Bernie Sanders’ big win in New Hampshire has given his campaign a big boost, but even Sanders knows that there’s still a long primary season ahead.
One of the biggest criticisms about Sanders, one that I hear frequently from pro-Hillary Clinton callers, is that Sanders could be the next George McGovern.
And it’s a serious criticism that’s being thrown at Sanders.
Because McGovern ran as a progressive who wanted to end the Vietnam War and institute basic minimum incomes for the nation’s poor, and he lost.
In fact, he lost in one of the biggest landslide losses in US presidential history.
He didn’t even win in his home state of South Dakota, and the only electoral votes that he won were from Massachusetts and Washington, DC.
But there’s a few really good reasons to move past that criticism and to realize that if Sanders gets the nomination, he’s not going to be the next McGovern.
It’s really, really, important to remember where the country was 44 years ago, back in 1972.
Nixon was an incumbent who had already been president, and commander-in-chief, for three years, and had been vice president under the wildly popular Eisenhower for eight years.
During those three years as president, foreign affairs became domestic affairs as young people, like me at the time, demonstrated in the streets to push back against US involvement in the Vietnam War.
McGovern built his platform on ending the war in Vietnam, and during his announcement speech he promised to withdraw every US solider from Southeast Asia and to improve economic conditions by reducing military spending.
The platform had a strong appeal to the young people like me, the people who had grown up with a government that was sending us off to a war in Vietnam to “stop the spread of communism,” because we had strong feeling that we had been lied to, and that Nixon was continuing to lie to us.
McGovern had the support of young people, like Barack Obama did in 2008, and like Sanders seems to in 2016.
But he lost, in a landslide.
His platform simply didn’t resonate with the older generation, the people in my dad’s generation, the people “over 30” who us young people had learned not to trust.
The first problem was that Nixon made the Vietnam War a non-nothing issue for the older generation by pointing to the ongoing process of “Vietnamization” that his administration was leading, and by promising that he would end the war in Vietnam, and do it in a way that would bring “peace with honor.”
That’s the part of the story you’ll read in history books, and it’s the common narrative to explain why McGovern lost every state except for Massachusetts to Nixon.
But it’s not the whole story.
The real question is, WHY didn’t the people over 30, those in my dad’s generation, turn out to vote for McGovern?
It’s because my dad’s generation, the people who voted for Nixon, didn’t feel like they had been screwed by the government the way young people felt screwed, because my dad’s generation had lived through a time of US prosperity in the ’50s and ’60s.
My dad was an Eisenhower Republican, and he was part of the US middle class during a time when the US middle class was doing better than any other time in US history.
By 1972, he had gone to college for free on the GI Bill, he had a house that was more than half paid-off, he had a full-time job at a union Tool & Die shop that paid well enough that he could buy a new car every two or three years, and take a good vacation every year. People in his generation knew that they could retire and live well in their old age.
College in California back then was pretty much absolutely free, and it was so cheap everywhere else that only people with graduate degrees even knew what student debt was.
It wasn’t like that for everyone in US at the time, but the middle class was much larger, and it was doing much better than it is today.
And so the older generation voted for Nixon, they voted to keep things on track, because they simply didn’t feel as screwed over as we did in the younger generation.
The election of 1972 also had the lowest voter turnout that the country had seen in more than two decades, indicating that a lot of people simply decided not to vote.
So Nixon won by a landslide.
Comparing Sanders to McGovern assumes that the country is in a similar state now as it was 44 years ago, and that’s just not true.
Economists agree, and it’s a simple historic fact.
The rampant economic inequality in the US economy right now looks A LOT like it did in back 1928, at the peak of the “roaring ’20s,” and right before the Great Depression led voters to rally behind an unabashed progressive champion named Franklin Delano Roosevelt to reboot the US economy.
In 1972, on the other hand, the top 1% in the US earned a smaller percentage of the nation’s income than during almost any other time in the 20th century.
But thanks 35 years of Reaganomics and “free trade,” older people today are just as buried in debt and as frustrated as young people are, unlike in 1972.
And there isn’t a Republican incumbent in the White House, unlike in 1972.
And beyond that, more people than ever are participating in our democracy and voting, unlike in 1972.
Comparing the US in 2016 to the US in 1972 doesn’t make a lot of sense, and neither does comparing Bernie Sanders to George McGovern.