McGovern: Forging a modern political party

By Bruce J. Schulman
October 25, 2012

George McGovern’s death Sunday marked the departure of a remarkably influential figure in American national politics. Though remembered largely for his landslide defeat to Richard M. Nixon in the 1972 presidential race, McGovern succeeded in reshaping the U.S. political landscape for the next 40 years.

His losing campaign forged the modern political party. Just as Barry M. Goldwater’s crushing defeat in 1964 mobilized a generation of conservative activists and transformed the GOP, McGovern’s insurgency led to the modern Democratic Party of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. For the South Dakotan senator bequeathed to his party a reconstituted style of politics, a cadre of activists and an new path to electoral victory.

McGovern’s star-crossed campaign opened up the entire U.S. political process—he appointed, for example, the first national party chairwoman. More important though, he created a template for challenging the party establishment, one emulated frequently over the next 40 years — by the Republican right as well as the Democratic left.

Amid the collapse of the New Deal coalition, the alliance of liberals, labor, African-Americans and working class white ethnics around economic issues that had fueled Democratic politics through the 1960s, McGovern concocted the formula that his Democratic successors would use to reach the White House. He moved the presidential nominating process out of the smoke-filled room and into the primary election. McGovern’s campaign organized slates of activists, rather than cigar-chomping pols, as delegates to the Democratic National Convention; it energized true believers rather than political regulars more interested in patronage than ideology.

McGovern’s unlikely path to presidential politics began in 1968, as the public watched the Democratic Party tear itself apart on national television. Thousands of anti-Vietnam War demonstrators filled Chicago’s streets and parks and the city’s fabled political boss, Mayor Richard J. Daley had girded for action — assembling 12,000 Chicago police, 6,000 armed National Guardsmen, 6,000 U.S. Army troops and 1,000 undercover intelligence agents. They clashed with protestors for an entire week, while delegates in the Convention Hall traded insults and catcalls.

In the end, the party bosses controlled the proceedings — nominating Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who hadn’t run in any primary. The 1968 nomination contest included only 15 primaries and they selected only 38 percent of the delegates. So the establishment was able to press forward with Humphrey, disappointing the young activists who had worked for anti-war candidates such as Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy.

In the wake of that fiasco, the Democratic National Committee appointed a commission to open up the nominating process and revise party rules. The McGovern-Fraser Commission (McGovern stepped down as co-chairman when he entered the presidential race) made sure that convention delegates included far larger proportions of women, young people and racial minorities — the “New Politics” constituencies.  The commission also reduced the influence of union leaders and elected officials and shifted the nomination battle into open competition.

In 1972, Democratic contenders contested 50 percent more primaries than in 1968 and the Republicans soon followed suit. By 1980, there were more than 30 primaries for both sides — selecting the lion’s share of convention delegates.

With the new 1972 rules, a cadre of young activists rallied for McGovern, seeking to replace the party bosses’ backroom horse-trading with a “New Politics” based on visionary commitments to transform the fundamental rules of public life.  McGovern’s surprising insurgent campaign shocked the frontrunners favored by party leaders and unions.  He energized younger Americans — the voting age had just been lowered from 21 to 18 — and attacked party leadership for its corruption and continuing support of the Vietnam War.

At the last minute, the Old Guard nearly derailed McGovern, attempting to change delegate selection rules after the fact. But the ABM — “Anyone But McGovern” — effort failed. It couldn’t withstand a generational shift in the Democratic Party and a sea change in the way that national politics was conducted.

Ultimately, of course, McGovern went down to ignominious defeat — losing everywhere but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.  But like the Republican drubbing in 1964 which nurtured a cadre of conservative activists and reshaped GOP politics, the McGovern campaign had a similarly enduring effect on the Democrats.

Among the young operatives cutting their political teeth in the McGovern campaign were young Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham. McGovern also attracted influential Hollywood liberals, using their star power to challenge the fundraising prowess of the GOP’s formidable campaign operation.

From the wreckage of McGovern’s campaign, the young New Left activist  Lanny Davis wrote in his 1974 book The Emerging Democratic Majority, arose a new Democratic  coalition —  a combination of minority voters with the high-tech constituency of college-educated, middle-class professionals.

The McGovern campaign also exposed the political potential of voters, particularly a disproportionate number of women, who harbored far more skeptical attitudes about U.S. military power than Cold War Democrats like John F. Kennedy.

Davis seemed more crazy than prescient at the time.  After all, throughout the 1980s, the Democratic Party fractured along 1972 lines.  In 1984, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale won the support of union labor and party professionals, while Colorado Senator Gary Hart ran a “New Politics” campaign, with strong support from young voters and affluent Democrats more interested in reforming the political process, the environment and lifestyle issues than the bread-and-butter concerns of the party’s blue collar voters.

But Davis, Hart and the Clintons proved prophetic. In 2002, Ruy Teixiera and John Judis published another book called “The Emerging Democratic Majority.”  They mapped the demographic change that had created an electorate with many more people who resembled McGovern voters in 1972—more minorities and more educated professionals, living in more places like the college towns and high tech centers that McGovern had carried.

At the same time, political drift, especially the growing importance of social liberalism and the increasing acceptance of market approaches to public policy — the “progressive centrism” embodied by Clinton — meant that the McGovern coalition could shape a governing majority.

To be sure, generational struggles between young activists and party insiders would continue to plague Democratic Party politics.  Four years ago, the bitter primary fight for the leadership of the Democratic Party pitted Obama as the heir to McGovernite “New Politics” against Hillary Clinton, the former McGovern organizer who morphed into a 21st-century version of the Democratic establishment.  And just as party officials like Daley and union leaders like AFL-CIO President George Meany had rallied to Humphrey’s standard in a last-ditch effort to derail McGovern, so the party’s current old guard championed Clinton.

Of course, her rearguard action failed much as Humphrey’s had.  And though McGovern lost badly in 1972, and the party took steps–such as the creation of Super-Delegates–to rein in future insurgent campaigns, change had been set in motion.  A host of young McGovernites– the Clintons, Hart, John Podesta–became the party’s new face.  They represented a Democratic base increasingly populated by affluent, issue-oriented activists rather than unions and machine politicians, and a party far more skeptical about U.S. military power. It was oriented far more toward the concerns of college-educated professionals than to the lunch-bucket, blue-collar issues that had fueled the party in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the long run, losers sometimes shape American politics more than those who defeated them.  The GOP’s current bitter primary battles — the efforts, though unsuccessful, of conservative activists in 2008 and 2012 to block the nomination of the establishment favorite — owe much to the tactics and ideological fire of McGovern’s 1972 campaign.

Meanwhile, today’s Democratic Party — both its leadership and its grass roots — still bears the imprint of McGovern’s bid for the presidency.

PHOTO: Library of Congress



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