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Can Bernie Sanders Break the Stevenson-McGovern Curse?

Everyone knows that when the Democratic party loses the White House, the grassroots ascend—and it doesn't always end well.

Jesse Jackson attends the 1972 Democratic National Convention. Senator George McGovern, a liberal Democrat, was nominated for president at the convention. (Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

There’s a clear cycle—and thus a kind of predictability—to Democratic nomination contests such as this one, and that bodes well for Senator Bernie Sanders. 

The cycle is this: when the Democrats lose the White House (as they did in 2016), the grassroots activists—outside the Beltway, beyond the control of the Democratic establishment—seize the initiative. 

And for good reason: the mere fact that the party lost can be taken as proof that the insiders didn’t know what they were doing, that they had sold out or grown tired. This critique from the insurgents might not hold up on its merits, but there’s no use trying to explain that to them. 

So with the establishment discredited, the activists seize control and next time around nominate their favorite candidate. And since that favored candidate, of course, is likely to be a left-wing true-believer, the prospects for the party in the general election grow dim. 

This cycle has been observable since the dawn of televised politics. For instance, way back in 1952, the Democrats lost the White House to Republican Dwight Eisenhower. The Democratic candidate that year was Adlai Stevenson, a liberal beloved by liberal activists. To them, Stevenson was a breath of fresh air, a man independent of the party bosses—Southern Protestants and their courthouses, Northern Catholics and their machines—who ran things from smoke-filled rooms. Indeed, precisely because Stevenson was so beloved, the activists didn’t hold it against him that he lost to war hero Ike in a strongly Republican year. 

And so four years later, in 1956, something strange happened: the Democrats nominated Stevenson again, to face Eisenhower a second time. It was hard for any sober realist to picture a scenario whereby Stevenson could win, and yet the activists so loved him—“Madly for Adlai”—that they gave him another try. Stevenson was defeated in November 1956 by an even wider margin.

Interestingly, in 1960, those same besotted activists wanted to nominate Stevenson a third time. Yet by then, cooler Democratic heads prevailed. The party machinery—those same Southern Protestants and Northern Catholics—reasserted itself and nominated John Kennedy, an insider-centrist, who, of course, won the ’60 election. 

JFK’s victory thus ended the ’52-’56 activist cycle; the activists had their chance and they blew it. Power within the party had shifted from the grassroots to the White House and back to the Democratic establishment. 

There the matter sat until the next time Democrats lost the White House, which was in 1968. Once again, with the Democratic establishment in eclipse, the anti-establishment grassroots were energized anew. These activists were mostly associated with the anti-war movement, yet they were also fired up by the nascent women’s and gay liberation movements. 

Which is to say, they were deeply dissatisfied, even outright contemptuous, of the old-line Democratic establishment. And so the activists found a younger left-wing candidate, Senator George McGovern, to carry their banner. 

Indeed, the hostility between the Old Guard and the New Left was so intense that at the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami Beach, the McGovernites unseated Richard J. Daley, the warhorse Democratic mayor of Chicago, as well as the entire Illinois delegation. For the activists, that unprecedented intra-party purge must have been a satisfying moment of comeuppance, although, of course, the resulting party split didn’t help McGovern in the general election. He lost Illinois by nearly 19 points, and lost the whole country, too. 

So again, the activists had seized control of the party, only to take it off a cliff. And then, in the wake of that defeat, the Democrats’ desire for ideological normalcy—and political victory—once again reasserted itself. The activists were subordinated. In 1976, Jimmy Carter wasn’t the first choice of the Democratic party establishment, but as a moderate Southern white Protestant, he had the look of a general election winner—and he did win. 

So we can see that in simplified form, the cycle for the Democrats is this: lose the first time, see the activists take the party to an ideological extreme—and thus to a bigger loss the second time—and then snap back to the middle the third time, usually to win, or at least make the election closer. This was also the story, more recently, of the nominations of Walter Mondale in 1984 and of John Kerry in 2004; the left-leaning activists were comfortable with both, and they both lost. 

So now to 2020, where Sanders, having pushed aside Senator Elizabeth Warren to be the leader of the left, has won the popular vote in both Iowa and New Hampshire. 

Sanders is thus the anointed candidate of the hardcore activists, the people who will trudge through the snow on his behalf, man the barricades—and if need be, storm the Bastille. 

He has plenty of zealous democratic socialists as allies, notably Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who held a series of rock-star rallies for Sanders in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Back in July 2018, this author suggested that AOC’s hard-edged charisma would help push the Democrats to the left in 2020, and that’s great news for Sanders. Indeed, the online betting site PredictIt now shows him to be the solid favorite for the nomination. 

So yes, a history-based augury looks good for Sanders, at least in the short run. As for November, that’s much iffier, but history also shows that the Stevensons and McGoverns and their fans are happy just to win their party’s nomination; the general election is another day. 

Of course, there is one giant standing athwart Sanders’ train ride to the Finland Station—a financial giant. And that plutocratic colossus, of course, is Michael Bloomberg. 

The Manhattan mogul is the antithesis of everything Sanders and his comrades stand for, and he stands in contravention to the familiar Democratic nomination cycle. Yet Bloomberg has so much money, and has spent so much money—hundreds of millions on his campaign and $5 billion to “causes that often dovetail with his political interests”—that we’re in some new Einsteinian realm, where the gravity of his money seems to be bending the political continuum. 

Indeed, support for Bloomberg is popping up all over. Sample headline in The New York Times: “‘Mayors for Mike’: How Bloomberg’s Money Built a 2020 Political Network.” 

Yes, the Democratic nomination cycle is strong in its predictive power. But Capital is strong, too—and maybe stronger

about the author

James P. Pinkerton is a longtime contributing editor at The American Conservative, columnist, and author. He served as longtime regular columnist for Newsday. He has also written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, National Review, The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, Fortune, and The Jerusalem Post. He is the author of What Comes Next: The End of Big Government--and the New Paradigm Ahead (1995).He worked in the White House domestic policy offices of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and in the 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. 

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