Democratic party has never entirely forgotten the sting of this bitter defeat. Many blamed the party’s loss on the belief that McGovern’s progressive stances had alienated “regular” Americans. As James M. Naughton wrote in 1972 in the New York Times about one possible reason for his loss:

…in this interpretation, went McGovern supporters whose own rhetoric made it appear that Mr. McGovern — despite his professed neutrality on abortion reform, his defense of amnesty as traditional American post‐war grant — and his denials that he would legalize marijuana use — had, as one aide put it, “let all the kooks into the church.”

This liberal failure became a justification for the party to move rightwards. Democrats abandoned the new Deal Ethic of the 1920s, as well as scratched their support of marginalized communities or “identity politics.” The focus shifted to being a more business-friendly party that was “tough on crime” and supported “globalization and free trade.” As Charles Peters wrote in 1982 in the Washington Post of this new, dominant political perspective within the Democratic Party: “We still believe in liberty and justice and a fair chance for all, in mercy for the afflicted and help for the down and out. But we no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business.”

We still live in the shadow of this political reality, and the specter of McGovern as a justification is ever-present. It is common to this day to hear establishment types caution progressives not to pull a “McGovern.” When, for example, Alan Greenblatt lamented in Politico in 2017 about the Democratic Party’s current push leftwards, he brought up McGovern:

“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.”

This analysis, and the thousands like it, are an oversimplification. McGovern’s “identity politics” cannot solely be blamed for the factors that contributed to his loss. The establishment candidate, Humprey, lost to Nixon four years earlier in ’68, and conservative democrat George Wallace, not liberals, was a primary reason why.

In the late 60s and early 70s, the Democratic party was in the middle of a massive demographic shift following its embrace of the civil rights movement, and it was a change that well preceded 1972. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act back in ’64, and according to lore, it infamously caused him to remark, “There goes the South for a generation.”

George Wallace indeed ran in ’68 as someone critical of both parties’ approaches to the Vietnam War, but he was also a fervent segregationist. He was the man who gave the infamous “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech, and this demonstrates that racism was a factor in the Democratic Party’s losses in both ’68 and ’72. While Wallace later reversed his position on being an evil shit, many of his fellow white democrats would sooner watch hell freeze over. The South transformed over the next decade from blue to red as the Republican Party repositioned itself as a beacon for racist white Democrats (see “The Southern Strategy”).

We should also mention that McGovern faced a lot of resistance from withinside his own party. For example, Former Treasury Secretary John B. Connally teamed up with several establishment Democrats to form “Democrats for Nixon” — a group of Democrats who believed the party’s new, progressive platform alienated “loyal democrats.” As Connally told the New York Times in ’72: “We open our doors to all those millions of Democrats who realize that in this Presidential election President Nixon is simply the better choice.”

Racist, say what?

Finally, McGovern was facing one of the most corrupt politicians in recent history, Richard Nixon. This was a man so infamous he had to resign from office in disgrace for spying on the Democratic National Committee to get an advantage in the election. We know this scandal as Watergate (named for the office building complex Nixon’s goons broke into)

These reasons are not to say McGovern’s campaign was perfect. His Vice President selection, in particular, of Senator Thomas Eagleton from Missouri was not handled well. Eagleton had undisclosed mental health problems, which McGovern’s campaign did not catch in the vetting process. Eagleton was later removed from the ticket after this information was leaked to the press, and it made McGovern appear both incompetent and insensitive at the same time (though retrospectively even here, recent evidence suggests that Nixon may have been involved in Eagleton’s medical record going public).

To blame McGovern’s “progressivism” for the Democratic party’s loss problematically essentializes a complicated moment in history. It ignores a lot of trends happening at the time, and it blinds the party to what can happen again in 2020.

2020, like 1972 did with 1968, will help Americans decide how they feel about 2016. The loss to Trump — although not as electorally wide as McGovern’s — emotionally shocked many Democrats to their core, and they are now reassessing how they feel about the political order. It’s too soon to see how the future will pan out, but we are starting to observe a lot of worrying similarities to the narrative surrounding ‘72.

For one, there has been a lot of focus on essentializing the reasons why Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump. She has been called a “flawed candidate.” People have also blamed the Democratic Party’s focus on identity politics for discouraging the white working-class (sound familiar?). There seems to be a desire to find an ideological reason for her loss rather than focus on the practical realities surrounding her campaign. She ran a flawed campaign that failed to factor the shifting demographic realities of the Democratic Party.

Before 2016, there was a focus on something called the “Blue Wall,” or the belief that 18 states were inherently Democratic because they had voted the same way since 1992. Three of these states — Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — were won by Donald Trump in 2016, and tipped the tide in his favor enough to secure the presidency. The crumbling of this alleged Blue Wall shocked a lot of people, but the evidence for this shift was there, hidden within the 2010s demographic changes.

These states have a lot of decaying manufacturing sectors, sometimes referred to as “rustbelts,” that for decades had been hallowed out by increasing automation and outsourcing of jobs overseas. Economic progress in these regions has been slow or nonexistent, and in many cases, the only economic development in these regions has come from immigrants. As Justin C. Austin wrote for the conservative Brookings Institution in 2017:

“A steady stream of immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East — a very different immigrant population than the Europeans who settled in the Midwest beginning more than 150 years ago — has slowed the hollowing out of the region’s bigger cities and small factory towns in recent decades. In most of the Midwest today, immigrants are a major source — and in some communities the only source — of population and new business growth.”

On top of this shift, when we look at some of the most racially segregated cities in America, we start to see names like Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Detroit, Michigan; and Cleveland, Ohio. The segregation of the rustbelt, coupled with the reality that racial minorities were contributing to some of the region’s most significant economic growth, led to a toxic cocktail of racial resentment. Trump won a lot of white enclaves in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and like with the South in 1972; it was a flip that the Democratic Party was not prepared for.

The rustbelt across the country went hard for Trump (not just in these three states), and Hillary Clinton’s campaign generally neglected these regions to focus on a message of decency and unity that appealed the most to college-educated folks in urban cities. She did not campaign significantly in Wisconsin, for example, and has gone on record claiming she regrets not campaigning more in the rustbelt.

Conversely, as Trump shored up support among white voters, the Democratic Party’s share of black voters declined. The incentive from the black community was unsurprisingly not the same for Hillary Clinton as it was for electing the first black President. As Chryl Laird wrote in Vox: “That black turnout levels returned in 2016 to levels from the 2004 election suggests that what fell off was the black community’s incentives to deliver its full voting potential.”

It turns out you cannot assume that voters will vote for you year in and year out without changing your strategy.

If Hillary’s campaign had anticipated these demographic shifts better, then they could have tailored their messaging to appeal more to working-class people in the rustbelt AND tried to shore up her support within the black community AND made inroads with other minority groups. Her campaign instead made the dangerous assumption that the Blue Wall would hold and that black Americans would automatically continue to vote at Obama levels. She consequently ended up with both depressed turnout among black voters as well as lost working-class support in the rust belt, and Trump is now President.

These problems, although not as pithy as bemoaning about political correctness, are quite practical and were not inevitable. If less than several thousand votes had been cast differently in 2016, then we would be having a very different conversation right now. This gap could have been addressed strategically through better messaging AND a better allocation of campaign resources.

We are not having this conversation, though. We are in another period of demographic transition for the Democratic Party, and rather than tackle it head-on, Democrats seem fixed on calling Hillary Clinton a “flawed candidate” and lambasting progressives for doing “identity politics” and “socialism.” A lot of moderate candidates are trying to say that they will do better because of their essential characteristics. They are highlighting that they are a midwestern Senator, a millennial mayor, or a wealthy businessman, rather than putting forth a strategy to capture enough votes to win the Electoral College.

You know, the thing that helps you become President.

Another worrying similarity to ’72 is that the moderate wing, despite calls for unity, has engaged in a lot of divisive rhetoric that will further exacerbate the moderate-progressive divide within the party.

Every moderate candidate has engaged in a fair amount of progressive-bashing this election cycle. Former candidate Hickenlooper was booed in San Francisco for denouncing Socialism. Maryland Rep John Delaney warned that we were going the way of McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis. Bloomberg entered the race partly due to the fear that a progressive like Warren or Bernie would secure the nomination.

The fear that a progressive will win 2020 is immense, and in some strange cases, it seems to eclipse a fear that Trump will win again. When, for example, the centrist think-tank Third Way hosted their 2020 Opportunity Conference in 2018, concerns abounded about how progressives were damaging future election prospects. As Illinois representative Cheri Bustos commented to NBC:

“If you look throughout the heartland, there’s a silent majority who just wants normalcy. Who wants to see that people are going out to Washington to fight for them in a civil way and get something done. There’s a lot of people that just don’t really like protests and don’t like yelling and screaming.”

This demonization of an entire contingent of the Democratic party, while not as crude, sounds very similar to Wallace’s critique of Vietnam protestors. The Democratic party SHOULD disagree over ideas, but this tribalization within the party is a losing strategy for a Democratic candidate to take. Progressive or Centrist, Socialist, or Moderate, no candidate can afford to alienate an entire wing of its base. Our political candidates, especially our presidential ones, should not fall to the same impulses as political pundits (gulps nervously).

These characterizations seem strange when considering that all of these progressive and socialist voters that moderates hate so much will be needed to turn out in 2020. This is a divide that has the potential to lead to a protest vote, or worse, suppressed voter turnout. History has shown that disgruntled factions are susceptible to third party preferences when said factions feel alienated by the first option, and both moderates and progressives are very anxious and unhappy right now. As George Wallace in ’68 demonstrated, voters are not against backing a darkhorse candidate in protest, and we are vulnerable to do it again.

Finally, the most worrying similarity to ’72 is, like with Nixon; the presidency is occupied by a man who will pervert the tools of office to win at any cost. Trump infamously withheld funds from Ukraine to try to get their country’s President to open up an investigation into his political rival Joe Biden. Trump’s campaign has raised over $100 million for the 2020 election — a war chest so hefty that he was able to drop money on a $10 million Superbowl ad.

The challenge of defeating a man this repugnant and well-funded would be an uphill climb during the best of times, but it becomes particularly worrisome when the Democratic party is this fractured tribally. Trump is going to attempt more duplicitous forms of sabotage (if he hasn’t already), and defeating him will require a united base aware of its own demographic challenges.

2030will be an entirely different America. The political landscape is being rewritten as we speak, and that change starts with how we view our past. This moment in history seems like it will last forever, but eventually, someone will win the 2020 election, and that choice will be used to paint an account that will stretch on for decades.

Similarly to how the Democratic Party reacted to ’72, it’s easy to see a scenario where Democrats lose against Trump, and progressivism is labeled as the reason for the loss. Bernie or Warren not dropping out early viewed as the catalyst for a fractured election.

Conversely, if I were a moderate, I would be worried about what a Sanders or Warren candidacy means for the political order. I doubt the Third Way think-tank will be as prosperous in the pages of President Sanders’ official biography. We might come to see centrism as an archaic and backward political philosophy in 10 years.

It all depends on how the present is retold.

Be careful about how people frame this period in history for you. 2020 will be the date we remember because it will be the date that shapes everything. The momentous nature of this moment has the power to reaffirm the current political order or break it entirely.

We know this because it has happened before.

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I write about pop culture, politics, and every in between.

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