One Scary, One Scared

The way the two major parties responded to landslide losses in the past could not have been more different. Those distant memories say a lot about what the parties have become and how they operate today.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater was the Republican nominee for president. He ran as a principled conservative and got shellacked. Lyndon Johnson won 61.1% of the popular vote to Goldwater’s 38.5%. Johnson won 486 electoral votes to a paltry 52 for Goldwater.

In 1972, George McGovern was the Democratic presidential nominee. He ran as an unabashed liberal and was walloped. Richard Nixon got 60.7% of the popular vote, McGovern 37.5%. Nixon won 520 electoral votes to a miniscule 17 for McGovern.

The lesson Democratic insiders took from McGovern’s defeat was the need to search for middle ground. They stopped calling themselves liberals and rebranded as progressive in hopes of distancing themselves from the cursed L-word. They softened some of their own stances and adopted some of their opponents’ ideas like deregulation, fiscal austerity and a prison-happy approach to crime.

Republicans, on the other hand, responded to their 1964 debacle by doubling down on Goldwater’s conservatism. In 1971, future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell wrote a memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that was both a call to arms and a blueprint for corporate dominance of democracy. Powell wrote that the “American economic system is under broad attack” and mobilization for political combat was required. “Business must learn the lesson . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” Powell called for “careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”

For the next half century, Republicans executed Powell’s game plan. They also purified their party, systematically expelling moderates from their ranks. They didn’t move to the center, they moved to the right of where Goldwater stood in 1964.

Democrats went looking for the center and many in the party establishment are still looking. Republicans fled the center, opting instead to become more and more extreme. And it has been the Republicans who have won the most elections in recent decades. They now control most statehouses across the country. Our courts are filled with their judicial appointees. One of theirs presently occupies the White House and they control the U.S. Senate.

One party has grown scary and the other scared. In a country with such a strong two-party system, that leaves an awful lot of voters wanting.

Mike McCabe

February 17, 2020