In the US, the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 election generated both left rhetoric and a significant, moderate social democratic faction within the Democratic Party. Driven by energetic and youthful veterans of the Bernie Sanders campaign (so-called “Sandernistas” gathering around Democratic Socialists of America), the new-found left in the Democratic Party is seeking to transform the party. Its limited, but surprising electoral successes serve to underscore their program for revitalizing the Democratic Party.
Opponents of this leftward tendency from both within and outside the Democratic Party have attacked it, resorting to everything from crude red-baiting to derision. The less scurrilous objections revolve around electability-- the supposed disconnect with mass sentiment.
Most recently, that argument draws upon a comparison with the failed 1972 Democratic Presidential run of Senator George McGovern, defeated handily by Richard Nixon. As Gerald Seib, The Wall Street Journal’s Executive Washington Editor, reminds us: “Richard Nixon, a Republican figure [was] as despised on the left as President Trump is now.”
Seib relies upon the odious Dick Morris-- a former close confident of the Clintons-- to underscore the danger: “The election of 2020 is showing distinct signs of being similar to that of 1972.” Morris adds that the Sanders and Warren “candidacies [are] energized by the same kind of rage as animated that of McGovern in 1972.”
For Seib and others, “[t]he question is whether Democrats are about to repeat that unhappy history.” Seib skillfully draws parallels between the leftward tilt of the Democratic Party before 1972 and the rise of a left within today’s Democratic Party. He calls upon top Obama advisor, David Axelrod, to affirm the comparison. However, “Mr. Axelrod thinks that Democratic voters’ top priority this time isn’t likely to be ideology, but rather the ability to defeat Mr. Trump.” Axelrod counts on the oft-repeated warning that electability must outweigh any and all ideological considerations, the same mantra that drove the center and right forces in the 1972 Democratic Party to oppose McGovern.
Similarly, the former communications director for the Democratic National Committee, Brad Woodhouse, doesn’t fear the rise of the party’s left: “I don’t think the discussion we’re having in my part of the Democratic Party has lurched way far to the left… Our primary electorate has tended to favor more establishment, more pragmatic, more mainstream candidates. I trust our primary process to sort this out.” Like Axelrod, Woodhouse is not overly concerned with the left-leaning candidates and their ideology.
Establishment figures submit that the McGovern comparison demonstrates that a similar left candidate today would be overwhelmingly rejected by voters. They see the 1972 election as foretelling that Sanders and the Sandernistas are out-of-touch with the electorate.
Democratic elites are taking no chances. They are counting on the primary process to sink any insurgency from the left. The fact that nearly 25 candidates have stepped forward avoids any head-to-head face-off between Sanders and, say, the establishment’s Joe Biden. The sheer number of candidates guarantees that delegate counts will be diluted going into the convention, allowing for the moderate, centrist candidates to throw their votes behind a “safe” Joe Biden after the first ballot.
Normally in an election against an incumbent, a party tries to discourage a multi-candidate blood-letting. But for this election, the Democrats are threatening to mount open, retaliatory opposition to only one candidate-- the most radical candidate, Tulsi Gabbard. They are counting on a diffusion of votes and superdelegates to stop Sanders.
But that stop-the-left-at-all-costs stance is also the explanation of the 1972 election sweep. Democratic treachery, and not mass antipathy, best explains McGovern’s resounding defeat.
While McGovern and his team made harmful blunders and moved persistently rightward during the course of the campaign, betrayal by Democratic Party elites contributed most to his defeat. George Meany and other top labor leaders held back support. Big city mayors like Chicago’s Richard Daley either cut-- worked against-- or gave only tepid support to McGovern.
New York Times
WASHINGTON, July 17, 1972—The harsh opposition of George Meany to the Presidential candidacy of Senator George McGovern is creating widespread confusion, deep cleavages and spreading dissension within organized labor.
CHICAGO, August 24, 1972-- Timed to coincide with Senator McGovern's peace overtures to Mayor Daley, the luncheon was designed to open communication with campaign contributors friendly to the Mayor. Only two representatives of the regular Democratic organization showed up, and, a source close to the situation reported, they were there only to observe and report back to the Mayor.
Certainly the South was moving away from the Democrats and out of the traditional coalition, but, as the 1976 election shows, the Democrats were gaining liberal, suburban bedroom communities.
While the McGovern candidacy makes for an easy, but misleading comparison for Democratic Party leaders bent on smothering the left, the truth is that they are so completely owned by corporate interests that they would rather risk defeat than accept a candidate minimally challenging to their capitalist sponsors.
It is worth noting that in the McGovern era, the Democratic Party had a sizeable bloc of leaders still wedded to New Deal politics, still associated with Lyndon Johnson’s reforms. Yet McGovern was too radical for them.
Now, after several decades of a persistent rightward drift, the Democratic Party establishment is far more hostile to left ideas and far more dependent upon Wall Street and other capitalist institutions for support.
It is not a question of whether voters are ready for left politics. Rather, it is a matter of whether the Democratic Party’s corporate masters will allow left politics to live in the house that they own. I think the answer is that they will not. The left may visit, but it can’t stay.
This, of course, raises the question of where does the left go. In the US, the failure to secure deep roots for an independent, principled, internationalist, and revolutionary socialist movement that is not totally absorbed with two-party electoral politics means that genuine left politics must suffer through the next 17-18 months of the two-party circus with a guaranteed unsatisfying outcome. And with the distractions of the backwash of the absurd RussiaGate, impeachment-mania, twitter wars, and celebrity missteps, the fate of ordinary Venezuelans, Iranians, Palestinians, and many desperately poor and exploited here will be left to the crazed Trump policy team, a group that the Democratic Party is shamefully reluctant to tackle.
But it’s never too late to plant the seeds of a new politics-- a politics that we need and not the one we have.
The political soil needs to be prepared by drawing lessons from the past. Certainly the McGovern campaign of 1972 speaks to the corruption of the Democratic Party and its leadership. Answers will be found elsewhere.
But there are useful lessons from the European experience as well. The trajectory of the powerful Italian Communist Party (PCI) of the 1970s-- by membership, the largest CP and, arguably, the largest left party in Western Europe-- affords a useful lesson, a caution. By committing without reservation to the course of bourgeois politics-- parliamentarianism, coalitions or alliances across classes, “responsible” governance-- the CPI exposed a Paradox of EuroCommunism and Social Democracy. Writing in 1981, two US academics, Larry and Roberta Garner, took note of “the limits of structural reformism” as exhibited by the PCI in 1978.
Despite their sympathies and hopes for the PCI, they noted that the reformist defense of workers before capitalism’s ravages requires that “moves to bolster the public or national interest must become moves to bolster the functioning of the capitalist firm… Moves that narrow capital’s profit margins, that reduce capital’s ‘space,’ run the risk of precipitating failures or flight within the capitalist sector… Specifically, structural reforms-- if they are genuinely structural-- weaken capitalism and contribute to a crisis… Individual firms fail, large firms have lowered profits, reinvestment does not take place, and, finally, deliberate political actions are taken by capital, such as flight abroad and investment strikes.”
Thus, under the weight of the crisis endured by capitalism in the mid-1970s, the PCI felt compelled to “call for restraint in pressing the traditional working class demands” that are portrayed as contributing to the crisis and jeopardizing job security and capitalist growth.
In other words, the PCI was caught between advancing the “national interests”-- determined by sustaining capitalism’s health and capacity to supply jobs and benefits-- and advancing the cause of the working class at the expense of capitalism. The PCI, under crisis conditions, could deliver neither the short-term interests of the working class (structural reforms that burdened capitalism) nor the long-term interests of the working class (socialism). The party’s commitment to bourgeois institutions denied it an escape from this contradiction. As the Garners note, pressing forward with structural reforms would mean that the PCI would be blamed by its petit-bourgeois coalition partners for deepening the crisis. To not do so would disaffect its working class constituency.
Today there is neither socialism nor the PCI in Italy.
This should bring to mind the governance of SYRIZA in Greece. The “left” party folded its boasted militancy and joined the mavens of austerity to guarantee the survival of capitalism, while shirking the duty to defend the working class from its enemy. They choose reviving a dying capitalism over hastening its demise.
Managing capitalism, as the Greek Communists insist, betrays the working class and blocks the path to socialism. The tragic collapse of the once powerful PCI demonstrates the fate of social democratic movements that plan to dance with multiple partners and to sing different tunes.
History provides many invaluable lessons. They are ignored at our peril. They allow us to move forward without any illusions. They remind us to choose our political friends and our tactics carefully.