The 2016 election was a weird ride for just about everyone regardless of their position on the spectrum, but if you happen to reside in my neck of the political woods, the Shock and Awe you experienced came less from the ascension of Trump, and more from the astounding failure of the Democrats; for whom it was their election to win or lose. And lose they did.
This was not the first time the Left has seen the DNC throw an interception. In 1972, Nixon—who was not only losing the War but was becoming mired in the Watergate mess—trounced Democratic candidate George McGovern by a 20% margin in the popular vote, taking 520 in the Electoral College to G’McG’s 17. It was a bad year for the Democrats, and indeed as history would prove, the country at large.
Covering that particular race to the bottom for Rolling Stone Magazine was Hunter S. Thompson. Usually I would provide some form of elaborate introduction to this esteemed and notorious writer, but because you are reading this I assume you are already familiar with his, let us call it, novel journalistic style.
“Objective Journalism is a hard thing to come by these days,” Thompson wrote during the election. How right he was, and how right he remains.
In ’72, Thompson characteristically abandoned objectivity, and as the election progressed the tone of his writing took on a desperate edge as he began practically pleading with the Democrats to come to their senses. It’s a feeling many of us would understand come 2016.
“How many more of these goddamn elections are we going to have to write off as lame but ‘regrettably necessary’ holding actions? And how many more of these stinking, double-downer sideshows will we have to go through before we can get ourselves straight enough to put together some kind of national election that will give me and the at least 20 million people I tend to agree with a chance to vote for something, instead of always being faced with that old familiar choice between the lesser of two evils?”
Clinging to a Status Quo
At that point it was still early in the election, and the DNC party bosses were lining up behind respectable establishment names like Hubert Humphrey. To them, it didn’t matter that the electorate seemed hungry for a platform that was truly progressive, because “the prospect of a McGovern victory is far more frightening than another four years of Nixon.” They didn’t want to shake things up too dramatically, because the way they saw it, “Any candidate who can convince the voters that he really intends to change the system drastically, in almost any direction, could be dangerous.”
Now compare this to the Democrats today. In the wake of the victory of young, progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over her DNC establishment opponent, Joe Lieberman was suddenly making pathetic appeals to party and status quo claiming that her positions—which constituents have already voted for once—are too radical, disparaging progressive policy, and making immigration arguments in terms that seem right out of a GOP attack ad.
They did it in ’72, they did it in ’16, and still the Democrats are refusing to recognize that people do not want the typical DNC party line.
Back when McGovern took the Democratic primary, he eased the throttle on the progressive talk in hopes of winning the support of the DNC old guard. As a result, his actual supporters—the electorate—felt betrayed, and it was around this time that his numbers began to tumble.
“McGovern would have been better off running against Nixon with the same kind of neo-‘radical’ campaign he ran in the primaries,” Thompson wrote. “Not radical in the left/right sense, but radical in a sense that he was coming on with…a new…a different type of politician…a person who actually would grab the system by the ears and shake it.”
This is something that Trump understood all too well. Which brings us to Thompson’s depiction of the Republicans.
“By welcoming all the right-wingers and yahoos back into the front ranks of the party,” he wrote, “Nixon aimed the party as far towards the right as he could.” Then after the dust had settled, Thompson attributed much of Nixon’s success to a “rising tide of right-bent, non-verbalized racism in the American electorate.”
“The main problem in any democracy is that crowd-pleasers are generally brainless swine who can go out on a stage & whup their supporters into an orgiastic frenzy – then go back to the office & sell every one of the poor bastards down the tube for a nickel apiece.”
Sound familiar? Again and again, it seems like Thompson could have been describing our now-president. To wit:
“‘Ominous’ is not quite the right word for a situation where one of the most consistently unpopular politicians in American history suddenly skyrockets to Folk Hero status while his closest advisors are being caught almost daily in nazi-style gigs that would have embarrassed Martin Bormann.”
But a large swath of the electorate did not care about the scandals or the lies, because as Thompson explained, “We are not a nation of truth-lovers.”
Lessons Not Learned
In their failure to support Bernie Sanders in 2016, the Democrats once again made it clear that they were more interested in treading water than accepting the radical change craved by so many Americans. As Thompson put it, “Liberalism itself has failed, and for a pretty good reason. It has been too often compromised by the people who represent it.”
If the Democrats hope to win future elections, they’ll have to stop sniffing their own armpits and declaring they smell only roses. For the people they depend on for votes, the breath of fresh air is coming from the likes of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez—leaders who frighten old party names like Lieberman, but give voters hope that perhaps there are people among the Democrats who are willing to push the progressive policies they demand.
If the Democrats are unwilling to recognize this, then perhaps another of Thompson’s prophesies will ring true across the decades: “the only way to save the Democratic Party is to destroy it.”