In January 2016, before either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump had secured their nominations, I posted an article on Daily Kos titled “What Donald Trump and Jimmy Carter have in common”. Since Republicans hadn’t settled on Trump yet, many Democrats were not-so-secretly hoping that Trump would win the nomination. I felt pretty alone in suggesting that Trump might not merely win the primary, but he might even be able to win the general election. That filled me with dread, but took comfort in the conventional wisdom of the day that Trump couldn’t win.
The comparison of Carter to Trump in 2016 still holds true today in 2017. Though that gave me dread in 2016, it gives me hope looking forward to the 2018 election. Let’s revisit the topic, because the subsequent election of 1980 holds lessons about 2020 that feel less dreadful IF we learn from history.
- Departed deity that was in charge in the receding party’s glory days
1976 : FDR (Democratic President: 1933–1945)
2016 : Reagan (Republican President: 1981–1989)
- Party with receding wave
1976 : Democrats (New Deal)
2016 : Republicans (supply-side economics)
- Party with rising wave
1976 : Republicans (“government is the problem”)
2016 : Democrats (“we are the 99%”)
- “Obvious” safe choice for party
1976: Gerald Ford (the White House incumbent)
2016: Hillary Clinton (“realist” choice)
- Candidate riding rising wave
1976: Reagan (narrowly lost 1976 nomination)
2016: Sanders (narrowly lost 2016 nomination)
- Unlikely party outsider for receding party
1976: Jimmy Carter
Now to explain:
1 — Departed deity that was in charge in the receding party’s glory days
1976: FDR; 2016: Reagan
Both former presidents were (and are still) a deity for their respective parties. During these respective turning points, each party still wanted to recapture the magic invoked by the deity. In 1976, most Democratic politicians were at least young adults during FDR’s heyday. The same holds true for 2016 Republicans and Reagan.
2 — Party with receding wave
1976: Democrats; 2016: Republicans
Each party’s establishment was struggling to modernize their thinking, still propelled from the momentum of their respective heyday charismatic, populist leaders (FDR and Reagan) and hoping to unite around new leadership with a set of ideas that would excite and galvanize their respective bases the way that the New Deal galvanized Democrats and Reaganomics united Republicans.
For Democrats in 1976, they were still stinging from the 1972 landslide victory of Richard Nixon over George McGovern. Joshua Mound (at the New Republic) described this in “What Democrats Still Don’t Get About George McGovern”. He describes how Nixon was trouncing McGovern’s populist message, which caused many Democrats scrambling to find an “Anybody But McGovern” candidate. After McGovern was trounced in November of 1972:
Democratic leaders’ response to McGovern’s defeat was swift and unequivocal. From the ashes of McGovern’s loss rose a group of disaffected Democratic campaign staffers and elected officials, soon dubbed the “neoliberals,” who promised to put the Democratic Party back on the winning track, which invariably lay to the right. The neoliberals and their biggest stars, such as Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and California Governor Jerry Brown, called for a full-scale repudiation of not only McGovernism, but also the “New Deal ethic” that had animated Democratic politics since FDR.
The party would spend the years after McGovern’s defeat distancing itself from the “New Deal ethic”, and pundits would call candidates “the next McGovern” to signal that said candidate was an unelectable populist.
Similarly, the 2016 receding Goldwater/Reagan wave hasn’t been very good for Mitt Romney’s political fortunes. As noted in Damon Linker’s 2014 editorial:
Now think about Romney’s influence on his party and its image. Thanks to Mitt’s decision to run a general election campaign resolutely focused on kissing up to entrepreneurs, the GOP is now more than ever identified as the party of super-rich (and super-white and super-stuffy) businessmen who look down their plutocratic noses at the 47 percent of Americans who are parasitic “moochers.”
The GOP clearly decided to double-down on being the party of the super-rich and super-white. Being headed by a reality TV star now, at least they are no longer “super-stuffy”.
3 — Party with rising wave
1976: Republicans; 2016: Democrats
Each of the respective parties were concerned about abuse of government power, and not sure either party can be trusted to keep the government in check.
In 1976 and 2016, there was still caution among both rising parties’ respective old guards, wanting to be cautious about being painted as too extreme, despite a shift in the overall electoral mood. Impatient wave riders believed the current trend had gone on too long, and wanted to shake up the old guard.
Twelve years before 1976, Barry Goldwater ran a very conservative campaign, first beating establishment candidate Nelson Rockefeller in the primary, and then running against LBJ in the general election, famously opining “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! […] moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” He favored the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam, and enjoyed the hearty support of the Ku Klux Klan. He lost in a landslide, but true believers remained faithful.
Twelve years later, Ronald Reagan lost the Republican nomination, but still became the de facto leader of the conservative wave started by Goldwater and stewarded by Nixon. At the ’76 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, establishment Republicans won that year’s battle with their populists, but probably lost the war. With Nixon’s impeachment, they figured the populist genie was finally back in the bottle, so they helped ensure the selection of Gerald Ford. Reagan stole the show though, charming the audience and setting the stage for his 1980 nomination and electoral domination. More on that in section 5 below.
A similar populist phenomenon occurred 40 years later (and twelve years before 2016). In 2004, Howard Dean ran as “from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”. Though he didn’t win the nomination, Dean’s candidacy was an early demonstration of the power of small donor, Internet-savvy populism. Dean’s chairmanship of the DNC was an important part of the rising tide. From Ari Berman’s “The Redemption of Howard Dean”:
His presidential campaign in 2004 was viewed as a massive flameout after he came in third in the Iowa caucus — a loss punctuated by the infamous, media-manufactured “Dean scream” — and he possessed few of the insider connections that mark most DNC chairs. Yet Dean’s unorthodox presidential campaign and DNC chairmanship in many ways laid the foundation for Obama’s [improbable] candidacy.
Bernie Sanders had a similar ascent in his even more unlikely campaign, harnessing the lessons learned in 2004. Near the peak of the Sanders campaign, Bloomberg reported on the phenomenon, profiling Becky Bond and Zack Exley (the leaders of Sanders’ digital campaign) in a February 2016 article titled The Meticulously Engineered Grassroots Network Behind the Bernie Sanders Revolution. Both had worked on Howard Dean’s campaign, and were brought on to apply their lessons to Sanders campaign. Quoting the article about Bond and Exley:
Since joining forces [in the latter half of 2015], the two friends have been working to engineer a chassis that could hold and support a Sanders movement and direct it on a path to the Democratic nomination. “Because Zack had seen this before, we knew there would be this huge rush, when the media started covering [Sanders] and people discovered he was viable,” Bond said.
It is really easy to lament the problems that the Internet has caused for intellectual discourse. Humans aren’t designed to deal with being able to debate everyone in the world about any topic.
But that digital connection still has an upside. The 2016 POLITICO article “Bernie’s Army of Coders” describes the power of the Internet to celebrate and promote a lot of unsolicited innovation for the campaign, and to solicit data processing gruntwork.
One quick disclaimer: a “Reagan 1980” to “Sanders 2020” comparison is an unavoidable comparison to make. I can’t say whether this suggests if Sanders himself is the right guy. If you ask me: probably not (but, I’ll concede, mayyyybe?). Still, my bet is that Sanders’ surprise momentum is more about Democrats (particularly younger Democrats) finding new populism via new technology, and not specifically about Bernie Sanders the person. Sanders had the foresight in 2016 to ride this wave, but it’s doubtful that other 2020 Democratic candidates will shun digital populism the way that other Republican candidates shunned 1980s economic populism. More on this topic in section 5.
4 — “Obvious” safe choice for the rising party
1976: Gerald Ford; 2016: Hillary Clinton
Gerald Ford and Hillary Clinton were the respective “safe” choices, and both were clear party establishment favorites. In Ford’s case, he was the incumbent president, after being appointed Vice President in 1973, and then rising to President due to Nixon’s resignation. In the lead-up to 2016, Clinton was seen as the inevitable nominee, despite (or perhaps because) she lost once as the “inevitable” nominee in 2008.
And each was a centrist candidate after 8 years of frustrating bipartisan overtures to a stubborn opposition.
Liberals enjoyed a lot of forward progress during the Nixon/Ford years. Many pundits have compared Nixon’s liberal achievements to Obama’s. After he assumed the presidency in 1974, Ford nominated Nelson Rockefeller (the eponymous liberal Republican) to be his Vice President. Ford had difficulty getting his appointment confirmed, with (among other problems) conservative stalwart Barry Goldwater voting against Rockefeller’s confirmation. Ford had many of his vetoes overridden by strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.
For the ’76 general election, under pressure from the conservative wing, Ford selected Bob Dole as his running mate to replace Rockefeller, which he later regretted.
Both Ford and Clinton were sometimes politically tone deaf. In Ford’s case, he forcefully made this observation in a debate: “I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union.” That gaffe in the final debate before the election arguably cost Ford the election.
Lawrence Lessig recently wrote about Clinton 2016 in his post “What Happened: Hillary’s view”. He points out everything that is wrong with the “tabloid criticism” of the book, detailing just how unfair so much of it is (in short: Clinton is an admirably tough critic of herself, especially given how bitter she has license to be. The people who are saying that she fails to accept blame are just wrong).
Still, by Lessig’s account, her campaign was unacceptably oblivious to how bad the mere appearance of corruption would be taken. His observation:
Yet if [her account of how she thought she was perceived is] true, it is a perfect indictment of a campaign. Because of course, no one could have “assum[ed] that others” saw Clinton in the way Clinton and her staff saw Clinton. Everyone in that campaign must have known that way too many in America were incredibly suspicious of her. That suspicion was partly her fault, partly not. The obliviousness to the how dancing with big money would be read is truly astonishing.
This is how Lessig points out how sadly tone deaf the Clinton campaign was toward voters inclined to blame big government for this country’s problems.
5 — Candidate riding rising wave
1976: Reagan; 2016: Sanders
Reagan made it all the way to the Republican Convention in 1976, after a bruising campaign, and there was some speculation that Reagan would try to win over the necessary delegates during the convention. Reagan conceded at the convention, but gave a speech that resonated so well that Reagan built his support even more. Many in the Republican establishment considered Reagan incapable of handling the presidency, but Reagan was able to prevail in the 1980 primary (and general election).
Continuing forward on the legacy of an influential insurgent 12 years earlier (Goldwater making wave for Reagan, Dean making wave for Sanders). The wave-riding candidate benefits from widespread perception that they advocate clearly and forcefully for positions far from the perceived center, despite the opposing party’s longstanding ability to push the Overton window their direction.
Goldwater got creamed in 1964, but framed issues in a way that resonated with the Republican base. Nixon ran a brilliantly ruthless campaign in 1968, capitalizing on the lessons learned from Goldwater’s mistakes in 1964 (and his own mistakes in 1960). Nixon didn’t make much headway with a stubborn opposition congress, but he was able to change the framing of issues (as champion of “the silent majority”), laying the groundwork for a push to curb government power. In 1976, Reagan had only just left office as a popular governor of California.
As U.S. News and World Report opines in their September 2017 article “Dawn of the Berniecratic Party”:
While his former primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, is relitigating the last war, an emboldened Sanders is already making moves to shape the next one. Clinton may technically be right, as she continues to assert in interviews, that Sanders “is not even a Democrat.” But it’s Democrats who are increasingly gravitating to Sanders, as 16 did this week by joining his legislation calling for a Medicare-for-all health care system.
Hopefully, Democrats won’t be tempted to extrapolate that Sanders should literally be the choice in 2020, following the 19th century “great man theory”. Many potential 2020 candidates are embracing the same ideas Sanders’ embraced in 2016. As Dylan Matthews at Vox described in “The stunning Democratic shift on single-payer”:
First, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) announced her plans to co-sponsor it; then Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) joined in. Then Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Ed Markey (D-MA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Jeff Merkley(D-OR) joined in. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) will reportedly co-sponsor it as well, and Pat Leahy (D-VT), who bucked his colleague Sanders in last year’s primary, is reportedly a supporter too. Warren, Sanders, Harris, Booker, and Gillibrand are arguably the most famous and most-admired Democratic senators in the country among the party’s base; the betting markets give a 63 percent chance that one of them will be the 2020 nominee for president.
Democrats have a lot of good candidates who are eager to adopt policies previously shunned as unrealistically socialist in nature (following in Bernie’s footsteps), and not many are accurately described as “bros”.
6 — Unlikely party outsider for receding party
1976: Jimmy Carter; 2016: Trump.
This leads us to the comparison that was scary in 2016, and lends me hope in 2017. Both Carter and Trump were populists who took their respective parties by surprise. The country was (and is) in a populist mood. Voters wanted an “outsider”, and not “politics as usual”.
Both Carter and Trump could play “outsider” card well. They were both dark horse candidates. Both were unapologetic populists, not supported by their respective parties’ establishments (see HuffPost: “Anybody But Trump, Anybody But Carter, Anybody But McGovern”). In 1976, when Gerald Ford was asked if anyone could stop Carter’s momentum, Ford said: “The only way I can see that they could stop him now is to have a smoke-filled room brokered convention, and I think the public would object to that.”
The are opposite in many ways, but in similar magnitudes of deviation:
Carter is quite possibly the smartest president we have ever had. He was lampooned on Saturday Night Live for being way too capable of handling any problem. He was hard working and empathetic, and worked hard to broker peace. Trump is not that.
The 40 year cycle
I’ve been mentally mapping elections back to their respective 40-year predecessor for a while. I even talked about it publicly in 2012, when the comparison predicted Obama would have a more extreme opposing candidate than Romney, who I thought might lose the nomination one of his many opponents right-wing nutcase opponents like Newt Gingrich (who was surging at the time). Quoting my 2012 comment on Daily Kos:
[The 2012 election seems a mirror] of the 1972 Democratic contest, where the roles of Republican and Democrat are reversed. Romney seems to be playing the role of Muskie in that election.
If the analogy holds, the Republicans will nominate a different, completely unelectable candidate, and then Obama will crush him in the general election. Thankfully, since Obama is the polar opposite of Nixon, this will hopefully be a happy ending.
As shown by my faulty 2012 prediction, I can’t have metaphysical certainty about predictions derived from the 40-year-cycle model. History merely rhymes rather than repeats, and I don’t think that others should be so sure about their models based on past elections. I cling to my model especially now, though, because I believe that the 40 year pattern provides a roadmap for what lays ahead, and also the things that we’ll need to work hard to avoid.
The good news: 2020
The election of 2020 will hopefully go as well for Democrats as the election of 1980 went for Republicans. 1980 kicked off a dominating multi-decade shift of politics to the right. Not only were Republicans able to unite behind Reagan (after a contentious primary), but they also gained 34 seats in the House, and took a majority in the senate for the first time since 1954.
As described on Wikipedia: “Without losing any seats, the Republicans took open seats in Alabama, Alaska, and Florida, and unseated nine incumbents: Herman Talmadge (D-GA), Frank Church (D-ID), Birch E. Bayh II (D-IN), John Culver (D-IA), John A. Durkin (D-NH), Robert Morgan (D-NC), 1972 presidential nominee George S. McGovern (D-SD), Warren Magnuson (D-WA), and Gaylord Nelson (D-WI)”
The hard work: 2018
The 40 year comparison also provides us with another cautionary note for 2018.
Given how far Carter’s popularity fell in 1978,(Carter fell to a 39% approval rating in the summer) it’s surprising that Republicans didn’t get bigger gains in the fall 1978 congressional elections. The last-minute game changer of that election was the conclusion of the Camp David summit, which caused Carter’s approval to shoot up 11 percent. From the September 24, 1978 Washington Post story “Poll Finds Carter Popularity Soars”:
What is perhaps most significant: Carter made sharp gains among those citizens who have been most skeptical about his competence as president — moderates and conservatives and people who felt the man couldn’t handle the job.[…] In political terms […], this new esteem gives Carter some breathing space he didn’t have before. At least, it is a strong cautionary signal to the president’s rivals, Republican and Democratic, who were sizing him up as an inept, one-tern president who would be easy to beat in 1980.
As a result, the 1978 midterms were only a mild rebuke for Carter. The challenges Carter faced in 1979–80 would be more severe: an energy crisis, deepening stagflation, Volker’s harsh interest rate hikes, a 444 day hostage crisis, Ted Kennedy’s primary run, and John Anderson’s third-party candidacy(among other things)
If the 40 year pattern holds, the 2018 midterms might be a mild rebuke for Trump, as well. If we don’t figure out how to avoid it, and we might need to hold out until 2020 for this nightmare to end. While it’s difficult to imagine Trump having a diplomatic triumph as profound as the Camp David Accords, it’s much easier to imagine some sort of international incidentworking in his favor.
The results of the November 2017 elections are hopefully a harbinger for 2018 being better for Democrats than 1978 was for Republicans. For that to happen, though, Democrats can’t take anything for granted.
Can democracy work at all? Even if we have to make decisions with _them_?!?
For Democrats, it is understandable to be deeply disappointed in the choices of our fellow citizens.
Any good-hearted person who heard candidate Trump glibly explain how easily he could get away with sexual assault was understandably flabbergasted when they learned that a majority of white women didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton. It’s still baffling to realize that our 45th president still has maintained over 30% support, despite claiming there were “very fine people on both sides” at the horrific Charlottesville protests, and still feeds off his strong support among white nationalists.
Any of us who have had racist relatives (especially close relatives) know how easy it is to rationalize their misbehavior. It’s easy to assume that your doddering old grandpa or grandma or cousin or aunt or uncle or father or mother is “harmless”, even though what they say is ridiculous. You can chalk it up to their dated sensibilities, you can convince yourself that they aren’t as bad as they sound, and that you shouldn’t take everything they say literally. Besides, to live as a family, you need to get good at forgiveness.
Forgiveness on the scale beyond a family is tough. Since the unfairness is so unevenly distributed, it may be that it’s an intractable problem. It’s hard to imagine how we get out of our current polarized mess without a little undeserved forgiveness. In “The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy” , author Victor Tan Chen likens it to the Christian concept of “grace”, and explains it in the broader spiritual context:
In the simplest terms, it is about refusing to divide the world into camps of deserving and undeserving, as those on both the right and left are wont to do. It rejects an obsession with excusing nothing, with measuring and judging the worth of people based on everything from a spotty résumé to an offensive comment. [Grace is not only featured by many religions,] but also in the humanism of scientists like Carl Sagan, who, inspired by Voyager 1’s photograph of Earth as a tiny speck, wrote that this “pale blue dot” underscored the “folly of human conceits” and humans’ responsibility to “deal more kindly with one another.” Unlike an egalitarian viewpoint focused on measuring and leveling inequalities, grace rejects categories of right and wrong, just and unjust, and offers neither retribution nor restitution, but forgiveness.
Of course, “grace” in the context of democracy is a little scary. Is it really smart to allow decision making power to people that don’t seem to know what they’re doing? Do we want to turn over decision making to people who might (as Jimmy Kimmel puts it) get all caught up and put Star Wars wallpaper up in the kitchen?
Putting democracy back into the Democratic party
Masha Gessen recently published “One Year After Trump’s Election, Revisiting ‘Autocracy: Rules for Survival’”, which is an excellent piece. So many of Gessen’s rules were absolutely correct. Particularly impressive is the honesty of the self-assessment, walking back Rule #5 (Don’t Make Compromises):
Still, this is the most problematic of my rules, because it calls forth the strongest counter-argument. Democracy is based on compromise. A commitment to purity can ultimately serve only to widen the divide between those who elected Trump and those who could not imagine his Presidency. A commitment to purity, in fact, risks becoming a commitment to refusing to imagine his Presidency, even a year after the election. A commitment to purity is antithetical to political engagement. Yet political engagement risks or even demands a measure of normalization.
We need to muster the courage to trust in one another (even those that might not deserve it), and devise fair systems that still give a voice not only to the 65 million people who voted for Hillary Clinton but also to the 62 million people that voted for Donald Trump. We need to figure out a system that offers more productive ways to oppose the majority vote, and offers better incentives to compromise and understand one another better.
Democrats need to become the party of democracy, and fight for electoral justice. That’s going to mean many things including the basics (making sure that all qualified voters become informed voters, all informed voters are registered voters, all registered voters vote freely and fairly, and all votes are counted fairly). Electoral justice also means that voting actually makes a difference.
Erik Moeller provides a comprehensive definition of electoral justice in “The Global Fight For Electoral Justice: A Primer”. Erik starts by describing these 5 injustices:
- “The imbalance of presidential voting power” — the historical and current injustices created by the Electoral College
- “Politicians picking their voters” — the injustices created by gerrymandering
- “Voter suppression” — how minority voters continue to be marginalized
- “Disenfranchisement of ex-convicts” — the particular injustice created by disproportionally convicting black and hispanic citizens, and taking away their right to vote
- “The spoiler effect” — how voters frequently find themselves voting against their top preference for fear of accidentally helping their least favorite candidate get elected
Some of these injustices were used strategically by both parties in years past, but #1–4 have been used more effectively and ruthlessly by Republicans to shut out Democrats in recent years. Injustice #5 has been continuously exploited by both parties to maintain their duopoly, and the solution is clear: we have to stop using winner-take-all voting systems. Winner-take-all leads to two-party systems; two-party systems lead to polarization; polarization leads to factual relativism (a.k.a. “alternative facts”). Our modern crisis with factual relativism is described by David Roberts in his May 2017 article about Trump and the rise of tribal epistomology.
As Democrats who believe that government can be a force for good, it’ll be up to us to prove it. It is easy for politicians to issue platitudes about how they are there to serve all constituents regardless of how they vote, but empty to do it if the voter is powerless to lend power to anyone outside of the two dominant parties. There are better electoral systems than the one we are using, that offer all voters more power, and don’t stick them feeling like they need to choose between the lesser of two evils.
If and when Democratic politicians get some power back, they need to use it to permanently enshrine electoral justice into law. Democrats take pride in inclusivity, and as such, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t just the 65 million Clinton voters that voted against our current Republican leader. 73,684,412 voters (54%) voted against having a Republican administration. A Democratic candidate that doesn’t cling to the two party duopoly and offers a firm and credible platform built on inclusive voting systems can earn at least 54% next time around. If Democrats can build systems of governance that provide for broad consensus, people may finally come to trust that government is not the problem, and help build systems to prevent disasters like 2016 from happening again.
Electoral justice should be at the heart of the Democratic party. Let’s put democracy back into the Democratic party.
UPDATE 2017–11–18: there’s an informal bibliography for the article above at “Jimmy-Carter-populism-and-Donald-Trump-2017-edition” on Daily Kos
UPDATE 2018–10–11: I tweaked the introduction, since I hope this piece is still worth reading in 2018.
UPDATE 2020-01-31: Synced with my copy up at medium.com/@robla, and corrected a minor thinko