Why Bernie Won’t Win: The Democratic Party 1968-1992
The key to gaining and holding political power in a pluralistic constitutional republic, like the United States, is understanding both the composition of the population and what that population believes. Additionally, having the patience to understand that both are constantly changing and infinitely malleable is what separates political proaction from reaction.
The Democratic Party of 1968
LBJ’s withdrawal from the election of 1968 due to poor health and the unpopularity of the Vietnam War split the Democratic Party into four uncooperative factions. The first faction consisted of labor unions and big-city party bosses. This group had traditionally controlled the Democratic Party since the days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and they feared loss of their control over the party. After Johnson’s withdrawal this group rallied to support Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice-president. This would be Hillary Clinton’s base of support.
The second faction, which rallied behind Senator Eugene McCarthy, was composed of college students, intellectuals, and upper-middle-class whites who had been the early activists against the war in Vietnam; they perceived themselves as the future of the Democratic Party. This is the Bernie Sanders base of support.
The third group was primarily composed of Catholics, blacks and other minorities as well as several antiwar groups; these groups rallied behind Senator Robert F. Kennedy. This is a group that Hillary Clinton is much more able to get than Bernie Sanders who is only used to appealing too an overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly educated electorate in Vermont.
The fourth group consisted of white Southern Democrats. Some older men, remembering the New Deal’s positive impact upon the rural South, supported Vice-President Humphrey. Many would rally behind the third-party campaign of Alabama Governor George C. Wallace as a “law and order” candidate. This is a group that will not respond to a self-identified socialist no matter how much he emphasizes the Democrat that precedes it. This is Jim Webb’s constituency.
The Failure of the Left After The 1960’s
In 1968, America elected Richard Nixon, who ran on “restoring law and order”, thereby rejecting the ultra leftism of the 1960’s. When the votes of segregationist George Wallace, who carried five states and got double-digit popular vote percentages in ten others, are added to Nixon’s, that election amounted to an overwhelming rejection of the late 60’s. Nixon’s 1972 landslide reelection erased any remaining doubt. Jimmy Carter’s 1976 victory was temporary, as conservatism stormed back with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Between 1968 and 2008, Democrats won the presidency four times and lost seven times. In four of the seven losses, the Democrats experienced historic losses. In three of their four victories, the Republicans (Gerald Ford’s debate gaffe in 1976, allowing an opening for Ross Perot in 1992, and McCain’s campaign suspension during the financial crisis in 2008) significantly aided the Democratic nominee.
Hisorian Dan Keko has written about how the Democratic Party underwent a transformation following 1968. Senator George McGovern initiated changes which gave more power to rank and file Democratic voters with the McGovern-Fraser Commission that advocated for the democratization of the party’s presidential nomination process. The real purpose was to take power away from the party bosses. Primary voters for both parties tend to be more ideological. Being rigidly ideological is a loser in a national electorate as the party would find out over the next quarter century. McGovern would run for President in 1972 as an anti-establishment, uber liberal Democrat and would win one state. Nixon won the other 49.
Jimmy Carter came out of nowhere to win the Democratic nomination in 1976. His attractiveness derived from both his outsider status and his personal integrity. From 1977-1981, the Democrats held the presidency and enjoyed overwhelming majorities in Congress. They got little done. The outsider, Carter, showed little inclination to work with Congress. In fact, many Congressional Democrats felt Carter showed nothing but contempt for them. On top of this, Carter shared few of the neo-left’s ideals. He wore his Christian faith on his sleeve and favored deregulation and balanced budgets.
This group of voters left the Democratic Party despite years of support. They backed Reagan’s low tax and strong national defense policies. The Democrats wanted more social spending and looked to cut defense. Cultural issues such as pornography and abortion further split the parties. Despite the term, the “Reagan Democrats” best represent the split in the Democratic Party between the neo-left and the New Dealers. Southerners and blue collar northerners identified with Reagan who was a former Democrat himself until the party moved too far to the left. In fact, the Democrats eventually lost the south. This new coalition, which began forming with Nixon, culminated into a national majority by the nineties.
Why Bernie Can’t Win
In 1984, the Democrats ran Walter Mondale who promised to raise taxes and he promptly lost. In 1988, Michael Dukakis scared the general population with his liberalism and became a bit of a joke when photographed in a tank.
Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was 1992 Democratic nominee. Clinton moved away from the far left of the party, and represented the centrist elements of the Democratic Party. While Clinton blamed Reaganomics for the recession and promised a more efficient government, that included welfare reform and a balanced budget. To appease the left wing base, Clinton promised to keep abortion legal and reform health care. The Arkansas governor pulled out the victory with 43% of the vote. He would go on to enact Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, DOMA and repeal Glass-Steagall, all tradiionally anathema to the Democratic Party.
Following 1968, the Democrats became more about “the people” causing the old guard of the party to shift allegiance to the Republicans whom were then replaced by more liberal, leftist population. Despite controlling Congress for most of the period through 1992, the Democrats won only one presidential election. We are not going back to the 1960’s in this country. We live in a plurality with different shades of liberalism. Whatever you believe politically, rest assured the vast majority of the country does not feel the same way. Successful Presidential candidates for both parties, but specifically the Democratic Party post 1968, have been moderate centrists. If Democrats win the presidency, it will be a candidate out of the mold of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. That candidate this election cycle is Hillary Clinton.