Don’t Blame McGovern

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American History, Democratic Party, elections, liberalism and progressivism, Republican Party

Jacob Weisberg writes in Slate,

Political analysts tend to overinterpret the results of isolated elections. But you can hardly read too much into Ned Lamont’s defeat of Joe Lieberman in Connecticut’s Aug. 8 primary. This is a signal event that will have a huge and lasting negative impact on the Democratic Party. The result suggests that instead of capitalizing on the massive failures of the Bush administration, Democrats are poised to re-enact a version of the Vietnam-era drama that helped them lose five out six presidential elections between 1968 and the end of the Cold War.

And David Espo of the Associated Press writes:

The challenge for Democrats is that Republicans already are pointing to the anti-war activists who flocked to Lamont, and their penchant for edgy political tactics, as evidence that Democrats can’t be trusted with the nation’s security.

“We’ll soon find out just how significant this election is, but it’s a problem for Democrats long-term,” the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said after Lamont had won.

“The McGovern wing of the Democrat party seems to have forgotten that we’ve been on offense for the last five years and that’s why we haven’t been attacked here at home.” …

… “Republicans are anxious to say the left wing is taking over, the antisecurity wing” of the Democratic Party, the three-term senator [Lieberman] said recently, not exactly rebutting the claim as he repeated it.

[Update: See also Mike Allen's absurd commentary in Time.]

Let’s dissect this “McGovern / antisecurity” nonsense. First, George McGovern was not opposed to national security; he was opposed to the bleeping war in Vietnam. During World War II McGovern “flew 35 combat missions as a B-24 bomber pilot in Europe, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross,” says this web site from his alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan University. This suggests to me that he supported national security. But the war in Vietnam wasn’t making us safer from anyone; it was pure folly. Like Iraq.

Second, the Democratic Party didn’t falter because of opposition to Vietnam. I realize The Story we’re supposed to believe is that in 1972 people voted for Nixon because he was strong on national security and pro-war, while McGovern was a sock who wanted to turn the keys to Washington over to Chairman Mao. But this is not an accurate picture of the time.

The bare facts are that, as I wrote here, by 1972 at least 60 percent of the public thought the war in Vietnam was a mistake. While a minority of the public remained hawkish, and the Nixon Administration continued military action, the Nixon Administration was not promising to “stay the course.” Indeed, President Nixon kept promising the American people he was looking for a way out.

The 1972 election was not a simple referendum for or against the war in Vietnam Vietnam. Note these items from this timeline:

  • January 25, 1972 – President Nixon announces a proposed eight point peace plan for Vietnam and also reveals that Kissinger has been secretly negotiating with the North Vietnamese. However, Hanoi rejects Nixon’s peace overture.
  • February 21-28, 1972 – President Nixon visits China and meets with Mao Zedong and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai to forge new diplomatic relations with the Communist nation.
  • May 15, 1972 – The headquarters for the U.S. Army in Vietnam is decommissioned.
  • August 23, 1972 – The last U.S. combat troops depart Vietnam.
  • October 8, 1972 – The long-standing diplomatic stalemate between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho finally ends as both sides agree to major concessions. The U.S. will allow North Vietnamese troops already in South Vietnam to remain there, while North Vietnam drops its demand for the removal of South Vietnam’s President Thieu and the dissolution of his government.

    Although Kissinger’s staff members privately express concerns over allowing NVA troops to remain in the South, Kissinger rebuffs them, saying, “I want to end this war before the election.”
  • October 24, 1972 – President Thieu publicly denounces Kissinger’s peace proposal.
  • October 26, 1972 – Radio Hanoi reveals terms of the peace proposal and accuses the U.S. of attempting to sabotage the settlement. At the White House, now a week before the presidential election, Henry Kissinger holds a press briefing and declares “We believe that peace is at hand. We believe that an agreement is in sight.”
  • November 7, 1972 – Richard M. Nixon wins the presidential election in the biggest landslide to date in U.S. history.
  • November 30, 1972 – American troop withdrawal from Vietnam is completed, although there are still 16,000 Army advisors and administrators remaining to assist South Vietnam’s military forces.
  • The fact is that the contest in 1972 was not between a hawk and a dove, but between a dove (you could argue Nixon was a hawk in dove’s feathers) trying to save face through a peace agreement and a dove who said, the hell with saving face; let’s just get out. I strongly suspect that if Nixon in 1972 were acting the way President Bush is now — in denial about the scope of the disaster, and with no plan other than “stay the course” — the 1972 elections could have gone the other way.

    You want to know what the 1972 elections really were about? Check out Richard Nixon’s 1972 Republican Convention acceptance speech.

    The first issue Nixon launched into was not Vietnam, but quotas. He was speaking out against Affirmative Action. He spoke of “millions who have been driven out of their home in the Democratic Party” — this was a nod to the old white supremacist Dixiecrats who were leaving the Democratic Party because of its stand in favor of civil rights (the famous Southern Strategy). McGovern had proposed a guaranteed minimum income for the nation’s poor that was widely regarded as radical and flaky and (in popular lore) amounted to taking tax money away from white people and giving it to blacks. Nixon warned that McGovern’s policies would raise taxes and also add millions of people to welfare roles — another racially charged issue. Then Nixon took on one of his favorite issues, crime. If you remember those years you’ll remember that Nixon was always going on about “lawnorder.” This was another issue with racial overtones, but it was also a swipe at the “permissiveness” of the counterculture and the more violent segments of the antiwar and Black Power movements.

    Finally, toward the end, he addressed Vietnam:

    Peace is too important for partisanship. There have been five Presidents in my political lifetime–Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson.

    They had differences on some issues, but they were united in their belief that where the security of America or the peace of the world is involved we are not Republicans, we are not Democrats. We are Americans, first, last, and always.

    These five Presidents were united in their total opposition to isolation for America and in their belief that the interests of the United States and the interests of world peace require that America be strong enough and intelligent enough to assume the responsibilities of leadership in the world.

    They were united in the conviction that the United States should have a defense second to none in the world.

    They were all men who hated war and were dedicated to peace.

    But not one of these five men, and no President in our history, believed that America should ask an enemy for peace on terms that would betray our allies and destroy respect for the United States all over the world.
    As your President, I pledge that I shall always uphold that proud bipartisan tradition. Standing in this Convention Hall 4 years ago, I pledged to seek an honorable end to the war in Vietnam. We have made great progress toward that end. We have brought over half a million men home, and more will be coming home. We have ended America’s ground combat role. No draftees are being sent to Vietnam. We have reduced our casualties by 98 percent. We have gone the extra mile, in fact we have gone tens of thousands of miles trying to seek a negotiated settlement of the war. We have offered a cease-fire, a total withdrawal of all American forces, an exchange of all prisoners of war, internationally supervised free elections with the Communists participating in the elections and in the supervision.

    Not exactly “stay the course,” is it? And Nixon doesn’t argue that McGovern’s withdrawal proposal amounted to being weak on national security. Instead, he argued that it would be ignoble and a betrayal of our allies: “[I]t will discourage our friends abroad and it will encourage our enemies to engage in aggression.”

    The charge that McGovern is weak on national security comes at the very end. McGovern proposed “massive cuts in our defense budget which would have the inevitable effect of making the United States the second strongest nation in the world,” Nixon said. He didn’t have to explain that the “first strongest nation”would have been our long-time nemesis, the Soviet Union.

    Still, you’d think that, as unpopular as the Vietnam War was, and as unlikeable as Nixon and Agnew were, McGovern would have done better. But there were other factors at work.

    First, George McGovern was not the candidate the Democratic Party establishment wanted to run. As explained in more detail in this article, in 1972 primaries had just begun to eclipse smoke-filled rooms in the nominating process. Because he had alienated many powerful Democrats during his nomination bid, McGovern received only tepid support from the Democratic Party itself during his general election campaign. Then McGovern’s original running mate, Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, was found to be difficult (officially it was announced Eagleton had a history of mental illness; rumors in Missouri said Eagleton was an alcoholic) and so he was replaced with Sargent Shriver. People around the nation wrote McGovern off as a flake after that. Nixon was creepy, but in many ways he had been an effective president. Nixon won re-election partly on the “devil you know” factor.

    As I wrote here, during this Vietnam era the old New Deal coalition fell apart, but not primarily because of the war. Instead, it crumbled because it could not accommodate the social and cultural challenges of the times. I call your attention to another essay by Fred Siegel (scroll down to the American History subhead; emphasis added):

    Liberalism in the Truman era seemed to be simple self-interest to most families who benefited from the G.I. bill and veterans’ mortgages. Campaigning in 1948 on the slogan “All I ask you to do is vote for yourself, vote for your family,” Harry S. Truman not only defeated challenges from his left and right, but triumphed despite drawing only limited support from the top tiers as measured by wealth, education, or occupation.

    New Deal liberalism’s final political victory came in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson once again defeated Hoover’s ghost in the form of the outspoken economic libertarian Barry Goldwater. Johnson went on, in effect, to complete much of the New Deal’s agenda by expanding its social and health benefits for the poor, the elderly, and African-Americans who had earlier been ignored. …

    … By the middle of the decade, New Deal liberalism was in retreat, routed initially not so much by its conservative opponents as by new forms of liberalism, which had emerged in response to the cataclysms of those years. In the next quarter century, its reputation declined until in the 1988 presidential race “liberal” became the “L word,” an epithet.

    New issues, such as racial justice and the misuse of a now powerful presidency to fight a morally untenable war in Vietnam, destroyed the New Deal political coalition. At the same time a renewed fear of government as a threat to individual moral autonomy, defined in terms not of property but of lifestyle, undermined the social and cultural assumptions of the New Deal’s mild collectivism and authoritative institutions. Both civil rights and lifestyle liberalism were moral critiques of meat-and-potatoes majoritarianism and both pursued their goals through the courts, the “undemocratic” branch of government the New Deal had, in large measure, defined itself against.

    The original FDR-era New Deal discriminated against blacks. This was largely because FDR had to cut deals with the southern Democrats to get his programs through Congress. Fact is, “entitlement” programs were very popular through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s until they were expanded to include African Americans. By the 1960s many of the same white Americans who had benefited from the New Deal, the GI Bill, and postwar housing and mortgage subsidy programs suddenly decided that such programs encouraged people to be lazy and dependent on government. Race was the elephant in the living room of American politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Although prominent politicians rarely gave explicitly racist messages, racism screamed loudly and clearly between the lines. Nixon’s acceptance speech is a good example.

    Back to Siegel:

    New Deal liberalism had been erected on the understanding that it was the job of government to protect the virtuous people from the rapacious interests. But, asked the new politics liberals of the 1960s, what if the people themselves were corrupted by materialism, imperialism, racial bigotry, and a variety of other malignancies? Their answer, inspired in large measure by the civil rights movement, was to return to a pre-New Deal definition of democracy based largely on court-generated rights. Denuded of its democratic drive, liberalism had become minoritarian.

    Beginning with Richard Nixon, the Republicans picked up the “common man” theme and ran with it to victories in five of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988. Where FDR had spoken of the “forgotten man,” Republicans like Nixon and Ronald Reagan spoke of the “silent majority” imperiled by crime and court-ordered “social engineering.” Conservatives played on the opposition to social policies like busing for racial integration to argue that government, not big business, was the great danger to the average American. By the 1988 presidential election, twice as many voters defined themselves as conservatives than as liberals. Liberals, members of the party of court-protected minorities, had themselves become a minority.

    It was the move away from democratic progressivism and toward “identity politics” that rendered the Democratic Party a shell of its former self, IMO. Consider the 1972 Democratic Convention, in which fights over the party’s platform dominated the floor on the night nominee McGovern was supposed to give his speech. Television viewers saw angry black and feminist delegates in heated argument with labor and party regulars; McGovern didn’t give his speech until about 3 a.m. (A shame, because it was a good speech.) And this scared the bejeesus out of Mr. and Mrs. White Middle-Class American, who flocked to Nixon to protect them.

    Meanwhile, as the Left came apart, the Right got its act together. During the 1970s a number of wealthy conservatives began to build the media and political infrastructures that dominate U.S. politics today. This was the beginning of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, in other words.

    And that, boys and girls, is the true story behind The Story.

    So while the Weisbergs and the Cokies and other pundits declare that the Democrats are repeating old mistakes, in most ways struggle within the party today is entirely different from what happened in 1972.

    An editorial in yesterday’s New York Times called Tuesday’s Connecticut primary “revenge of the irate moderates.” (Emphasis added.)

    The defeat of Senator Joseph Lieberman at the hands of a little-known Connecticut businessman is bound to send a message to politicians of both parties that voters are angry and frustrated over the war in Iraq. The primary upset was not, however, a rebellion against the bipartisanship and centrism that Mr. Lieberman said he represented in the Senate. Instead, Connecticut Democrats were reacting to the way those concepts have been perverted by the Bush White House. …

    … Mr. Lieberman’s supporters have tried to depict Mr. Lamont and his backers as wild-eyed radicals who want to punish the senator for working with Republicans and to force the Democratic Party into a disastrous turn toward extremism. It’s hard to imagine Connecticut, which likes to be called the Land of Steady Habits, as an encampment of left-wing isolationists, and it’s hard to imagine Mr. Lamont, who worked happily with the Republicans in Greenwich politics, leading that kind of revolution.

    The rebellion against Mr. Lieberman was actually an uprising by that rare phenomenon, irate moderates. They are the voters who have been unnerved over the last few years as the country has seemed to be galloping in a deeply unmoderate direction. A war that began at the president’s choosing has degenerated into a desperate, bloody mess that has turned much of the world against the United States. The administration’s contempt for international agreements, Congressional prerogatives and the authority of the courts has undermined the rule of law abroad and at home.

    Yet while all this has been happening, the political discussion in Washington has become a captive of the Bush agenda. Traditional beliefs like every person’s right to a day in court, or the conviction that America should not start wars it does not know how to win, wind up being portrayed as extreme. The middle becomes a place where senators struggle to get the president to volunteer to obey the law when the mood strikes him. Attempting to regain the real center becomes a radical alternative.

    Further, the “netroots” Left today is keenly interested in the “meat-and-potatoes” issues that the New Left dissed in 1972 — jobs, health care, pensions, and other policies that support the American middle class.

    I say again, today’s political struggle bears little resemblance to the Vietnam era. It ain’t 1972 any more. We liberals and progressives must challenge The Story. We need to clarify what happened then, and we must not allow rightie propaganda to deter us from our purpose now.

    I want to close by linking to this article written by George McGovern in April 2003, just a month into the disaster of Iraq. He saw more clearly than most exactly what was happening. McGovern is a good guy, and the way his name is evoked to call shame upon Democrats is a damn injustice.

    See also: Digby.

    UPDATE: More historical background by a diarist at Daily Kos. My one quibble is that I’m not sure how much the Democrats were seen to have embraced the counterculture in 1968, especially after the Grant Park, um, protests during the 1972 1968 Democratic Convention. Certainly by 1972 the counterculture and the Democrats seemed an old married couple to most of the public, even though the New Left and the old establishment Dems weren’t entirely on speaking terms. (Hat tip: Digby)

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    24 Comments

    1. Reb  •  Aug 10, 2006 @11:47 am

      Another great post. I always make it a point to check out your site.

      It was driving me nuts watching the “pundits” tell us that Lamont’s win was a terrible thing for the progressive movement. I don’t think they want to really deal with what this primary actually means. The neocons are finally starting to get their judgement day.

    2. Charles  •  Aug 10, 2006 @12:00 pm

      Isn’t it about time, after all these years, that people looked with clearer eyes? McGovern isn’t going to run again, so we can — and should — look at him without factoring current political considerations into the equation.

      If you take the time to research McGovern’s positions, rather than just accepting the “he was defeated so soundly, he must have been wrong” line, you are going to find that he was on the right side of every major issue of the day, while we are still living with the negative consequences of Nixon’s mistakes and policies.

      No, McGovern wasn’t perfect. He said things which gave his opponents grist for their mill. He made mistakes. But his career was marked by courage and a willingness to correct mistakes — unlike Nixon or Cheney, for example.

    3. terry  •  Aug 10, 2006 @12:06 pm

      I agree it is a great post and as someone who must be about as old as you, it reflects the history I recall. Some of the Republican spin meisters have not pointed to McGovern, but to Eugene McCarthy whose 1968 candidacy convinced Johnson to bow out. Of course McCarthy did not get selected to run in the national election, but there is little question that he changed the entire debate on the Vietnam War. While Nixon lied about his “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War (thereby securing my dear mother’s vote who did not want to see me drafted in two years) it did force him to show some progress by 1972. As I recall even HHH was talking about getting out in 1968, a pitch he had difficuly with given his service as LBJ’s vp. My question is how many U.S. servicemen and women died in Vietnam after Nixon’s inaugeration in January 1969? I think this is a relevant inquiry today, because some of my conservative friends who finally admit that Iraq was a terrible mistake which has been compounded by the sheer and utter incompetence of Dumbya’s prosecution of it, still can not bring themselves to support immediate withdrawal because of the problems which will ensue. My rejoinder has been that we have no choice or control over how the Iraq war ends anymore than we did in Vietnam. It is going to end badly and the only question is how much more American blood and treasure will we squander before recognizing that sad fact. If someone knows the answer or where I can go to find it, I can at least put some numbers to my little debates.

    4. wmr  •  Aug 10, 2006 @12:22 pm

      Kudos on the history lesson. I lived through it, too (number 65 in the first draft lottery, but luckily 4F).

      Regarding HHH, I seem to remember reading that he very much wanted to run against the war, but LBJ threatened to make sure he would get minimal party support if he embarassed the president by doing so. Even after bowing out, LBJ just couldn’t get over himself. And it was a damn close election, too. Imagine, no Nixon in 1968: no Cheney, no Rumsfeld now. Whoa.

    5. maha  •  Aug 10, 2006 @12:24 pm

      Some of the Republican spin meisters have not pointed to McGovern, but to Eugene McCarthy whose 1968 candidacy convinced Johnson to bow out.

      Right, but that’s an even worse parallel. Vietnam was Johnson’s War. Johnson resigned because the war was a disaster. Many people associated Humphry with the war, because he was Johnson’s Vice President. Nixon promised to end the war. You could argue that Nixon was the “peace” candidate in 1968.

      Also, the white supremaicist challenge from Wallace was a factor in 1968. Those were very muddy waters.

      And then there was the Bobby Kennedy factor. Lots of people take it on faith that Bobby Kennedy would have won the nomination and the election had he lived, but I’m not sure. Kennedy was surging just at the moment he was murdered, but I don’t believe there was a big gap between Kennedy and other contenders. Many scenarios might have played out many different ways.

    6. fshk  •  Aug 10, 2006 @12:37 pm

      Exit polls in Connecticut indicate that, of the voters who opposed the war, 40% still voted for Leiberman, but almost all of the voters who thought Leiberman was too close to Bush voted for Lamont. I think the primary was not so much a referendum on the war or on security but on the president who is steering us wrong in so many ways. Not a single-issue election, in other words. Which is interesting.

    7. Jon  •  Aug 10, 2006 @12:38 pm

      That pissant Weisberg was still contemplating puberty in 1972–he has no friggin’ idea what happened.

      The problem is, he is simply regurgitating The Narrative, and facts don’t matter. Even if The Narrative were true, why is there no Narrative about 1964? Goldwater was absolutely crushed. Yet, in the end, his partisans ARE the modern GOP and they have been victorious.

      The problem with Weisberg, aside from his membership in the self-hating “liberal” club over at Slate, is that his entire mindset is, like all of these parrots, about the next election–never about the next ten.

    8. Mel Strom  •  Aug 10, 2006 @1:02 pm

      Th 10 Aug 2006
      09.55 Los Angeles

      Remarkable how fast the talkingpoint faxblasts must have come out of Rove’s office. Jonah Goldberg has *exactly* the same McGovern-peacenik-surrendermonkey-coward theme in this morning’s LA Times. That dog will keep huntin’ as long as the Democrats let it.

    9. lightning  •  Aug 10, 2006 @1:09 pm

      Another factor in 1972 was that the Nixon campaign mounted the biggest “dirty tricks” operation in American history. Watergate was just one aspect of this. Lee Atwater is the direct ancestor of Carl Rove.

      And don’t forget the “southern strategy”.

    10. moonbat  •  Aug 10, 2006 @1:28 pm

      I was relieved to read the NYT editorial. Thank God somebody gets it.

      Regarding McGovern, ordinary people in this country were getting weary of the leftists (and I was one of them) by 1972, in much the way that ordinary people today are getting unnerved by the rightists. Nixon adroitly exploited this, and the rest is history. Extreme movements always produce the stench of excess if allowed to run unchallenged too long. Hence the revolt of the irate moderates, in both time periods.

      …Jonah Goldberg has *exactly* the same McGovern-peacenik-surrendermonkey-coward theme in this morning’s LA Times. That dog will keep huntin’ as long as the Democrats let it.

      However wrongly Goldberg and the other bubble-headed scribblers spin it, the Dems had better get their message together, because the R’s are going to hammer this relentlessly all the way to 2008. Fighting this shouldn’t be that hard, but it will require courage to hammer home BushCo’s many serial failures in the face of the venal right wing Wurlitzer, and in the face of genuine enemies abroad.

      In a lot of ways, Nixon had it easier than our guy/gal will have in 2008.

    11. maha  •  Aug 10, 2006 @1:34 pm

      Regarding McGovern, ordinary people in this country were getting weary of the leftists (and I was one of them) by 1972, in much the way that ordinary people today are getting unnerved by the rightists.

      If the Dems can find a way to clarify & crystalize this they’ll have it made. I’m dubious they can do it, though.

    12. k  •  Aug 10, 2006 @1:57 pm

      If this is a replay of 1972, then how about the next chapter folks: you know the one where the vice pres and the pres have to leave in disgrace? Where the Repubs have to start over and the Dems have to clean up the mess…

    13. "Fair and Balanced" Dave  •  Aug 10, 2006 @2:27 pm

      Another factor in 1972 was that the Nixon campaign mounted the biggest “dirty tricks” operation in American history. Watergate was just one aspect of this. Lee Atwater is the direct ancestor of Carl Rove

      The person who orchestrated Nixon’s dirty tricks was Donald Segretti not Lee Atwater.

      Incidently, Segretti was co-chair of John McCain’s 2000 Presidential campaign in Orange County, CA. The fact that Segretti’s boy McCain was himself a victim of Karl Rove’s dirty tricks in South Carolina has more than a small touch of irony to it.

    14. temperance  •  Aug 10, 2006 @3:39 pm

      Maha – outstanding post! Thanks for using such persuasive historical examples to make your case. Righties, it seems, often twist and distort history, and I think it’s especially worthwhile to be vigilant about the history of progressivism and the left. My father worked for McGovern’s campaign when he was in college; he “got clean for Gene” and my brother was taught to say “Dump Hump” when he was 4. So, I was raised to totally respect “the McGovern wing” and I hate to see his memory maligned in this way (speaking as someone who was still in diapers during the ’72 campaign).

      “If the Dems can find a way to clarify and crystallize this then they’ll have it made” – Feingold gives me some hope in this regard. He seems to know how to frame a critique of the Iraq war & Bush’s foreign policy in ways that disable the “anti-security” charge.

      Jon — “self-hating liberal club over at Slate” — yes! exactly! – I couldn’t have said it better . . .

    15. zen_less  •  Aug 10, 2006 @4:18 pm

      Two other reasons McGovern got clobbered so thoroughly (that people conveniently forget): the economy at that point was doing quite well (the oil shock of the 70s hadn’t set in yet) and McGovern ran a very bad campaign, starting with dumping his vice presidential nominee, Thomas Eagleton, when it was revealed he had undergone electroshock therapy. The notion that McGovern lost because of his anti-Vietnam stance is a convenient fiction for the war hawks that they will pedal as long as no one will call them on it.

    16. dday  •  Aug 10, 2006 @4:51 pm

      Thanks, Maha, I wrote an extremely long post on this very subject a week ago. I’m glad bigger bloggers are fighting back against this McGovern nonsense. The guy was running against two parties. “Acid, amnesty and abortion” was a Democratic frame delivered by Scoop Jackson (and his top political advisor, Richard Perle). That he got 38% at all was amazing.

      This article from the American Conservative magazine, of all places, puts McGovern in its proper historical perspective.

    17. Jeff r  •  Aug 10, 2006 @7:39 pm

      I remember the 1972 election. It was my first voting experience. The passage of the 26th amendment had a direct effect on me: it made it possible for me to vote in a presidential election in 1972 instead of having to wait until 1976. I was very interested in the opportunity — I was a draft-age male! — and watched both the Democratic and Republican conventions on TV. I was especially concerned about the effect on politics of younger people, the ones newly enfranchised by the 26th amendment. At the Democratic convention, it was obvious that not only was there a role for younger people, but women and minorities as well. You could clearly see them on the convention floor, actively involved in decision-making.

      At the Republican convention, it was equally clear that there was minimal involvement by either women, minorities, or young people. Mostly you saw middle-aged white men. I wondered where the younger people were — and then I saw them. The roving TV cameras found them, occupying the upper tiers of the convention center. They had been organized into cheering sections; at key moments people would hold up signs reading “Applaud” or “Cheer” and they would dutifully comply.

      At that moment I learned just about everything I needed to know about the Republican Party.

      I haven’t seen the Republicans do much of anything since that day that might make me change my mind about them. In 1996, during the conventions that year, I was listening to NPR. They were interviewing a high school student who was attending the conventions as part of a course of study in political science. I had to smile as I heard the young lady describe her experience at the Republican convention that year. Her observations were virtually identical to what I had seen on TV nearly twenty-five years earlier. She had the advantage over me, too: she was actually there.

      Had you asked me in 1972, after viewing the conventions, which party clearly better represented the genuine diversity of the American people, the answer would have been a no-brainer. I can’t argue that the Democrats are perfect or have always done everything I thought they should, but the answer to that question, after almost thirty-five years, is still a no-brainer, and is to me still the most important question to ask about either party.

    18. CathiefromCanada  •  Aug 11, 2006 @12:40 am

      Yes, I too am old enough to remember it your way too, and Slate is wrong. I don’t read Slate anymore because they are wrong about too many things.
      But don’t let yourselves get distracted…Once again, Democrats are getting sucked into arguing about something from 35 years ago (memories of TANG, Swiftboats, etc) instead of talking about 2006.

    19. steven andresen  •  Aug 11, 2006 @2:14 am

      I have suspected that there was an effort to make hippies more objectionable than they were.

      One should understand, growing up in my state, that if in your small political group someone offers to bring in a box of dynomaite, or has a truck and would be glad to drive you out to some power pole, to help you blow it up, nine times out of ten he’s the FBI informant.

      When the masked guys from Eugene smashed in windows in Seattle during the WTO protest, I figured they were driven by some FBI guy wanting to undermine the credibility of the movement.

      I think it was likely that bizarre and obnoxious behavior by anti-war “activists” have always been staged to discredit the movement.

    20. Deborah Moore  •  Aug 11, 2006 @2:49 am

      1972 was a little before my political consciousness. However, from what I read, I think our post is correct, but overlooks one important detail. Even as Democrats were losing interest in traditional working class bread-and-butter issues, Nixon was generally liberal on such matters. (Wallace was even more so).

    21. maha  •  Aug 11, 2006 @5:59 am

      Even as Democrats were losing interest in traditional working class bread-and-butter issues, Nixon was generally liberal on such matters. (Wallace was even more so).

      To a large extent, yes, but I’m not sure Nixon’s relative “liberalism” had much to do with the decline of the Dems. In any event subsequent Republican presidents became a lot less “liberal.”

      Remember the Reagan Democrats — mostly white blue collar guys who voted for Reagan because the Gipper promised to find that (black) welfare queen in a Cadillac and make her get a job. And Reagan also swore to fart in the general direction of Communists. Reagan’s economic policies betrayed them, yet I don’t believe they learned any lessons and went back to the Dems. They were more interested in punishing black welfare recipients than they were in their own pocketbooks.

    22. Gordon  •  Aug 11, 2006 @10:42 am

      RE the comparisons to ’68.

      The “anti-war” left were kids (just a bit older than me) who grew up never knowing a setback (their parents & teachers lived through the depression, WWII etc.) They thought progress was inevitable. They were impatient about civil rights, Vietnam. One generation, mostly middle class, white, naive and angry.

      Contrast to today: all ages, all walks of life, no longer naive, and upset (but not really angry) that progress is being rolled back a century or more.

      Further, I don’t think they (directly) ended HHH’s career. HHH’s career was over when the police rioted on his watch. The (traditional) liberals, who were bewildered by longhair and bellbottoms, but not entirely unsympathetic (could be a neighbors kid getting his skull crushed), retreated into denial, leaving the stage to the “moral majority”.

      Anyway: *great* post; I’ve been very upset by these comparisons. I think the 2 periods are more like mirror images.

    23. John de Hoog  •  Aug 11, 2006 @8:29 pm

      I worked on the McGovern campaign (and will never forget sitting on the floor at our friends’ home eating lunch with Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda). I remember our initial excitement with the man, followed by a sinking feeling as he came up with strange ideas like giving $1000 to every citizen. The reasons cited in the article and comments, not the war, were the real factors in the election. I can’t believe how idiotic Slate is, to let someone comment on a history he knows nothing about. We were there, dammit!

    24. Gaius Sempronius Gracchus  •  Jan 13, 2007 @4:42 pm

      I think you are very good on the history, though you place a little more emphasis on race and less on class that I would in the telling of it.

      If you are saying the Democrats need to return to their pro-labor, pro-working class, pro-social democracy roots and progressives need to push them more vigorously in that direction, I can only agree and wish us both luck.

      PS. I wonder what you think of “Why We Fight”, a fine movie on the capitalist under-pinning of American militaristic globalism. I think the isolationist right and the non-interventionist left share an analysis of who is driving the American bus in foreign policy, and in what direction.

      And maybe there is also a shared view that there should have been a “peace divident” and a radical draw-down of US forces after the collapse of soviet and East European Communism, along with a radical withdrawal of US forces to the northern part of the western hemisphere.

      I wonder how you feel about that.

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