For all the recent references to the aftereffects of the presidential runs of Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Democrat George McGovern in 1972, there’s been remarkably little comparison of how the two parties responded to those mega-losses.
And the responses were different, and those differences reverberate today.
The losses were roughly comparable in scope. Goldwater lost to incumbent Democrat Lyndon Johnson by 486-52, winning only his home state of Arizona and five states in the deep south (which historically had been deemed Democratic – this was a key point in their transition toward Republican). McGovern lost similarly in the popular vote, but even more heavily in the electoral, 520-17.
Both candidacies came from the philosophical edges of the respective parties, the Republican right and Democratic left. Both were preceded by warnings of leaving the vital center behind – big losses were widely predicted. And in each case the party’s center nominated the next president (Republican Richard Nixon, Democrat Jimmy Carter).
Just below the surface, other things happened.
The reaction of Goldwater’s supporters (not so much Goldwater himself) was not to give up and acknowledge they’d gone too far, but rather to double down and keep their eye on the long game. They did not heavily challenge for the presidency in 1968, though Ronald Reagan did make a significant appearance, but instead began building for the future: Media, think tanks, investments in personnel, whole new news media (eventually, talk radio, Fox News and much more), pushes to gradually move the party rightward and challenge liberal Republicans. It was a long game indeed, but it paid off. 16 years after Goldwater’s loss the right was triumphant, electing Reagan and launching a generation of politics in which something like Goldwater-style conservatism was the dominant driving political force in the country. Republicans did not always win, but even when Democrats did they had to respond to the world world of Goldwater and Reagan.
Compare that to the way Democrats responded after the McGovern loss. There was virtually no talk afterward of doubling down on moving leftward; nearly all the Democratic strategic talk was of trying to recapture the center, of moving right. In contrast to the infrastructure building on the right, the reaction on the left was more of a defensive crouch. Before the 70s the word “conservative” had been in some decline as a proud political description; from the mid-70s onward, it was owned by Republicans and waved as a proud banner. During that same period, the word “liberal,” which mostly had been happily embraced by liberals for years, was attacked and left undefended, and until very recently was avoided by most Democrats.
Times change, and both parties are struggling now with the changes they are coping with – that the country is pushing them through.
Organization Republicans now have, partly because their own preferences and partly because of the way Democrats have acted, a couple of generations of ideological inflexibility – it’s all they know. Now the Republican base has split wide as millions (many of those we call Donald Trump supporters) has recognized weaknesses (or at least, areas of strong disagreement) in the acceptable ideology. The logical end game for a politics based around Goldwaterism has come in view.
And Democrats? They’re more flexible, somewhat better able to manage changes, but still not easily. Even after the Barack Obama wins of 2008 and 2012 there’s still something of the defensive crouch, but only in part of the party. The Bernie Sanders campaign, and a movement (whether tightly or loosely organized over time) stand to move the party away from a defensive position, and put it more on offense for the first time in half a century. It is where the Democrats might have been a decade or more ago if it had taken some of the lessons movement Republican conservatives did way back when.
Or at least there’s the potential. 2016 seems to be a time of some philosophical crackup and realignment. It is one of those points when the tectonic plates stand to shift. Who will observe wisely, and who will be carried along? Who will be on defense, and who on offense?