19:54 GMT09 May 2021
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    Bernie Sanders, who is the favourite to win the Democratic nomination this year, would be the most left-wing candidate since George McGovern in 1972. Sputnik looks at the political echoes of 1972 in the 2020 race.

    Bookmakers have Bernie Sanders as the even money favourite to win the nomination of the Democratic Party but there are few outside the Sanders camp who think he has a hope of defeating Donald Trump in November.

    Many political pundits and historians see echoes of the presidential election of 1972 when Richard Nixon, riding on the crest of a wave of popularity, gained a landslide victory against Democrat challenger George McGovern, a left-winger who suffered a troubled campaign.

    Five months after his inauguration for a second term, the Watergate scandal broke and in August 1974 Nixon finally surrendered to the inevitable and resigned. 

    Wallace Alexander, a political studies student from Portland, Oregon, said Sanders was actually much further to the left than McGovern, who died aged 90 in 2012.

    ​Mr Alexander said: "In some respects McGovern was left-wing but American politics was uniquely polarised around the Vietnam war. In many respects, outside of his opposition to the war, McGovern was a simple New Deal liberal…some historians have argued that on labour rights he was no better than Hubert Humphrey (the losing candidate in 1968)."

    He said: "In contrast, Sanders is on the furthest left edge of his party as it currently stands. He is an unabashed social democrat, and his policies do in fact cross the line into more classic socialism in places."

    ​Mr Alexander said Sanders was much further to the left than McGovern and could in fact be the most radical candidate since Robert La Follette, a Wisconsin governor, tried to win the White House on the Progressive Party ticket in 1924.

    He said he doubted Sanders, who is 78, would tone down his rhetoric even if he became the nominee and added: "His bet is that he can radicalise workers into forming a mass movement." 

    ​But would Sanders fare as badly as McGovern, who won only one state - Massachusetts - and got only 29 million votes, compared to 47 million who opted for Nixon?

    Mr Alexander said: “McGovern faced a very difficult problem. Richard Nixon was a genius, one of the smartest politicians this country has ever produced. Nixon expertly exploited the underlying social tensions in America.”

    President Richard Nixon and first lady Pat Nixon wave their farewells to China as they board Air Force One at Shanghai Airport, Feb. 28, 1972, before they headed home from their three-city China visit
    © AP Photo
    President Richard Nixon and first lady Pat Nixon wave their farewells to China as they board Air Force One at Shanghai Airport, Feb. 28, 1972, before they headed home from their three-city China visit

    Trump has been similarly successful in exploiting social tensions over race and immigration and pandering to the desire of many Americans for their country to be selfish and isolationist, rather than generous or internationalist.

    Mr Alexander said it was "absurd" to think the average 1970s voter was a hippy.

    "Most voters, even young ones, were conservatives who supported the war in Vietnam. Almost every poll showed McGovern losing. But it probably wasn’t written in stone. A strong campaign could have closed the gap," said Mr Alexander.

    ​But McGovern’s campaign was a disaster - many Democrats did not support him, the AFL-CIO trade union bloc deserted him and then his running mate Thomas Eagleton resigned after questions were raised about his battles with depression.

    Eagleton was replaced with Sargent Shriver, a former US ambassador to France and the founder of the Peace Corps, but McGovern’s campaign stumbled on to a humiliating defeat in November 1972.

    Mr Alexander said: “Nixon’s most subtle trick was that he pulled all the levers possible to keep the economy running through the election. Infamously this would later collapse into the crisis of the ‘70s. But in 1972 it made Nixon look competent and gave him high popularity.”

    "The McGovern campaign, staffed by idealistic youngsters and in constant chaos, lacked institutional support and, led by an uncharismatic nominee, simply could not compete," said Mr Alexander.

    He said Nixon was willing to do “whatever it took” to win, and that was later shown to include the burglary at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington DC.  

    ​Nixon was in no danger of losing the election but Mr Alexander said he was an “incredibly paranoid” man and added: “If McGovern had a chance of winning, we might have seen crimes far more dramatic than Watergate.”

    Mr Alexander said Trump was not polling well at the moment and his victory in November was by no means certain.

    But he said: “The political changes Richard Nixon started have been carried to their logical conclusion by Trump. The coalition of resentful, socially conservative whites that Nixon recognised as an emerging majority has now been ground down to the narrowest possible electoral college majority. The Nixon strategy, which gave Republicans decades of power, was always leading to Trump.”

    ​Mr Alexander said: “Southern whites, the middle class and rural voters can’t be a majority forever. Conservatism is inherently alienating to those without power.”

    He said Barack Obama’s successes showed the appearance of a new Democratic voter base - educated, urban and a mixture of white, black and Latino.

    FILE - In this Friday, March 22, 2013 file photo, U.S. President Barack Obama, left, listens to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their visit to the Children's Memorial at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem
    © AP Photo / Pablo Martinez Monsivais
    FILE - In this Friday, March 22, 2013 file photo, U.S. President Barack Obama, left, listens to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their visit to the Children's Memorial at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem

    But the resurgence of those socially conservative whites swept Trump to power and it is no coincidence that Nixon’s former political adviser Roger Ailes, who later founded Fox News, was the first to spot the potential of Trump and backed him to the hilt until he himself was forced to resign in July 2016 amid a stream of allegations of sexual harassment.

    Ailes died in 2017 but Fox News continues to back Trump, who has not changed his style or moderated his tone since he was first elected.

    “The greatest similarity between Nixon and Trump is that they both represent the aggrieved and fearful, the reactionary petit bourgeoisie. Unlike Nixon, Trump is not a particularly ideological figure. His presidency is a more nihilistic effort to hold on to power. Because of this I think it is almost impossible he will be removed,” said Mr Alexander.
    Tags:
    Richard Nixon, Democrats, US Election 2020, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders
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