Bernie Sanders is Not Eugene McCarthy (If Anything, He’s an Electable Barry Goldwater)

Some have drawn comparisons between the Bernie Sanders presidential run and the Eugene McCarthy presidential run of 1968, mostly C-Suite liberal types worried about weakening the Hillary brand. There are many reasons why the comparison doesn’t work, but here’s just one of them.

In 1968, liberalism wasn’t looking too hot. The Vietnam War was growing unpopular, especially in the wake of the Tet Offensive, and it was the liberal lion, LBJ, who was at the helm. Likewise, Vietnam War spending was contributing to a steady rise in inflation, as well as a clumsy and lazy execution of Keynesian fiscal policy. Liberalism as both an idea and a reality was being attacked by both the right and left as overly technocratic, bureaucratic, undemocratic, elitist, instrumentalist, and every other negatively connoted “ist” you can squeeze in there. The Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), combined with a rash of race riots and the War on Poverty, intensified preexisting racial tensions and functioned as a catalyst for the migration of white working-class voters, particularly in the South, from the Democrats to the Republicans. What’s worse, the increasingly globalized and service-dominated marketplace was just beginning to strain the American manufacturing sector, and again, the buck stopped with the prevailing liberal order.

Liberalism, therefore, was faltering and under attack from all sides, especially from a still inchoate, corporate-backed institutional but also populist backlash—what Marxists might call a revolt of capital buttressed by a good dose of “false consciousness”—epitomized by the notorious internal memo of the soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in 1971, the founding of the Business Roundtable in 1972, and Nixon’s overall “Southern strategy.” Even though McCarthy was in many ways a critic of the prevailing liberal order, he functioned historically as this very order’s last gasp before the right-wing “neoliberal” takeover characterizing American politics to the present.

In sum, McCarthy was running against the grain of the moment, whereas Bernie is now running alongside it. Today, it is the right-wing “neoliberal” order that is faltering and under attack from all sides, and Bernie is far more akin to a left-wing version of, let’s say, Barry Goldwater than he is to McCarthy. This doesn’t mean, were he to win the Democratic nomination for president, he would lead the party into catastrophic electoral defeat. (I’d argue the opposite.) It means that whether he wins the nomination or not, his presence in the race marks a win not only for the health of the Democratic Party, but a win for history. That is to say, while predicting the future isn’t my bag, it’s hard not to look at the contemporary political mood—especially in contrast to the mood of the past four decades—and conclude, one way or another, that we’re headed where Bernie is demanding we head.

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