Read: Imagining a better Democratic populism
This is clearly a fitting description of the 2020 political landscape. Clues one through four refer, respectively, to Donald Trump, Joe Biden, the Ukraine scandal involving Burisma and Hunter Biden, and the thriving campaign of Bernie Sanders.
Every word of this description applies just as equally to 1972. Nixon was the incumbent. For much of the Democratic primary, his most likely challenger seemed to be Edmund Muskie, the long-serving senator from Maine, who had been nominated for vice president four years earlier. In February 1972, operatives for the Nixon campaign placed a forged letter in the Manchester Union-Leader newspaper, claiming that Muskie was prejudiced against French Americans. (The forgery is now known as the “Canuck letter.”) Muskie’s downfall provided an opening for McGovern. The left-wing senator drew enthusiastic support from newly enfranchised teenagers and won the Democratic nomination—before getting trounced by Nixon in November.
The similarities between McGovern and Sanders go far beyond the plot points that connect the stories of their ascendance. In matters of policy, rhetoric, and demographics, there is little doubt that McGovernism animates the Sanders campaign.
Many of Sanders’s policy priorities were central to McGovern’s platform 48 years ago, starting with health care. “McGovern called health care a human right and backed a free-at-the-point-of-service single-payer health-care plan,” says Joshua Mound, a historian at the University of Virginia who has written about the similarities between Sanders and McGovern. “He also proposed increased Social Security benefits, boosting union rights, steep hikes in taxes on the rich, and a universal basic income,” which he ultimately reworked into a jobs-guarantee proposal. Sanders’s policy platform includes all of those measures, right down to the federal jobs guarantee. It’s also worth pointing out that while McGovern’s pacifism (which was core to his rise to prominence on the left) finds its clear echo in Sanders, the Vietnam War made his foreign policy position more salient in 1972.
Read: The hidden history of Sanders’s plot to primary Obama
McGovern’s rhetoric—with its constant references to FDR’s legacy and the modern scourge of corporate greed—was effectively a first draft of Sanders’s standard riffs. Both men were explicit about their ambitions to extend the economic promises of the New Deal. Here is McGovern in 1972 (emphasis mine):
Working men and women have been in the front lines of political progress, in all the great reforms sponsored by the Democratic Party since 1932, including civil-rights reforms in the middle 1960s. The party works for the people, and the people support their party. That has been the key to a better life for millions.
And here is Sanders in 2019:
Over 80 years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped create a government that made transformative progress in protecting the needs of working families. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion.
These similarities extend to the way the two men juxtaposed corporate profiteering and the plight of the working class. Here’s McGovern in the same 1972 speech:
Mr. Nixon cannot help working people even if he wants to, for his basic constituency is corporate power and corporate interests …
The Democratic Party gains its chief numerical strength from working people.
And Sanders in 2019:
Decades of policies have encouraged and subsidized unbridled corporate greed …
In opposition to oligarchy, there is a movement of working people and young people who, in ever increasing numbers, are fighting for justice.
Finally, McGovern’s rise within the Democratic Party relied on small donations from a young and ethnically diverse grassroots base, rather than the support of party elites. His ability to win over black voters late in the primary was key to his victory at a fraught Democratic convention. Despite his loss, McGovern won 62 percent of Hispanics and 82 percent of African Americans in the national election.