So much for the hysteria about Lamont being the death of the Democratic Party. In polls taken just as Lamont was cresting the Democrats have widened their lead in the generic congressional vote. Elections are, of course, one district by district in the United States, but it is clear that the overwrought charge, which has flowed like a river from Washington Post and Wall Street Journal backed outlets, that Lamont represents some death of the donks moment, is off base.
One reason is that the prognosticators don’t seem to remember either 1968 or 1972 or 1974 all that well.
McGovern is far from the only wipe out of a challenger in 20th century American history – Roosevelt handily dispatched three challengers, Eisenhower soundly trounced Stevenson – Stevenson even lost his home state of Illinois a second time – McGovern’s vote total was not much different from Goldwaters in 1964. Why is one considered a debacle, and the other a watershed of the conservative moment? It’s arguable that the most humiliating election since 1932 was Carter’s defeat in 1980.
What people forget about 1972 is that it wasn’t about peacenik weaknes against strength – 1972 was, though most people didn’t know it – the economic peak from which the last 34 years have been a long slow trundle down for the average working American. It seemed and not I say seemed, that Nixon had solved three major waves of uncertainty which had collapsed the consensus behind LBJ and had split the Democratic Party.
The first is the recession which Nixon inherited from Johnson, and the coming of which had given him a crucial boost in his campaign. The second is the social disturbance which was brought on by the coming of age of the Baby Boom and the coming to consciousness of the Black community. Each group discovered that it had interests that had to be protected and advanced through the body politic, but that it did not have a channel through the party politics of that time, and so had to be pursued by direct pressure. In the course of this, some turned to destructive and even violent behavior – because violence is what they faced if they did not. For all the moaning and carrying on that right wing pseudo-intellectuals do about the imagined chaos of the peace movement, more young people were dying in Vietnam, that was the meat grinder that the protests were desperate attempts to avoid. The third was that Nixon seemed, in 1972, America’s involvement in Vietnam was ending, and it was not yet absolutely clear that defeat was coming.
Nixon himself saw the handwriting on the wall when in March of 1971, only 34% of Americans supported his Vietnam policy, and 50% felt the war to be “morally wrong.”
Nixon himself campaigned, and inaugurated, himself as a peacemaker – “peace with honor”, and “the greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.” Nixon didn’t campaign on widening the war, nor on being more of a warrior. The pony hawks and McGovern haters seem to forget this. The collapse of war sentiment in the US accelerates through the early part of his term, fed by such battles as “Hamburger Hill,” where a search and destroy mission turned into a pitched battle – the result of which was an order to abandon a position taken at great cost. Soon there afterwards Life magazine published the pictures of the 242 Americans killed in the previous week in Vietnam, that is as much as four average months of the occuaption of Iraq.
In 1972 Nixon pursued a two track strategy of peace negotiations – including opening diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China and offering massive concessions to the North Vietnamese, including accepting territory they have taken and their troop presence, as well as the ending of the Thieu government. Kissinger tells negotiators, “I want this war over by the election,” when they express doubts. Troop withdrawal continues. For a moment it seems as if US airpower can keep the South Vietnamese government in control, without ground forces, and reaching a peace settlement.
In short McGovern might have done less well than some other candidate, but there was no candidate, in 1972, who could have pierced the public perception of rolling prosperity, returning social calm, and an end to an unpopular war
By 1974, there were species of rhodedendron that could have put up winning candidates – Nixon’s popularlity stood at 25%. The seeming prosperity shattered by one of the most intense recessions to grip America since the second world war, and, by 1974, it was clear that Nixon had essentially left South Vietnam to its fate.
1972 was, in many respects, the most brilliant year of Nixon’s political career – he paralyzed anti-war sentiment with a charm offensive, and charmed the war supporters with visible bombing campaigns. He engaged in a pervasive campaign to disrupt the election with dirty tricks – and manipulated the US economy with wage and price controls and temporary dodges to keep the economy running. However, it was not built to last.
It also traumatized a generation of the left. One wing drew the conclusions never to be whatever McGovern was, another drew the conclusion that manipulation by those in power through the media was almost absolute. The well from which Manufacturing Consent was drawn, was drilled in 1972. These two shockwaves continue in our present. There are still those who fear being “McGoverned” so much that any hint of it slips them into unreason. There are still those who think that every year is 1972, and ripe for a plot by the government to manufacture consent.
However, both are overwrought. First, the illusion of Nixon the war god forgets that he was manchurian in his subtle balancing of war stances and dramatic military gestures, against peace overtures, grand diplomatic thrusts, and declarations that “an agreement is near” and “the end is in sight”. Bush, unlike Nixon, has forgotten the need to paralyze the faux-pragmatist, who only wants some limited concession in order to slip back into the status quo. By peeling off those whose opposition is skin deep, Nixon was able to keep opposition demoralized and confused, and isolated. Bush, on the other hand, by pursuing a one track strategy of war without end, war without peace, war without victory or progress, has hardened opposition to his stance. This really is about the war, in the sense that it is about the war unalloyed with hope of peace. Neil Gaiman has his character Morpheus ask in hell “What power would hell have … if the damned could not dream of heavan?” The power of the war supporter is not enough, there must be those who dream of peace, and will permit the war to go on in search of it.
However, cognitive dissonance, when it snaps, often snaps back – consider that the very forces which allowed Nixon to adopt the “Southern Strategy” of cleaving Dixiecrats from the Democratic Party, were those that helped lead the charge to impeach him. That it was a former apologist for segregation that bedevilled him in the Senate hearings, and more than any one person created the body of quotes and images that would topple Nixon. Sam Ervin Jr. – Senator from North Carolina – was the drawling master who exposed Nixon to the light. He had also fought almost every civil rights measure in living memory.
The same is, to some extent, true in the present. Many of the people opposed to Bush and his grabs of executive power are not unfriendly to many parts of his agenda. Senator Byrd is one of the most conservative members of the Democratic Senate, he is the longest serving, and ran as a Dixiecrat for President. He is also one of the most eloquent in denouncing the untrammelled use of executive power.
The other prong of 1972 is also fading. In that time the broadcast media were pervasive, and narrow. There were only three major networks, there was little in the way of cable, and no voice on cable comparable to the news networks. The internet was a few computers wired together by speeds that are shockingly slow even by today’s dial up standards.
The ability to manufacture consent is changing, because the nature of people not in the swirl of the mainstream of media is different. In 1972 people not attached to the broadcast stream were the late majority and late adopters. They knew that a new world was sweeping over them, and thus, because of their sense of a coming tide, when a powerful image occured, the surrendered to it. The old localized politics was also disunified – composed of dixiecrats in someplaces, and old labor in others. It was not a counter order any longer, and no longer had a medium with which to gather itself into one resonant political body. There were newspapers, magazines and a few radio stations, popular music, academic literature and art, but nothing that was capable of wrapping opposition into one place.
Now the people who have left the media stream are of two groups. One are those that inhabit the 1980′s and 1990′s world of micro-broadcast. These people are largely adjuncts of the ruling order, including religious radio and religious broadcast, and the marginal fox news viewer, and the right wing blogosphere, which is now merely a component of a verticly integrated system to pump out message. However, these people are self-selected because they are supporters of the Bush project.
The other group, however, represents a coming wave, not a passing one. Thus, when a powerful image occurs, they might be shocked, but they return to their previous political position rapidly. They have a narrative which is attacking, rather than being attacked. They recognize themselves as part of a growing future, rather than an ebbing past.
This combination is grinding Bush, who is the ultimate post-modern President. With each passing cycle through media image mania, he gains less, and it costs more. Bush’s power began with a climax, and has been dribbling its way down, because each time, the image delivers less juice. The reason for this is the combination of the two factors already listed – the image has power because there are people who think that it means the end is close. With each passing shock, the sense that there is an end grows less. The media public habituates, and gradually ignores the blare. At the same time, each shock convinces more and more people out of the mass media sphere that it is all fake and manipulated – they way there is a growing belief in the wake of the AFP report yesterday that the timing of the most recent round of arrests was politically motivated.
Thus it is time for the 1972 of legend to die. The lesson’s drawn from it are ersatz, and the result of a media ecosystem which no longer prevails in any event. The levers of power are different – even if this does not assure better outcomes, it does assure different ones. Bush is not Nixon, even though he is clearly the most Nixonian President since Nixon.
The Age of Nixon is ending, though not yet completely over, and with it the mechanisms that were used to prop in place a reactionary movement that wanted to appropriate the liberal state for illiberal ends. It never quite managed to run that state well, but instead dug itself a deeper and deeper hole economically and politically. It is time to lay to rest the fears that seethed beneath it. In part, because this new age faces new challenges, and with them, new fears.