Will we see a Democratic candidate like him—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?
By Martin Peretz
April 2, 2019
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.