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Democrats Must Beware the Curse of 1972

by Ira Chernus on Jun 5, 2008

Ira Chernus

Now that the Obama-Clinton battle is over, the Democrats face another fight that could split the party. In July, when the 186 members of the platform committee meet, they’ll have to write a plank on the war in Iraq. The argument for a strong antiwar position — “bring ‘em all home now” — is compelling. But it could well be politically fatal.

The Democrats learned that in 1972. That’s when antiwar forces took control of the party and nominated Sen. George McGovern. Richard Nixon won re-election in a landslide.

If the Democrats hope to win in 2008, they have to remember the lesson of 1972: For millions of voters, war is not a policy problem to be solved by analytical reasoning. It’s a cultural symbol that stirs powerful passions. A more cautious war position, one that respects the power of symbolism, could be the Democrats’ ticket to victory in November.

Today’s advocates of a strong antiwar plank insist that in 1972 most voters were ready to accept a staunch antiwar program. McGovern lost, they argue, because of a host of factors largely unrelated to the war. But their own arguments reveal the crucial role that cultural symbolism played in McGovern’s defeat.

Some blame that defeat on intraparty warfare. Though by November 1972 George Wallace had been shot and removed from the race, many of his supporters deserted the Democrats. Though Hubert Humphrey belatedly adopted an antiwar stance, in the primaries he charged that McGovern was too weak to stand up to America’s enemies. After McGovern won the nomination, many Humphrey supporters, especially those in the then-powerful labor unions, deserted the campaign.

Others argue that even if the party had been united, McGovern would have suffered from two fatal deficiencies. He chose Thomas Eagleton as his running mate but quickly dropped him when Eagleton’s history of depression was disclosed. And he could never overcome the oft-repeated Republican charge that he stood for “acid, amnesty and abortion.” It was the emerging culture war, some Democrats say, that led so many who opposed the Vietnam war to vote nonetheless against the antiwar candidate in 1972.

But in fact such large numbers of white Southerners, labor union members and moderate Democrats defected mainly because they drew a direct connection between the culture war and Vietnam. Even many who opposed the Vietnam war heard McGovern’s harsh attacks on U.S. policy as attacks on the nation, its troops and its cherished values.

It made perfect sense to them that “amnesty” for draft evaders was sandwiched between “acid” and “abortion.” They could not separate noisy antiwar sentiment from all the other images of radicalism that had filled the media for the preceding five years, making it seem as if the United States was falling apart.

Nixon successfully presented himself as a bulwark against cultural catastrophe. He promised to withdraw U.S. troops gradually and bring peace while preserving American honor. For millions of voters, “honor” was a code word for keeping the nation’s moorings in familiar cultural traditions of the past. They voted for Nixon as a symbolic way of resisting a tide of change that they saw as far too rapid and radical.

Millions of voters still worry about that tide. Few now list abortion, the drug war or other social issues as their highest political priority. The Iraq war has now become the main symbolic battleground for the broader debate between clinging to and crossing, or even erasing, traditional cultural boundary lines. Yet in some sense we’re still stuck in 1972. The debate about Iraq is to a large extent another chapter in the ongoing cultural battle about Vietnam and “the ’60s.”

That’s what gives John McCain hope. He wants to take the electorate back to 1972, when he was still suffering in a North Vietnamese prison. He hopes that image will send a clear message: His patriotic wartime fortitude proves he will always hold a firm line against the nation’s enemies, at home as well as abroad, and “never surrender.”

On the other hand, Barack Obama symbolizes the breaking of America’s historically strongest taboo: crossing the once-rigid boundary line between the races. No matter what he says about the war, national unity or any other issue, the color of his skin sends that message of radical change to many voters.

Crossing boundaries and breaking taboos was just what the ’60s counterculture was all about. In 1972, Republicans portrayed that as the ultimate danger of a McGovern victory, and they won resoundingly. It could happen again this year, despite the growing opposition to the war.

Antiwar activists need to frame their message in ways that speak to the cultural hopes and fears of a majority of the voters. Until they learn how to do that, they should not saddle Obama with a war plank that could help put a Republican in the White House.

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for History News Service.