“What we learn from history,” my late father liked to say,” is that we don’t learn anything from history.” I usually think of this adage as a bit too cynical for my taste, but there are times that it seems apt, and the Democratic National Committee’s election of a new chair was almost one of them.
I say “almost” because pro-Israel Democrats did dodge a bullet when the DNC voted for President Obama’s Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez, over Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) as its next chairman. Ellison has a history of hostility toward Israel that would have given aid and comfort to those trying to decouple American Jews from the Democratic Party. Perez won a narrow victory and, in an obvious party-unifying move, immediately asked the DNC to give Ellison the post of Deputy Chairman — a move which, not surprisingly, received unanimous approval from the DNC members present.
Had Ellison won the chairmanship, even loyal pro-Israel Democrats would have been forced to reconsider their relationship to the Democratic Party. That he lost enables us to breathe easier, but not too much easier. The race was close, and the fact that Perez thought it necessary to begin his tenure in office by giving Ellison the title of Deputy Chairman is a clear signal that the Ellison’s supporters remain a force to be reckoned with. The fact that the reliably pro-Israel Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, endorsed Ellison’s bid for the chairmanship is further evidence of the felt need for self-styled “progressives” to participate in the rebuilding of the party.
Ellison at one point had been supportive of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader and an unapologetic anti-Semite. He has since distanced himself from Farrakhan and denounced his anti-Semitism. His adversaries have questioned the sincerity of his denunciation, which they claim occurred only when he first ran for Congress. Even giving Ellison the benefit of the doubt on his association with Farrakhan, however, there is no denying his record of hostility to Israel. That alone should have been enough to disqualify him.
Even putting aside (don’t worry, just for the moment), my specifically Jewish concerns, there is reason to question whether the “progressive” prescription for rebuilding the Democratic Party makes sense. To understand why, let’s take a trip down historical memory lane.
The year is 1968, and the Vietnam War is tearing the country apart. Under pressure from anti-war protesters, President Lyndon Johnson decides not to seek reelection, and his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, is favored to win the Democratic nomination. Near the end of the primary season, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, the most formidable challenger to Humphrey’s nomination, is assassinated.
A liberal former Senator, Humphrey had first come to national attention in 1948, when, as Mayor of Minneapolis, he successfully pushed for the inclusion of a pro-civil rights plank in the Democratic Party platform. One might have expected Humphrey’s liberalism to carry weight with the progressive wing of the party, particularly since his opponent was the Republican former Vice President, Richard Nixon (not yet known to be a crook, but widely distrusted even on his best days). With civil rights an increasingly contentious issue, Governor George Wallace of Alabama is running as an independent on a states-rights anti-civil rights platform. (Wallace, by the way, is the last third-party Presidential candidate to receive any electoral votes.)
During that year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago, planned anti-war protests erupt into riots. The Chicago police, ill-prepared for crowd control, aggravate the situation with unnecessarily harsh tactics, some of which are recorded by the increasingly ubiquitous television cameras. Inside the convention hall, Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff (then the only Jewish Democrat in the Senate), uses a nominating speech to condemn what he calls “gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.”
The convention violence enables Nixon to run a law-and-order campaign. Taking a page from the playbook used by his political mentor, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1952 election regarding the Korean War, he is vague as to how he would end the war. Despite these disadvantages, Humphrey almost closes the gap before Election Day, but runs out of time and loses to Nixon by an electoral vote total of 301 to 101, with Wallace garnering 46 electoral votes.
The Democrats were stunned, but given the circumstances, Humphrey’s total was respectable. With 270 electoral votes needed to win, Nixon’s 301 electoral vote total was hardly an overwhelming mandate. Wallace had not only won five Southern states, but he had cut into Humphrey’s vote totals in several northern States as well. Many younger voters, including radical student leaders, had stayed home rather than vote for any of what they considered “establishment” candidates. For what will unfortunately not be the last time, a small but critical cadre on the left allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good by turning against a mainstream Democratic nominee.
Despite the loss, however, the party’s fundamentals remained strong; they continued to control both houses of Congress and had a significant advantage in party registration. There was every reason to believe that a mainstream Democrat could mount a credible challenge to Nixon’s reelection, especially since, in the interim, a sufficient number of State legislatures would ratify the Twenty-Sixth Amendment giving eighteen-year-olds the vote, thus creating a large pool of new voters who would presumably lean to the Democrats.
History tells us that the Democratic Party of that period made the wrong choice. Instead of nominating a mainstream candidate who could have defeated Nixon, the party chose the most radical left wing candidate it could find, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota. McGovern’s campaign got off to a bad start when his initial running mate was forced to withdraw amid questions about his mental health after McGovern initially promised to back him “a thousand percent.” For the most part, McGovern ran a one-note campaign based solely on opposition to the war.
The predictable result of that campaign was the most one-sided electoral vote landslide in American history, with McGovern winning only in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, failing even to carry his home state. It was an electoral cataclysm of historic proportions, one that the party would not begin to overcome until Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. By choosing wholesale change over a slight course correction, the Democratic Party set the stage for the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan.
No two historical situations are identical, but the similarity between 1968 and 2016 is striking. In both situations, an odd confluence of circumstances has created an unexpected and undesirable result. The Democratic Party must decide now, as then, whether the needed corrective is cosmetic or fundamental: can the party win the next election with a mainstream candidate who will run a more competent campaign, or does it need a more fundamental overhaul and a more radical agenda?
In 1972, the party chose radical change, even at the cost of alienating moderates, and the result was disastrous for the party not only in that election but for many years to come. Yes, the party’s 1976 nominee, Jimmy Carter, running when the memory of the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resulting resignation was still fresh, managed to squeak through, but it proved to be a very temporary salvation. Only when party moderates organized the Democratic Leadership Council, which ultimately brought about the election of Bill Clinton, did the party begin to heal from the self-inflicted wound of 1972.
Perez’s victory over Ellison at the DNC shows that those favoring a more radical course have not yet won, so it’s the more extreme “progressive” wing that feels the need to organize. The most recent form of that organization is the creation of something called the Justice Democrats (https://justicedemocrats.com). So far, it’s just a web site, but it has large ambitions. Apparently taking the Tea Party as its model, the Justice Democrats aim to create primary challenges to those Democratic members of Congress who fail to radicalize sufficiently. The possibility that these primary contests in some congressional districts may interfere with the need to take control of Congress from the Republicans doesn’t seem to faze these ideological warriors, any more than the likelihood that nominating McGovern would guarantee Nixon’s reelection was troubling to McGovern’s supporters in 1972.
One critical difference between 1968 and 2016 is that Israel, which was not a factor in the 1968 campaign, shows signs of becoming a point of controversy today. While America was tearing itself apart in 1968, Israel was still basking in the glow of its 1967 victory over the combined armies of its Arab neighbors. Today’s Middle East is a more complicated place, less conducive to soundbite-length analysis at a time when an increasing number of Americans depend on ever more superficial sources for their knowledge of the world.
As a Jew, I make Israel’s well-being my first — though not my only — priority. Ellison’s defeat was probably due, at least in part, to concerns expressed by pro-Israel Democrats, but the narrowness of that defeat, and the perceived need for a unifying gesture that followed, suggests that continued vigilance is essential. The “Justice Democrats” are being cautious, avoiding overtly hostile rhetoric while testing the waters to see what they can get away with. Thus, the only mention of Israel in the Justice Democrats platform is as follows:
Ban arming human rights violators. We recently gave Saudi Arabia billions in weapons and watched the civilian death toll in their vicious bombing campaign in Yemen tick up. We continue sending Egypt arms as they violently crack down on peaceful protesters. Israel received $38 billion in aid and promptly announced new settlements. The first step to peace is not enabling nations who regularly violate international law. We must be bold enough to stand up to human rights violators who aren’t just our enemies, but our allies. We don’t weaken our allies by holding them accountable, we strengthen them.
This platform plank is carefully worded. Its drafters, it is clear, have struggled to avoid the mistake made by the drafters of the Black Lives Matter manifesto last year by not singling out Israel for condemnation. (Is equating Israel’s human rights record to Egypt’s or Saudi Arabia’s really an improvement?). The language here aims to be a classic “dog-whistle” provision, using phraseology that their supporters will understand as reflecting their anti-Israel bias but which sounds sufficiently innocuous that Israel’s supporters might overlook it.
Where does this leave Jewish Democrats, particularly those who sympathize with most of the other planks of the Justice Democrats’ platform? It’s too soon to tell. It may be that, contrary to my father’s adage, the Democratic Party has learned enough from its history not to repeat the mistake of 1972. As a small pressure group inside the Democratic Party, the “Justice Democrats” might play a useful role in rebuilding the party. As a Tea-Party-like organization using primary challenges to frighten mainstream Democrats they are likely to prolong the Republican ascendancy. Their platform suggests that Israel is not high on their list of causes, but that can change quickly as events unfold. Pro-Israel Democrats are probably in the majority among Democratic voters, but that won’t automatically prevent these Tea-partiers-of-the-left from making headway. Eternal vigilance is the price we pay for the privilege of living in a democratic society in which we have the same rights as other citizens to take part in the processes of government — and the same concomitant responsibility to do so wisely.