Monthly Archives: February 2016

What were the lessons of McGovern ’72, anyway?

Would a Bernie candidacy in the fall end up like McGovern in 1972? Depends on what lesson you take from McGovern’s campaign. The Democrats and the left in the 1970s both took the lesson to be “that’ll never work.” The Democrats then got in the habit of sticking timidly toward the center and lowering their goals, while the left mostly walked away from electoral politics as hopelessly corrupt. Bernie’s long career in Vermont has convinced me that those were both strategic mistakes.

There’s another way to read the McGovern campaign: as something that had remarkable potential that we should all have learned from. That is how the conservative right wing, still smarting at the time from the defeat of Goldwater in 1964, looked at it. Richard Viguerie, the “funding father of modern conservative strategy,” looked at the McGovern campaign and saw several possibilities. Most famously, the fact that McGovern used the Volvo mailing list early in the campaign to great effect was interpreted by Viguerie to mean direct mail fundraising was a way around the mainstream media, a way to both raise money but also speak directly to communities without having to go through the filter of the major papers and the networks. But if you listen to Viguerie closely, I think he also saw untapped potential in grass roots organizing with previously ignored local organizations and constituencies — for him, these would be the NRA and evangelical Churches — around a principled candidate. Those strategies came to fruition in 1980, when Viguerie’s strategies were put to a test in the election campaign of Ronald Reagan: Reagan’s landslide success ushered in a new era of conservative dominance in the U.S., and eventually the world.

Since Bernie’s landslide victory in New Hampshire this week, there’s been an intense and I think very healthy debate amongst liberals about what’s strategically possible, and McGovern’s defeat in ’72 is often offered as a warning. I think both the left and the Democratic Party took the wrong lessons from the McGovern campaign back in the 1970s.

[Thanks to Victor Willis for suggesting this relevant essay:]

Uh, about that “movement” thing: it’s not going to be simple

Dear fellow progressives,

The sun is shining on the political terrain, for once. Bernie Sanders has shattered expectations, and proven wrong the long-held assumption that progressive goals like single payer healthcare, free higher education, and higher taxation are toxic third rails in U.S. politics. It turns out folks in large numbers can be persuaded to take those ideas seriously.

But how do we go from winning some electoral contests to actually enacting reforms? Bernie has been pretty clear that, even if he wins the White House, he won’t be able to do much without a lot of help from elsewhere. His answer for how to get that help is a “nationwide grassroots movement.”

Here’s an open secret: Bernie is probably not the guy to make that movement happen. His strength and his weakness is that he is a campaign control freak, accustomed to crafting his message and sticking fiercely to it, watching everything like a hawk. He does not like to adapt to spontaneous initiatives coming from the outside. He does not work very well with other politicians on the electoral front. When Bernie first won office as the mayor of Burlington, a Progressive movement formed around him that became the Vermont Progressive Party. For thirty years, Bernie has refused to officially join it, always running as an independent (though he has endorsed many of its candidates.) This caused much grumbling in the early years of his success; now people have gotten used to it. Bernie as a campaigner is a one-man-band. The point is, he is deeply sincere when he calls for a grassroots movement, but if folks sit back and expect him to be the one to reach out and cause down ballot initiatives and new progressive candidates to come rushing in, we might be disappointed.

All that this means is that others are going to have to get involved, and do some coordination. There are other strong progressive politicians already on the national stage like Elizabeth Warren and Barbara Boxer. There are established organizations, ranging from Progressive Democrats of America to Democracy for America to Russ Feingold, currently trying to get his senate seat back in the very purple state of Wisconsin, has long been an effective champion of progressive causes and, much more than Bernie, has worked hard to build communities of grassroots activists that can sustain action beyond individual elections. And one hopes that young folks coming out of efforts like OWS might be willing to loosely coordinate and/or engage with electoral efforts and initiatives, even while not completely signing on to one or another established political group. Lets hope that folks are listening and talking to one another, and looking for areas of mutual benefit.

Social movements are real. They are not magic. And initial bursts of popular energy as we’ve been seeing around Bernie do not always translate into sustained, decades-long movements for change. So perhaps now is a good time to remember all the other work that needs to be done, whatever happens to his campaign.