The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Sandersistas: Hold your nose

Posted by Ron George on July 27, 2016

Eugene McCarthy: Antiwar champion in 1968

Eugene McCarthy: Anti-war champion in 1968

U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy was my candidate in 1968, and he was clearly the most popular Democrat running for president. He won more primaries than anyone else but lost the nomination to the party establishment.

Does any of this sound familiar?

A Minnesota liberal, McCarthy publically opposed U.S. military intervention in Vietnam before it was cool. He challenged America’s incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, calling for negotiations with North Vietnam and withdrawal of U.S. troops. (That’s how the war finally ended, by the way, in 1975, but only after a Republican president tried for years to win by secret air bombardment; meanwhile, more than 21,000 American military personnel lost their lives, 37 percent of all U.S. military deaths in Vietnam.)

McCarthy’s strong showing in the New Hampshire primary drove Johnson from the race. Then it became a somewhat chaotic three-way among McCarthy, U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy and incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

The primary system was different then. Only 13 states had them. The rest let political parties do their own thing behind closed doors; and yes, often in smoke-filled rooms. While McCarthy and Kennedy went head to head in the primaries, Humphrey trolled for support among state party leaders while surrogate candidates took his place on the hustings.

The results: McCarthy won six primaries; Kennedy, four; and Humphrey surrogates, two. Johnson won in New Hampshire, but dropped out of the race. Kennedy was assassinated the day he won primaries in California and South Dakota. McCarthy went to the Democratic National Convention with more popular votes than any other candidate but only 601 delegates compared with Humphrey’s 1,760. Humphrey had won the nomination by strumming the party apparatus while the people had voted overwhelmingly for either McCarthy or Kennedy.

Antiwar liberals – especially we young’uns – were outraged. The party had flipped us off. The antiwar movement raged in the streets of Chicago while the Democrat party, amid chaos on the floor, cranked out its establishment candidate.

Defiant anti-war protesters: Chicago, 1968

Defiant anti-war protesters: Chicago, 1968

The mother of my children and I, recently married, had our first shouting-match over whether antiwar McCarthy supporters should write-in McCarthy’s name in the general election. No, she said. That only translates into a vote for Richard Nixon, the Republican presidential candidate.

I was righteous. She was right. On Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1968, having turned 21 seven months earlier, I voted for Humphrey, another Minnesota liberal and a decent person, for sure, but compromised, in my view, by his establishment credentials. My first presidential ballot, and I had to hold my nose.

Humphrey really didn’t stand a chance, but George Wallace’s strong run as a third-party candidate made it a close race between Nixon and Humphrey. Nixon won by about half a million votes, but he carried 32 states with 301 electoral votes compared with Humphrey’s 13 states and 191 electoral votes.

I wonder, sometimes, whether half a million or more antiwar Democrats stayed home on election day and how their nose-holding votes might have changed, fundamentally, America’s 20th-century history. Actually, it probably wouldn’t have changed the Electoral College outcome. (What a ridiculous anachronism that is!) Still, how would a Humphrey administration have been different from Nixon’s? My guess: Not much in most respects but without Watergate and its aftermath.

The 1968 general election taught me that America is a center-right nation. (Nixon and Wallace received almost 57 percent of the popular vote.) I’ve so seldom voted for candidates that reflect my left-wing political views that this year’s primaries were just a bit like having the Gatorade bucket dumped on me. Bernie Sanders: Not even a Democrat but a socialist, whose utterly unrealizable agenda for America aligned perfectly with mine, was winning elections backed by a true populist movement. I couldn’t wait to cast my vote for him on March 1.

I was just shy of my  69th birthday. It felt good.

Sanders didn’t win the nomination, much to my chagrin. His diehard supporters claim he lost because of a rigged system that, among other things, kept Sanders supporters from voting. Perhaps, but it’s unlikely that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by fraud by more than 3.6 million votes. She won 54 percent of pledged delegates and an overwhelming 93 percent of super-delegates. By any measure, despite Sanders’ strong showing – and, frankly, moral superiority – he lost the primary contest.

Sanders showed the stuff of his character by instrumentally urging the Democrat national convention to nominate Clinton by acclamation. Meanwhile, some of his testy followers – the diehards – walked out of the convention. I admire their spunk. I might have done the same; however, walking out on the party in November would be a disastrous mistake.

Hold your nose, folks, unless you want to see an ignorant, neo-fascist blowhard in the White House.

Bernie Sanders: Ran a strong, principled primary campaign, leveraged his loss for influence then graciously bowed out in support of his rival, Hillary Clinton

Bernie Sanders: Ran a strong, principled primary campaign, leveraged his loss for influence then graciously bowed out in support of his rival, Hillary Clinton

Thinking about taking  your vote elsewhere? Then you’re wasting it, as our unfortunate political history has taught us again and again. Ross Perot upended George H.W. Bush’s re-lection in 1992; result, Bill Clinton won the first of two terms. A good thing for Democrats but disaster for Republicans. Ralph Nader secured the election of George W. Bush in 2000 by running a third-party candidacy that undercut Al Gore in an election so close it had to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. (How do you think Gore would have handled post-9/11 policy? By invading Iraq? Not likely; moreover, Joe Lieberman would have been vice president, not Dick “Darth Vader” Cheney.)

So, you see, it’s not just a matter of individual pride, bruised egos and bitter disappointment. Wasting your vote for conscience’s sake in a general election has implications for all of us. Do you really want there to be a Trump administration? Really?

Now, for the rest of the story: See how reactionaries have taken over the GOP. From 1980 to this very day, they have strummed the system from the ground up, especially by gerrymandering congressional districts to minimize Democrat blocs. (Yes, historically, parties in power have always done it. This is clearly a system in need of a fix.) The general electorate of the United States is roughly 50-50, but you’d never know it to look at which party controls most state governments and the U.S. Congress. Reactionaries have been well funded and well organized – and it’s taken more than 30 years for them to take over the GOP.

(And yet an outlier stole their nomination this year. A dangerous, amoral man swept aside the reactionary GOP apparatus to win its nomination for president. Go figure.)

More to the point, Bernie Sanders’ campaign seems to indicate a strong desire for progressive change in the United States, apparently in opposition to the GOP’s reactionary agenda. If so, then it’s time to suck it up and stay the course. It may take decades, but if it’s worth doing – and it is – then get smart and stop whining about Sanders’ loss. If the system’s rigged, fix it. Principles are for platforms but strategy wins elections. If you don’t win elections, your platform is meaningless.

There are no short-term solutions in politics. You will be making the world a better place for your grandchildren.

Meanwhile, hold your nose.


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