The awakening Democratic presidential primary, with 14 declared candidates and at least nine possible more, amounts to a stark choice over the party’s future: left or center, identity-issue minded or pluralist, radical or incrementalist. In fact, we haven’t seen Left battle lines so dramatically etched for more than half a century, since 1967 and 1968, under the dual weights of a disastrous foreign war and a rising new generation determined for change. The hero of that Democratic primary, who pushed Lyndon Johnson out of the race, ignited the energy of America’s young, and set up the new fault lines along which the future of the party got fought, was Eugene McCarthy, Democratic-farmer-labor senator from Minnesota. For many of us who were part of the McCarthy campaign, it’s a new Gene McCarthy—not in form, but in values—that we want today.
For those who didn’t live it, it’s hard to imagine the sheer despair that crested in America in the summer of 1967. Vietnam was not just a quagmire but a killing field, sucking the potential of tens of thousands of Americans into a jungle war where rights and wrongs disappeared in the murk, even as its impacts scraped away at the country. All the buried fissures of a changing society—old versus young, producers versus consumers, suburbs versus inner cities, oppressed identities versus old solidarities—were rubbed raw, ready to bleed. And the political class wouldn’t listen—Lyndon Johnson was adamant about prosecuting the war, Richard Nixon was busy manipulating the social fissures the war exposed, and the most obvious candidate to challenge Johnson, Bobby Kennedy, was too canny a political animal to make a leap in the dark. 1967 didn’t feel like the apocalypse—but it felt like five minutes to midnight.
Into this atmosphere came Gene McCarthy, who, after spending the summer urging a personally remote and, in any case, a waffling Bobby to run, entered the race in the fall. Against the high drama of the times, his announcement was flat, basic, to the point: He said the war was immoral and wrong, he said it was eating away at the fabric of country, he said it had to end. But Gene, a second-term senator risking his reputation to challenge a sitting president in the middle of a war, believed in more than ending our involvement in Vietnam. A deeply contemplative man who’d been born into the lower-middle classes and come into intellectual maturity through Catholic education and postgraduate work in economics, Gene was a practical moralist: He held deep beliefs, but his appreciation of reality was too intimate to let those beliefs shade into didactic thinking. When he looked at Vietnam he saw not just a profound moral wrong but also a practically revealing one, of the fissures of a country not in freefall but in intricate transition. “We are no longer a frontier society,” he said, and he meant his campaign to both end the war and address the bigger change—to give more Americans more autonomy in a complicated world.
So, in an age where consumption and technology were becoming the main drivers of economic growth, Gene could imagine automated labor and high-skills-demanding employment putting a certain number of people out of work, and he thought you had to guarantee them an income: It wasn’t a sweeping theory, but Gene is, to my knowledge, the first major candidate to talk about limited universal basic income. He was also skeptical of the new military industrial apparatus and its tendency to promote systemic belligerence abroad, but he pushed back against people on the hard left who inflated that critique into opposition towards both international alliances of democratic societies and the capitalist system itself. Capitalism, he thought, had not just created the wealth we had, it was also the only system that was both independent of politics and could be politically corrected by democratic will. You can’t, Gene realized, deconstruct such a successful system: You have to work carefully within it.
On what we’d now call “identity issues,” Gene was similarly complex. Even as his campaign drew its strength from women, American Jews, high Protestants, middle class African Americans, and Irish Americans, Gene managed to respect historical differences without being imprisoned by them: Histories mattered, but people were individuals to him before they were anything else. He was suspicious of political actors who either papered over differences or made them the hinge on which politics turned: He thought they colluded in perpetuating segregations, not ending them. This focus on individuality meant he was a true integrationist: From the start of his political career, in the face of real intra-party resistance, he insisted that the only way to overcome centuries of segregation was to change zoning laws so that blacks and whites could live together. Alas, that turned out to be not as socially transformative as many of us had envisioned.
Still, it was this last commitment that crippled his campaign, when Bobby Kennedy finally entered the primary and used Gene’s integrationist stance as a wedge issue, scaring California voters into believing that Gene would pull 10,000 blacks from Watts and put them in Orange County. Thanks mostly to this move, Bobby won California, but by only 2 percentage points of the votes. After the shock of his assassination the same night—by a Muslim Palestinian newcomer, as it happens—Gene retreated from the campaign: America’s wounds had been ripped wider than he’d anticipated, and he didn’t want to inadvertently deepen them.
But he went on being an iconoclast. In the ’70s, he was a plaintiff in Buckley v. Valeo, which the Supreme Court resolved by loosening campaign finance restrictions, because he thought that any entity should be free to spend any amount so long as the spending was a matter of public record. In the ’80s and ’90s, he warned about the negative consequences of a media-manipulative national security apparatus on foreign policy, and of illegal immigration on domestic politics. Through it all, his gimlet eye never wavered from its essentially liberal, pluralist commitment: weighing the different concerns held by cities and suburbs, business owners and labor leaders, soldiers and civilians, white and blue collar workers, young and old, traditionalists and progressives to address the wider whole. Long-term solutions, he knew, came only through that kind of thinking, because no group, ever, hits all the emphases, or has the only corner on truth.
What might Gene’s liberal habit of mind look like in a Democratic candidate today—another period of reaction, counterreaction, deepening divisions and political crisis? Rhetorically, it might look like pushing back on some left Democrats’ tendency to label whole categories of the population (the wealthy, the white, the rural, the right, the independent, the male, even the centrist) as villains or abettors. Ideologically, it might look like an acknowledgment that, even though we’re living through the effects of failed policies, we’re not at the apocalypse: Democratic life will continue, and we have to continue to respect liberal democratic norms and due process, whatever the temptations otherwise. Policywise, it might look like a pluralist approach to issues that emphasizes more than one value at a time: for example, a critique of tech companies’ detrimental effects on privacy and on local communities coupled with an acknowledgment of the growth potential and consumer convenience they bring.
Will we see a Democratic candidate like this—practically inclined to the liberal center, with a coherent moral outlook that used to be informed by a decent left—in the 2020 election cycle? Truthfully, I doubt it: The contenders will be too in hock to the inflamed interest groups fighting over the future of the party to articulate an autonomous voice. Right now the ignoramus ideologists have center stage. But we still have to hope for, to look for, to push for that other kind of candidate. America’s social fluidity has always been its saving grace, allowing unusual individuals to rise against the odds, synthesize different strands of the country’s experience, and sometimes alter its arc. When we lose sight of that possibility is when we truly condemn ourselves to freefall. Remembering Gene McCarthy in history, in politics, even in poetic myth is a way to remind ourselves of it today.
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