How George McGovern and 1972 shaped polarized politics today
When it comes to understanding how and why our political culture has become so ugly and horrible, there is no shortage of explanations.
Income inequality and racial prejudice. A shrinking industrial base and a declining middle class. Fox News. Social media. Bowling alone.
In a gripping new podcast, Ben Bradford argues for another factor. He cites a change in how we nominate our presidential candidates, a reform, he says, that has diminished the role of political professionals and encouraged appeals to the more ideological segments – i.e. polarizing – of the two major parties.
“You have different incentives as a candidate for the type of voters you’re going to reach in a primary system than if you are trying to get the approval of party leaders who want centrists,” said Bradford, a Los Angeles Journalist and freelance audio producer based in Angeles.
In other words, he said, “instead of drawing a big circle around the middle of the American electorate, candidates must now draw a circle around only the voters in their party. “
It focuses on the 1972 campaign of the late South Dakota Senator George McGovern. The story, told in seven episodes, begins in 1968 – one of the most tumultuous years in modern American history – and ends four years later with McGovern’s defeat to President Nixon.
The changes to the nomination process came in response to the 1968 campaign and its upheavals, in particular the decision by party leaders to anoint Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey despite fierce opposition from opponents of the War of the United Nations. Vietnam. Due to extraordinary circumstances – including the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy – Humphrey became the party’s candidate even though he did not participate in any primary. A commission, led by McGovern, aimed to avoid a repeat of this scenario by empowering women, youth and minorities and sought to ensure that voters, not party insiders, choose the next flagship of the democrats.
Republicans, for their part, ignored many of the proposed changes, but accepted the expansion of the primary calendar – giving increased influence to the GOP base – rather than allowing Democrats to absorb all the attention with their nomination competition.
Benefiting from the delegate selection rules he helped write, McGovern won his party’s nomination but turned out to be a disaster in November; his loss to Nixon was one of the most unbalanced in history and now the Democrat’s candidacy “has become a caveat,” as the podcast puts it, “his name is an insult to candidates walking away too far to the left “.
(The 1972 campaign, by the way, was the last time California had a presidential primary that really mattered. The winner’s contest went to Humphrey and McGovern, who won a close final. Political junkies will enjoy it. ‘Archival recording of fiery MP Willie Brown battling a last-minute maneuver at the Democratic National Convention to thwart the senator’s nomination.)
McGovern’s crushing defeat brought about further changes in the nomination process – followed by changes in addition to those changes – which, over the past decades, have in turn increased and diminished the power of party leaders, or “superdelegates.” As the Democrats call them. The course of action Bradford sees is the marked decline of traditional power brokers in both parties, as well as their ability to push candidates away from the fringes and more into the political arena.
“Candidates are encouraged to win a majority of voters in low turnout elections,” he said. “In an environment where parties have ideologically sorted themselves out, that means choosing polarizing and galvanizing issues – often cultural ‘corner’ issues – that will attract the most voters, often to the wings of a party.
This does not always translate into success. Joe Biden, for example, won the Democratic nomination in 2020 even though he was among the more moderate candidates in a sprawling Democratic field.
It is rather unappealing to think that the increased power of voters at the local level and the decline of party leaders have failed to significantly improve our politics. It’s hard to argue, however, that we haven’t just traded one set of evils for another.
Bradford, 38, covered the 2016 campaign, among other assignments, for Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. Like many, he said, he was “baffled at the division level” that the acrimonious election revealed in our country. He wondered what caused the deep sinkhole, and reverse engineering took him back to 1972 and the resulting podcast, “Of The People.”
Speaking from his apartment and home studio in Koreatown, Bradford was not very optimistic that the political atmosphere in the country would improve any time soon. He said, however, that he had heard listeners who walked out of the podcast feeling relieved “just to hear how divided, tumultuous and violent that other time was 50 years ago, and how we got there. gone out. So maybe there is some hope in there.
These days you take comfort where you can find it.