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: http://www.salon.com/2016/01/25/bernie_sanders_could_be_the_next_ronald_reagan/]