I am a big fan of Paul Waldman, but I am deeply disappointed with his effort to decide whether or not a self-described socialist can be elected president. In particular, I find the following to be very dissatisfying.
But the most compelling answer to the question of whether a socialist can be elected president is that we just don’t know. We haven’t had a nominee like Sanders before, and prior examples of ideological outliers (say, George McGovern) were so long ago and in partisan environments that were so radically different than today’s that they can’t tell us anything about what would happen.
This simply isn’t true. I don’t dispute that 2020 is dramatically different from 1972. Arguably, McGovern would have won if he’d run in 2016 or even 2008 due solely to the evolving demographics of the country. But this isn’t the lesson we should take from McGovern’s crushing loss. He was doomed less because of his platform than because he could not unite the Democratic Party. The particulars of why he failed to do so are different. In our times, the challenge from George Wallace-types is encapsulated mostly within the Trump campaign rather than being an inter-party squabble. Still, it might pay to look at a 1972 post-mortem on why labor boss and A.F.L.‐C.I.O. president George Meany decided not to endorse McGovern.
The primary reason is clearly that the rank-and-file preferred Nixon and felt alienated by the politics of the New Left.
Perhaps George Meany felt honor‐bound to be responsive (i.e. in touch) to the rank‐and‐file workers of America. The Gallup Poll at the time showed “labor union families” favoring Nixon over McGovern by 52 per cent to 42 per cent…
…Perhaps senile George Meany and the senile executive board of the A.F.L.‐C.I.O. can still read newspapers (in braille?) and that during the last five or so years these doddering fools had noted that many of the ideologues of the new politics wing of the Democratic party have characterized labor’s leadership as racist, reactionary and imperialist, and caricatured its membership as beery, hawkish, ethnic slobs. Perhaps the A.F.L.‐C.I.O. leadership did not agree with those characterizations. Perhaps they felt instead that while some of the new politics was concentrating on Vietnam and the chic, anti‐materialist liberalism of the counterculture, amnesty, abortion, gay lib and marijuana—they, the labor skates, were up to more productive pursuits. Perhaps they take pride that the American labor movement has been the point of the lance for every decent, progressive and humanitarian piece of legislation that has actually passed into law over the last decade. That includes not only union‐oriented measures, but also civil rights, civil liberties, the environment, medical care, poverty, welfare, aid to education, mass transportation and so on down an extremely long list.
I presume much of that has some resonance for you as you look at what has happened to the Democratic Party over the last four years. But it’s not really my point that the Democrats can no longer win over the “beery, hawkish, ethnic slobs” in the Midwestern labor movement. The party is big enough to win without them now, provided that what remains is not divided.
The current Democratic majority in the House is built on a suburban/urban alliance rather than an ethnic/labor/urban/Southern alliance. But it can no more afford to lose the suburbs than McGovern could afford to lose labor. It also can’t afford poor urban turnout. It needs both to maintain its majority status, and also to protect its House majority. It probably needs both to have any hope of winning control of the Senate.
So, we actually can use McGovern’s loss as a useful precedent. And the question becomes whether Sanders will divide the Democrats in suburban districts the same way that McGovern divided them in Rust Belt districts. And, if so, how would he make up for it?
In 1972, we were told that the newly lowered voting age would bring out a surge of youth voters for McGovern. But only half of 18-21 year olds turned out to vote and 48 percent of them voted for Nixon. In any case, it wouldn’t have mattered if they’d all turned out and voted heavily for the Democrat. Without party unity, McGovern had no chance.
I covered this from two angles in my recent piece: Bernie’s Coalition Doesn’t Overlap With the Dem’s House Majority. On the one hand, even if Sanders finds a different winning coalition to take the presidency, that won’t be of much comfort to suburban Democrats who lose their seats. If it costs the Democrats control of the House and Senate, President Sanders won’t get anything done in any case. But, precisely because of this threat, the party will not unite around such an alternate strategy even if it has demonstrable prospects for success.
So, my belief is that Sanders would not unite the party and that many elected Democrats would walk away from him both in the campaign and even after he was elected, should he be so fortunate.
This seems like a high risk to take when the party as a whole is actually pretty cohesive, especially on the subject of beating Trump. There isn’t any pressing electoral need to shake up the coalition that just crushed in the 2018 midterms, nor to put that majority in jeopardy by not respecting the desires of the constituencies that entrusted the Democrats with power.
As far as I am concerned, the evidence from 1972 suggests that a divided party cannot compete against even a polarizing and much-hated incumbent. This isn’t some hangover from the culture war of the 60’s or a failure to recognize that times have changed. It’s is a simple observation about how to build a majority coalition and how to lose one.