It's not 1972 and Bernie Sanders isn't George McGovern

Is Bernie Sanders the second coming of George McGovern?

The latter was a left-wing dark horse who survived a chaotic and contentious convention to become the Democrats' presidential nominee for the 1972 election. He went on to lose to incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon by a whopping 23 percentage points in the popular vote, and an Electoral College wipeout for the ages.

"Losing campaigns — especially thumpingly, head-spinningly losing campaigns — are objects of talismanic power in the minds of politicians," historian Rick Perlstein wrote in 2008. "Their response is almost pre-rational." And no talisman inspires the Democrats' obsessions quite like McGovern. Any time an even-somewhat left-leaning candidate with an anti-establishment air contends for the Democratic nomination, be it Howard Dean or Barack Obama, worries of a 1972 redux are not far behind.

So it has been with Sanders.

While the senator from Vermont does not foreground his social progressivism as much as some of his rivals, his policy stances are as far left as any. Between his Medicare-for-all plan, support for a Green New Deal, calls for a national job guarantee, and a sweeping plan to remake unions, Sanders is arguably to McGovern's left in terms of economic populism. And Sanders is second-to-none in his denunciations of the "establishment," including that of the party he hopes to lead.

With Sanders one of the two most likely Democratic nominees following early popular vote victories in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, the party's older establishment has been nearing full-on panic mode, a feeling that may yet escalate if Sanders takes a commanding delegate lead on Super Tuesday. There is talk among Democratic power-brokers, perhaps merely bluster, of using the convention to cut Sanders off and engineer a centrist replacement. Needless to say, invocations of McGovern and another 1972-style defeat are explicit.

Is the comparison justified? In a word: No.

First off, the fact that McGovern is invoked every time an outsider has dethroned the establishment favorite as presidential nominee (in 2008), or come close (in 2004), hints at the sloppiness of the analogy: Sanders, Obama, and Dean are all vastly different politicians. More to the point, even a cursory glance at the polling completely explodes the comparison.

McGovern's defeat could be seen coming a mile away. He was polling 19 points behind Nixon in June of 1972, six months before the election. And that gap never changed the rest of the campaign. Sanders is currently polling a little under five points ahead of Trump in head-to-head matchups. While his lead over Trump has been more dynamic — bouncing from a high of roughly eight points to a low ebb of roughly 2.5 points, then back to five — Sanders has consistently maintained that lead since June of last year.

For all the sturm and drang of the primaries, Sanders is also remarkably popular. He has the highest favorability rating and the second-lowest unfavorability rating of the Democratic candidates. Vast numbers of rank-and-file Democratic voters who prefer another candidate rank Sanders as their second choice. He outpolls Trump in critical battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Sanders is a known quantity, coming in a strong second place in the Democrats' 2016 primary. McGovern, by contrast, came from nowhere: when he began his campaign for the 1972 nomination, he was polling in the single digits.

Granted, it's only March, and the Democrats do seem headed towards another contentious reckoning at their convention. Perhaps that will damage Sanders' standing. But McGovern's national unpopularity was also plainly evident a month before the 1972 convention in July.

National circumstances have also changed dramatically since then. McGovern was a new and unpopular face going up against an incumbent who could boast a booming economy, with real GDP growth around 6 percent. The grinding stagflation of the late 1970s had yet to kick in. Trump may have a roaring stock market (pre-coronavirus, anyway) and 3.6 percent unemployment to point to for his own case. But since 1972, middle class wages have stagnated and inequality has taken off. The country faces multiple affordability crises across basic needs like education, health care, child care, and housing. Despite the low unemployment rate, labor force participation is low, and economic growth and wage growth are tepid. Even if all that wasn't the case, Trump himself is massively unpopular; he seems determined to test what degree of racism and bullying is necessary to neutralize whatever goodwill a strong economy can provide.

Finally, the Democratic Party is a profoundly different beast than it was when McGovern ran. In 1972, the party was still reeling from the exodus of Southern whites into the GOP following the Civil Rights Act. White working class voters were still three-quarters of all voters nationally, yet they are less than half today. The old labor unions still formed the foundation of the Democratic base, and union leadership was either skeptical of or outright opposed to McGovern.

There are multiple ways to read this history, both that McGovern was knifed by hostile and backwards factions in the party, and that he badly miscalculated.

The labor movement was more culturally reactionary back then, and McGovern — an anti-war social liberal — sought to build a new coalition of working-class nonwhites, marginalized groups such as LGBTQ Americans, and socially liberal college-educated whites. That's roughly the coalition around which Obama built his victories and Hillary Clinton tried and failed to build hers. You could argue that McGovern was basically the Democrats' version of Barry Goldwater: A visionary who lost massively, but who also saw the future of his party (though it took the Democrats quite a bit longer to embrace their future than it took the GOP to embrace theirs). The battle lines of liberalism and conservatism also still cut through both parties in 1972 in a way they don't today, and partisan polarization is now a much stronger glue holding the Democrats together.

But that new Democratic coalition also has its contradictions, particularly that the college-educated whites are its power-brokers, but do not necessarily share the economic interests of the rest of the coalition. You could also tell a story in which the new wave of Democrats who swept Congress after Watergate embraced McGovern's social progressivism but failed to follow through on the economic populism — and thus paved the way for the party's Clintonian embrace of neoliberalism. It's worth remembering that Barack Obama's 2008 blowout augmented the McGovern coalition with a large minority of working-class whites. Ironically, it may be Hillary Clinton's 2016 loss that most closely mirrors McGovern's strategy — and who most clearly reveals McGovernism's weaknesses.

Of course, Clinton won the popular vote, and certainly didn't suffer an electoral blowout. The country has become much more demographically favorable to McGovern's approach.

At the end of the day, both stories are probably right. But Sanders also cuts through them in ways that don't comfortably fit with either narrative. Yes, college-educated whites are a strong part of his activist base. But the broad bulk of his voter support comes from less-educated and lower-income Americans, including working-class whites. His small donor operation is genuinely staggering in its sweep. His popularity among African-Americans and Latinos continues to surprise mainstream observers, not to mention his support among younger voters. And while Sanders has had his occasional dust-ups with the remains of America's union leadership (as opposed to the rank-and-file), his overall popularity with the labor movement is as strong as anyone's: Sanders has a 98 percent lifetime rating from the AFL-CIO.

That Sanders and McGovern were both "anti-establishment" also obscures more than it reveals. Back then, the establishment was the white working-class union bosses and the old WASPs and their political machines. Today, the establishment is the highly educated, urbane, socially liberal elites that McGovern helped to inspire. And while the establishments change, the underlying class interests and conflicts remain the same. Challenging one establishment or the other comes with very different class conflicts, and thus very different implications for the class makeup and potential breadth of your coalition. Even today, there are more working-class voters out there than upper-class college graduates. One could argue (and I would) that Sanders has embraced the ahead-of-its-time strengths of McGovernism, while also avoiding its excesses.

At any rate, yes, we should learn from history. But there is a difference between learning from history and being unable to think outside it. Sanders is not McGovern, and America in 2020 is not America in 1972.

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