No, Obama isn’t another McGovern

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.”

Yeah, right.

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.

7 Responses to “No, Obama isn’t another McGovern”

  1. mikmojo Says:

    From the same week that Hillary Clinton shouted for nuclear annihilation, and echoed loudly some elitist bigotry nonsense, John B. Judis heard the muffled McGovern footsteps of Obama talking issues. John what big ears you have.

  2. mcartri Says:

    Help me on this. If Obama is McGovern, does that mean McCain is Nixon? That Nixon is dead, so McGovern is, too? That Agnew and Ford were both Nixon VP’s, but they died? So, how did Ford become President if he was dead? Lastly, since no African-American man or any woman of any color has ever been elected President or VP, does that mean McCain is unlikely to choose Condi Rice as VP? See, I told you I needed help on this stuff.

  3. Again Says:


    So with this — perhaps excessively long — introduction out of the way,

    ;-) these shoes are made for me? At least, they fit, so i wear them…

    i guess, the laywer is speaking? Laywers usually have to work a posteriori, have to judge problems, but Santayana’s words are about a priori tasks, about foreseeing problems. So please, try to see it as programmer! Programmers always have to analyze things today to create tools working for tomorrow

    that they are likely to bring about the same results under radically different circumstances today

    first - iiiiiit depends on what “same results” mean, because identity of states is a science in itself……

    and second - the circumstances are never “radically different circumstances”, they are always three-leveled (generic, typical, individual). E.g. we are all human beings, remember? (Btw. we have a quite “narrow” DNA-spectrum - the relatively low level of genetic variation with humans - that also narrows the variation of differences humans are able to stand)

    Santayana doesn’t talk about exact repetitions, not about a.detail == b.detail, he talks about high similarities, about processes, not datas, about rules, not (specific) results, about systems, not surfaces

    or, to say it with the words of Terry Pratchett: he talks about stories, not actors

    “because stories are important. People think, that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.”

    ok, Pratchett is an author, so he tends to exaggerate, but sometimes you have to do so to be understandable…

    e.g. each baby is a “repetition” of history in the way, Santayana (or Marx) had meant

    each child has a program to follow - programmed in DNA (generic + typical elements), programmed in the first 10 years of life (typical + individual elements) - nothing “perfectly individual”, actually, mostly passive information processing

    simply because the active part of information processing is dependent on individual experience - so it always takes time (and space) to gather experience and babies need some “seed money”

    that’s how information processing systems work - radically different circumstances simply would not allow life

    History’s relevance to contemporary events — and it has great relevance — is as metaphor, not prophecy.

    it is much more than just a metaphor - sorry to say that, but our whole life depends on “History’s relevance to contemporary events” - without that, no decision would make sense, no learning would be useful. Each and every of our decisions IS a prophecy - or better, a bet on how we think the future will look like - and that depends on history (or better, on our knowledge about history, that’s not the same)…

    With all due respect to George Santayana, those who cannot learn from history are not doomed to repeat it

    with all due respect to you - if someone is not willing to accept behavioral patterns demonstrated by history, (s)he is doomed to obey them - subconsciously, because only your conscious ego/brain is able to control the subconscious programming

    that’s what Santayana wanted to tell us - beware of behavioral patterns, control them, otherwise they control you. And to control patterns, you have to know them - and here enters history

    (btw, and, my bet, that’s why no democracy has survived despite the fact, that each and every advanced civilization was born before their aristocracies, because in former times, they didn’t know their predecessor’s fate)

    but, alas, to detect patterns you have to use details - that is the general problem of active information processing: to detect and to count, to compare and to verify. Comparing and verifying depends on memory, detecting and counting creates memories

    that’s how information works - repeatable, identifiable processes, recognizable by their repeated states/details, so there is one thing about details able to characterize patterns/informational structures: occurency

    single events are simply not informational and cannot be used - remember “one is a fluke, two is a coincidence, and three is a pattern”?

    Jesus, could there be two more dissimilar eras than the early ‘70s and the late ‘00s? In the early ‘70s, … but…. is in any meaningful way comparable to the honorable, but doomed, campaign George McGovern

    that’s the verifying part - you ask your memory about the occurencies of the details, Mr. Judis claims to be significant for a pattern

    you disprove Mr. Judis, but not Mr. Santanaya

    PS: even America is a “repetition” - look at the Indus Valley Culture and compare the “construction” of both cultures (especially look at the cities and the “typical american regularity”). If you look at details like time and space (2000 BC vs. 2000 AD or the continents), there is really a difference, but if you look at the “construction pattern” (recreation from scratch) there is equality - and even if you look at the culture, there is equality (or high similarity): both were democracies of engineers with sophisticated knowledge and industries…

  4. juliinjax Says:

    Again has just blown my mind. Don’t know how long it will take to digest your thoughts, but I’ll need a beer or two, for sure, to aid in the digestion.

    Back to Steve’s concerns about the framing of Obama as McGovern, I’d say it is a ploy by the Clintons and DLC a la Rove, and this is what infuriates me the most. Obama’s campaign has grown beyond the bounds of this election, and should be “handled” as such. It is much more akin to MLK’s in that it is not just about electoral rights or the anti-war movement. It has been premised upon the discontent with the trend in governing based on the corporate model, with Bush as corrupt and incompetent CEO, rewriting policy to enable as much embezzlement of “profit” while simutaneously dis-empowering not only the workers, but the shareholders as well.
    It is a hard sell to remind the electorate that we the people ARE the government that has been so villified, from Reagan on down. Government is not the problem, as the Reaganites had many believing, rather inept and corrupt governance, of, by and for the “haves and have mores”, ie BushCo’s “base”. It is a hard sell, because the framing accepted by so many makes the problem of taking the governance back into the hands of those not out for personal profit seem insurmountable.
    It saddens me to see the Party of the Democratic Republicans divided against itself, and one player in particular has laid me low. Paul Krugman was someone I would avidly read for advice about economics and social justice, but I can no longer read him wide-eyed and wonder-filled. He has placed his faith in the hands of a machine willing to disenfranchise its most loyal base. Remember Yertle the Turtle? We are all turtles now, and it is time to get out from under the weight of oppression whether it be named King or Queen.
    Obama is not McGovern, nor Bobby Kennedy, nor MLK. He’s just this guy, see (thanks Douglas Adams), at the front of a movement to re-engage the People in governance. With or without the White House, the movement is here and now. The turtles are restless, and on the move.

  5. Chuck Says:


    Thanks for the reminder about Santayana. I haven’t read him in 35 years, and then it was a more cursory reading than an in depth understanding of what he said. I’ve ordered his book “Life of Reason, Reason in Common Sense” so I can perhaps get a bit of both reason & common sense before I’m gone.

  6. Again Says:


    Don’t know how long it will take to digest your thoughts


    hope that my lack of preciseness will not obfuscate the meaning ;-)

    I’ll need a beer or two,


    Party of the Democratic Republicans divided against itself

    to fight against a mighty enemy (and money IS mighty) always instills both anger and angst, so you always have at least two fractions

    then add to that the Divide-et-Impera-rule pursued by the “mighty enemy” (really easy for money which owns the media, isn’t it?) and i fear, it is not hard to understand - you know, the “history-thingi” ;-)

    but my personal feeling is that angst is a no longer affordable luxury - so i tend to be against the candidate of the angst (Hillary “Patty Hearst” Clinton)

    Paul Krugman … has placed his faith in the hands of a machine willing to disenfranchise its most loyal base.

    would be sad, really, really, sad…

    Steve once told something like that…

    i’m not a Krugman regular, but some of his articles impressed me much - and i understand, that you can’t be unconditionally for one candidate or the other and that it is a hard decision which one you will support - but that doesn’t mean to “place faith”, more like “place a bet” ;-)

    so maybe Krugman is a demonstration of the power of behavioral patterns? Because he once was a rational man - now he is a “believer”??


    in depth understanding of what he said

    also - thank you

    despite the fact, that “beware of behavioral patterns” might be a little too “condensed” to describe his work ;-)

  7. juliinjax Says:

    Thanks, Again. Words of wisdom about the angst. It is an unproductive and inefficent emotion, and leads to easy manipulation. I’ll cut Paul Krugman some slack. Glad your back at the Cafe. Cheers.

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