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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Gene, Dean, '68 and '05

Former Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy, most famous for his '68 campaign for President that failed to win but succeeding in toppling LBJ and giving mainstream voice to the growing anti-war movement, died on Saturday. His death has created a whole series of discussions surrounding his style, intellect and time, and was the impetus for a post on demapples this evening discussing the perceived parallels with the anti-war Democrat of our time: Howard Dean. I responded on demapples, but mildly incoherently, so I thought I would try again here.

While I generally agree with the poster on demapples that the parallel between McCarthy and Gene is a highly imperfect one, I think the parallel is a good one for those of us trying to understand our current political context. (more in expanded post)

As I said on demapples, the basis of the parallel is fairly obvious: two anti-war candidates who were highly personally eccentric, but who gave voice to the frustrated left-wing of their party. Two men who, despite the fact that they both crashed and burned because of a lack of skill as campaigners, managed to bring thousands of new people in party politics in the process. Ok, simple enough.

The differences are equally evident: McCarthy was a dreamy religious poet, known for his lack of enthusiasm for real politick and his stately, humorous and relaxed demeanor. Dean was/is a feisty secular upstart, know for his inability to hold his tongue and his enthusiasm for aggressive, brutally honest political communication. While McCarthy, like Dean, was running to give voice to a frustrated anti-war constituency within his party, his target was an old-school New Deal liberal President while Dean's were spineless and baseless fellow Democrats and a new-school conservative President riding the wave of the meticulously built conservative/Christian/business political coalition. McCarthy was an alternative to radicalism whose supporters ran campaigns to "Get Clean for Gene" aimed at converting a huge movement of bearded and long-haired radicals into smiling sweatered field workers. Dean was an alternative to Nader radicalism for a small number of frustrated lefties, boomer-generation white collar-types looking for a grain of truth and backbone and generation Xers excited to have someone to believe in.

Most fundamentally, the parallel is an important one for those of us of the left because it reminds us that we live in a fundamentally different country now than we did then, and 1968 is in many ways when that tipping point occurred. The mayhem of the Democratic Convention of 1968 in which Mayor Daley encouraged his police to beat anti-war protestors and Abbie Hoffman brought his band of Yippies to reign absurd chaos on the city. The destruction of the New Deal Coalition as riots and campus strikes and the failures of LBJ's war in Vietnam made way for Nixon's southern strategy and "law and order" campaign message. The assassinations of King and Kennedy, two major political figures who found themselves increasingly radicalized and able to give voice to growing frustrations. 1968 was the year that white middle class voters who had been in the Democratic camp since Roosevelt found themselves scared by violence and chaos and racial strife into the arms of Richard Milhous Nixon.

The country has been moving right ever since. Dean's politics- anti-war internationalism, universal healthcare, fiscal discipline- would seem quaintly moderate in 1968, and were perceived as wholly left-wing in 2004. Ronald Reagan ran a quiet campaign for President in 1968, but was seen by party bosses as too far to the right to win outside of the South. He won the presidency in two political landslides in 1980 and 1984. The word "liberal" is tossed around as a political epithet nowadays. In 1968, the world "liberal" meant power.

As we discuss McCarthy's legacy, and let our minds wander to Howard Dean comparisons and reflections on his poetic nature, I think it's healthy to also think about the times he lived in as compared to our own. There is a tendency to forget that less than 40 years ago, the left ran this country and had been for 30 years before that. There's also a tendency to forget that political history is about more than just who ran better TV ads, or which candidate is taller. Worst of all, too many adhere to the pendulum fatalism that pretends there is some physics of American political history that will bring Democrats back into power. There isn't and it won't.

If we're ever going to build ourselves a new electoral coalition, we had better start thinking about more than the superficial differences and simularities between anti-war candidates of two generations. We're only going to be able to build a coalition if people understand what happened in between those generations, and work proactively to correct the wrongs and missteps of our predecessors. McCarthy and Dean are similar men in wholly dissimilar times and, as the trite saying goes, we've gotta know where we've been to know where we're going.


At 1:48 PM, Anonymous piotr said...

While I largely agree your post, I think you've missed an interesting difference between the McCarthy and Dean movements: the total number of deaths in Iraq was (roughly) the MONTHLY death toll in Vietnam in '68. In other words, Dean was able to lead an anti-war movement that, while probably not quite as successful as Gene, was based on a significantly 'less bad' war.

This is actually a very good sign about contemporary society - the threshold for an anti-war movement is much lower than it was in the past (actually, this might be a long term trend: compare Korea to Vietnam to Iraq). I have no doubt that if Iraq were to actually become equivalent to Vietnam (in terms of draft, deaths, media images, etc.) the contemporary Yippie protest movement would be more passionate/widespread/etc. It is precisely because the contemporary world has become better over the past few decades (although it is unfashionable to think so) that there isn't as much passion and protest in the student body - there isn’t as much fuel.


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