After a resounding victory in the New Hampshire primary, Bernie Sanders, the socialist from Vermont calling for a political revolution, is clearly a serious contender for the Democratic Party nomination for President. Historically, left-wing progressives and socialists have not fared well in American politics, receiving a cold shoulder even from the Democratic Party, even in cases where they got the nomination.
Two historical examples illustrate the serious difficulties Sanders would face as the nominee.
Upton Sinclair and the 1934 Campaign for California Governor: During the depression, socialist writer Upton Sinclair won the Democratic Party nomination and mounted an insurgent challenge to incumbent Republican Governor Frank Merriam. Sinclair called for social security for the elderly, public takeover of idle land and factories to restore full employment and a more cooperative based economy centered on "production for use," and not profit.
Sinclair's plan was popular, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to endorse him, and the Democratic leadership in California abandoned him. Business leaders hired a public relations firm whose smear job set a "standard for distortion and lies," according to one historian, not equaled until the age of Richard Nixon and Karl Rove. The L.A. Times quoted characters in Sinclair's novels out of context, and Hollywood produced bogus newsreels featuring carloads of migrant laborers flooding California to take advantage of new legislation. Needless to say, he lost the election.
George S. McGovern and the 1972 Presidential Election: A World War II bombardier who led congressional opposition to the Vietnam War, McGovern had been a delegate to Wallace's Philadelphia convention in 1948, securing the Democratic Party nomination on a platform of "Come Home America." McGovern was opposed by traditional party power brokers and even AFL-CIO boss George Meany, who denounced McGovern as an "apologist for the communist world." Former Texas Governor John Connally led the "Democrats for Nixon," which opposed McGovern primarily because of his proposals for defense spending cutbacks.
Seizing on the Democrats divisions, Nixon's "ratfuckers" forged a series of nasty letters that damaged McGovern with key constituencies. The mainstream media fixated on his mistake in choosing Thomas Eagleton as his running mate, who once had electroshock treatments, while devoting little publicity to President Richard Nixon's abuses of power that were already being exposed.
After McGovern was trounced, the Democratic Party shifted to the center, led by Bill and Hillary Clinton, McGovern's campaign managers in Texas. The party has since worked to co-opt any progressive factions including Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow coalition in the late 1980s.
So, if history is any guide, Bernie Sanders faces considerable obstacles, even from within his own party. And we have seen signs of history repeating itself.
As early as December 2015, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) appeared to be working against Sanders when his campaign manager accused them of using a data breach to restrict access to the campaign's own information.
Alarmed Clinton supporters have also begun highlighting his socialist beliefs to warn that he would be an electoral disaster who would frighten swing voters and send Democrats in tight congressional and governor's races to defeat. "Here in the heartland, we like our politicians in the mainstream, and he is not -- he's a socialist," said Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri, who is term-limited and working to elect a Democratic successor. "He's entitled to his positions, and it's a big-tent party, but as far as having him at the top of the ticket, it would be a meltdown all the way down the ballot."
There may yet be hope for Sanders supporters, however. Occupy Wall Street and other social movements have expanded political consciousness, especially among young people. Shifting demographics are changing the political landscape. Hillary Clinton is tainted for many because of her long ties with corporate power and support for the failed Iraq and Libyan wars. And the GOP has become so extreme that even moderate Democrats might be forced to back Sanders if he wins the nomination, whether they like him or not. With a vigorous grass-roots campaigning effort, the Sanders campaign could thus possibly transcend history in 2016, though the odds are stacked against him.
Jeremy Kuzmarov is J. P. Walker assistant professor of history, University of Tulsa and author of Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Massachusetts, 2012).