Sanders vs. the Establishment Democrats: McGovern All Over Again?

Sen. Bernie Sanders Attends Rally For Nevada Democrats In Las Vegas
It’s a perfect time to recall a famous quote from one of the nation’s foremost philosophers, Yogi Berra: Its “déjà vu all over again.”

Is the Democratic Party replaying the lost saga of 2016 but with a very 2020 twist?  Bernie Sander (D-VT) appears to have been robbed of the 2016 nomination, beaten out by Hillary Clinton (Sec. of State).  Mrs. Clinton won because the Democratic Party establishment – the “superdelegates” – trumped the popular vote, securing for her the nomination.  Following the 2016 fiasco, Sanders’ forces secured changes in the Democratic Party rules preventing superdelegates from casting votes during the first round.

Sanders won the Iowa caucuses in total votes and followed by a modest victory in New Hampshire.  What if these early victories lead to a groundswell of popular support first on February 22nd in Nevada, followed on February 29th in South Carolina, then on March 3rd — “Super Tuesday” — in California and other states, and on June 2nd with the final primaries in the District of Columbia, Montana and New Jersey?

Such a groundswell is not impossible as it could reimagine the Trump campaign but from the left.  For all the hype the Trump administration – and the mainstream media – reports about how great the economy is, an ever-growing number of Americans are dissatisfied with their lives.  They know the game is rigged and even if they blame the targeted “other” – whether migrant or immigrant, person of color or women worker – it doesn’t explain why the rich keep getting richer and personal debt for the rest of us only grows. More troubling, in the wake of the Mueller report and the Democrats failed impeachment effort, Trump’s is becoming even more arrogant, strutting like a demonic petty dictator.

So, what if Sanders became the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate? What would the deeply entrenched Establishment Dems do? Would they be willing to support a 21st century version of the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination battle between the more populist George McGovern and the establishment candidate Hubert Humphrey?  Would they undercut Sanders’ efforts – and that of the more “progressive” forces within the party – to stop the growing grassroots insurgency that appears to be recasting the party?  Would they be willing to usher in four more years of Trump then see a “democratic socialist” as president?

Bill Schneider, a professor at George Mason University, raised this question in a recent opinion piece in The Hill, noting “Democratic elected officials are already expressing concern about their ability to survive with a self-proclaimed socialist at the top of the ticket.”  He adds, “a ‘Stop Sanders’ movement is likely to emerge. The question is, will it get any further than the ‘Never Trump’ movement did in 2016?”  He also notes:

The risk of backlash for an anti-Sanders Democrat is real. A Democratic super-PAC was about to run an anti-Sanders attack ad in Iowa, but Sanders beat them to the punch. He posted a video to his supporters arguing that “the big money interests . . . are now running ads against us in Iowa. The billionaire class is getting nervous.”

He concludes by reminding readers: “As a result, the Sanders campaign raised over a million dollars in one day.”

The mainstream media is actively promoting an anti-Sanders effort. Gary Leupp’s recent piece in CounterPunch discusses this effort as does a 2019 piece in Politico that details the Washington Post’s editorial campaign against Sanders.

More revealing, the Associated Press recently detailed the concerns among influential figures within the Democratic Establishment about Sanders growing popularity.  It reminds readers that Mrs. Clinton still blames Sanders for her loss to Trump and other mainstream Dems accuse him of not fully using his grassroots base to push for Clinton.  Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor and Pres. Obama senior aide, joined the chorus of Establishment Dems warning that being a “socialist” and the call for “Medicare for All” will undermine Sanders’ campaign and the Democrats chances in general.

Another former Obama aide, Ben LaBolt, says that Sanders “has now emerged as somebody who’s got the ability to win the nomination.”  However, he opposes Sanders, claiming that as a Senator he accomplished little.  “He’s more concerned about shouting in the wilderness to make an ideological point than getting things done,” he claimed. Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), a leader of the Congressional Campaign Committee, warned that many of the 40-plus Dems in competitive districts will “run away” from Sanders if he’s the nominee.

Most revealing might be the comments of Marshall Matz, a former adviser for McGovern’s failed president campaign.  He noted that McGovern generated large crowds and enthusiasm just as Sanders has but warned, “I think he would not just lose but would lose badly — and I don’t think the country can afford that.”

These concerns are not going unnoticed by the Sanders’ campaign. Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ chief strategist, takes it all in stride.  “People in establishment Washington are terrified by Bernie Sanders,” he observed.  “The truth of the matter is that their centrist tacking over the years has led us to the place where someone like Donald Trump can get elected.”

But can the Sanders’ team so easily dismiss the growing dissention among Establishment Democrats?  The unasked question facing the these Democrats if Sanders is nominated to run against Trump is whether they will sit on their hands and let a worst-case scenario play itself out?  Will they attempt to hold onto their relative power, however tenuous, and face defeat in many but not all the most Democratically entrenched districts?

Clearly, the 2020 presidential nominations and election is not that of 1972.  In ’72, Pres. Richard Nixon was running for reelection, having defeated Hubert Humphrey in ’68, benefiting from the assassination of Robert Kennedy.  In ’72, the Democratic establishment forged the “ABM coalition” – i.e. Anybody But McGovern – that included a variety of Dems, including Humphrey.  However, a grassroots insurgency pushed the more liberal McGovern — he was the anti-Vietnam War candidate, inheriting the RFK mantle. However, Nixon’s ’68 “southern strategy” began to reconfigure the political landscape, undercutting the not only McGovern’s chances but the Democratic Party itself.  In ’64, the Dems got 61.1 percent of the presidential popular vote, whereas in ’68 its support fall to 42.7 percent. By ’72, the Democratic vote shrank further to 37.5 percent.

The outcome of the 2020 elections will involve not only the presidency but also control of both Houses of Congress.  Yes, a lot is at stake in the 2020 election.  But faced with deepening global capitalist restructuring and deepening inequality in the U.S., perhaps Sanders’ “democratic socialism” is but a 21st century version of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” The great historical challenge facing the Establishment Democrats is whether they can get behind a “New” New Deal?

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out