Marx was wrong, by the way — about a lot of things, of course — but in particular about history repeating itself. It doesn’t. History’s relevance to contemporary events — and it has great relevance — is as metaphor, not prophecy.
With all due respect to George Santayana, those who cannot learn from history are not doomed to repeat it. On the other hand, they probably are doomed to fu*k things up. As to the first part of the equation, it simply isn’t intellectually honest to take the alleged precipitating circumstances for historical events that occurred decades (or even centuries) ago and then pretend that they are likely to bring about the same results under radically different circumstances today. They aren’t.
Long ago, for instance, Congress would often flee the Capital during the summer months because of the risk of acquiring malaria from mosquitoes. Will history repeat itself, with numerous representatives becoming deathly ill, if Congress holds a summer session today? Not likely. On the other hand — getting to the second part of the equation — the public heath lessons implicit in this piece of history remain very valid today.
So with this — perhaps excessively long — introduction out of the way, let’s turn to the newest obsession of the punditocracy: the making of stupid comparisons between Barack Obama’s candidacy and that of George McGovern in 1972.
John B. Judis, writing in The New Republic, got the ball rolling:
Indeed, if you look at Obama’s vote in Pennsylvania, you begin to see the outlines of the old George McGovern coalition that haunted the Democrats during the ’70s and ’80s, led by college students and minorities. In Pennsylvania, Obama did best in college towns (60 to 40 percent in Penn State’s Centre County) and in heavily black areas like Philadelphia.
Its ideology is very liberal. Whereas in the first primaries and caucuses, Obama benefited from being seen as middle-of-the-road or even conservative, he is now receiving his strongest support from voters who see themselves as “very liberal.” In Pennsylvania, he defeated Clinton among “very liberal” voters by 55 to 45 percent, but lost “somewhat conservative” voters by 53 to 47 percent and moderates by 60 to 40 percent. In Wisconsin and Virginia, by contrast, he had done best against Clinton among voters who saw themselves as moderate or somewhat conservative.
Obama even seems to be acquiring the religious profile of the old McGovern coalition. In the early primaries and caucuses, Obama did very well among the observant. In Maryland, he defeated Clinton among those who attended religious services weekly by 61 to 31 percent. By contrast, in Pennsylvania, he lost to Clinton among these voters by 58 to 42 percent and did best among voters who never attend religious services, winning them by 56 to 44 percent. There is nothing wrong with winning over voters who are very liberal and who never attend religious services; but if they begin to become Obama’s most fervent base of support, he will have trouble (to say the least) in November.
Okay, let me see if I have this straight: Obama is McGovern, which means, I guess, McCain must be Nixon (at a pre-Watergate time when he was an extremely popular incumbent president). Carrying the analogy forward, I suppose this means that McCain is going to use his nifty new 1970s style bell bottom trousers to trip Obama, or perhaps befuddle him in a fog of “peace, love, dope and rock and roll.”
Jesus, could there be two more dissimilar eras than the early ‘70s and the late ‘00s? In the early ‘70s, the economy was booming, but people were increasingly upset over the counterculture: in the late ‘00s, the economy is going down the toilet and people are royally pissed off, not at some counterculture, but at the establishment itself. In the early ‘70s, an unpopular war was grinding to an end: in the late ‘00s, an unpopular war is still going strong with no end in sight.
In the early ‘70s, “Middle America” was violently angry at “intellectuals” who they regarded as the leaders of campus protests they despised: in the late ‘00s working class Americans remain suspicious of intellectuals, believing (unfortunately, often with justification) that they look down at them, but it’s anything but a burning issue.
I could go on like this for days, but let’s get real: almost nothing about the circumstances surrounding the Obama campaign, including the candidate himself, is in any meaningful way comparable to the honorable, but doomed, campaign George McGovern ran in 1972. And to suggest otherwise is silliness.
Now, there are important lessons to be learned, not just from the ill-fated McGovern campaign, but more generally from the repeated failures of the Democratic Party to win the presidency since the time of LBJ. For a superb discussion of how divisions within the Democratic Party, particularly those between its well educated and working class components, have contributed to this miserable track record, check out Andrew O’Hehir’s essay in Salon.
But as O’Hehir himself notes, these are problems that will endanger the party’s chances in November regardless of whether Clinton or Obama wins the nomination.
The Democratic Party is, indeed, a house divided. The answer, however, is to work to bridge the gap, not to pretend that one faction or the other is the primary cause of the problem.