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Democrats Craving a Brokered Convention—Including Elizabeth Warren—Should Learn the Lessons of 1968

USA Politics

George McGovern, Democratic nominee in the 1972 presidential election. Photo by Ron Pownall/Getty Images.

For four years, Democratic officials have insisted that Donald Trump is an unprecedented threat to the republic, a fascist and racist dictator whose removal from power is the paramount, if not the only, political priority. Yet the strategy on which they are now explicitly relying to prevent Sen. Bernie Sanders from being their 2020 presidential nominee — a brokered convention at which party elites anoint a nominee other than the one who receives the most votes and wins the most delegates during the primary process — is the one most likely to ensure Trump’s reelection.

In the 1964 general election, the Democratic candidate, Lyndon Johnson, won the presidency in one of the biggest landslides in U.S. history, with more than 60 percent of the popular vote and all but six states. Four years later, it all came crashing down for the Democrats, as the once-left-for-dead Republican, Richard Nixon, not only reversed the Democrats’ 1964 electoral gains, but also permanently obliterated many of their long-held regional strongholds, while winning an Electoral College landslide against the Democratic Party nominee, Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey; Nixon achieved this despite running against the third-party segregationist George Wallace, who swept five Southern states.

The results of the 1968 presidential election. Image: Tallicfan20 via Wikimedia Commons.

A major factor in that jarring outcome, if not the dispositive one, was the Democratic Party convention that took place in Chicago in late August, just slightly more than two months prior to the election. The convention was a brokered one, marred by protests and riots outside the convention hall, and angry fights among delegates inside of it, that culminated in the anointing of the establishment candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, over the anti-war candidate of the left, Sen. Eugene McCarthy.

McCarthy had entered the primary on a platform of opposing the Democratic Party’s commitment to the Vietnam War under Johnson, who had intended to seek reelection and was widely viewed as the favorite to win. But the little-known Minnesota senator—driven at first by massive enthusiasm on the part of young anti-war voters—stunned Johnson by winning 42% of the vote and the bulk of the delegates in the New Hampshire primary, forcing the incumbent president to announce that he would not seek his party’s nomination.

The Democratic establishment, desperate over the anti-war sentiment overtaking the party, turned to Humphrey, as well as its arcane rules that allowed backroom deals to choose the nominee at the convention, in order to maintain its stranglehold over the party regardless of what the dirty masses of their voters thought or wanted.

Humphrey, knowing that he lacked grassroots support in the party, all but ignored the states with primaries, opting instead to compete for delegates only in the caucuses, which were controlled by party bosses. By the time they arrived at the Chicago convention, McCarthy had a huge lead over Humphrey in votes received, but none of the candidates had a majority of the committed delegates.

As the convention began, with anti-war and anti-Johnson protests growing outside, Johnson and Chicago Mayor and Democratic Party machine boss Richard J. Daley began maneuvering to ensure that delegates lined up behind Humphrey. As the party’s left-wing, anti-war activists began realizing that the party’s bosses were going to nominate a candidate who had relied overwhelmingly on establishment support, with very little grassroots approval, their anger grew. It reached a boiling point as the establishment bosses used their control over the rule-making process to defeat anti-war planks in the platform.

In response, Daley’s police force became increasingly repressive and violent against his party’s anti-war left. The Humphrey-supporting Chicago mayor was seen on national television using vulgar anti-Semitic slurs against the Jewish Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff after Ribicoff denounced Daley’s police for using what he called “Gestapo tactics” against the protesters, as well as dissident delegates inside the convention hall, and even network news journalists covering the increasingly ugly battles.

That intense conflict, disunity, and intraparty strife completely consumed the Democratic Party convention, crippling the messaging and candidacy of Hubert Humphrey. To say that it spawned lingering resentment within the party and prevented unity heading into the general election is a massive understatement.

The millions of Democrats who had voted for McCarthy felt—with very good reason—that they had been undemocratically robbed by party bosses, led by Johnson and Daley, who had installed a pro-war, pro-establishment candidate by exploiting anti-democratic convention floor rules to subvert the anti-war, anti-establishment candidate who had received the most actual votes during the primary process.

The parallels to what the Democratic establishment is plotting to do to Sanders in 2020 is too obvious to require much elaboration. Party leaders, and all of the remaining major candidates—including Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, and Elizabeth Warren—are making explicitly clear that the strategy on which they are relying is extremely similar to the one invoked by party bosses in 1968 to deny McCarthy the nomination. It is very difficult to understand why they would expect a different outcome.

Last Thursday, in an article notably entitled “Democratic Leaders Willing to Risk Party Damage to Stop Bernie Sanders,” the New York Times reported that Democratic Party superdelegates were already plotting to deny Sanders the nomination even if he arrived in Milwaukee for the 2020 Democratic National Convention with the most votes and delegates but just shy of the majority needed to win on a first ballot. These party officials, said the Times, are “willing to risk intraparty damage to stop his nomination at the national convention in July if they get the chance”—by using tactics similar to those used by their 1968 predecessors to stop McCarthy and anoint Humphrey.

Then there’s Elizabeth Warren, whose ongoing presence in the race—despite having no realistic chance to win by any metric—is confounding many people. But Warren’s campaign has made explicitly clear why she is remaining in the race: because she wants to prevent Sanders from securing a majority of delegates and thus force a brokered convention at which she can be chosen by party leaders and superdelegates—over the wishes of voters—to be the nominee.

On Saturday, the Massachusetts senator’s campaign proclaimed that “no candidate will likely have a path to the majority of delegates”—the classic self-fulfilling prophecy made far likelier by her ongoing siphoning of left-wing votes away from Sanders. Indeed, the New York Times reported late last week that party insiders were delighted by her ongoing refusal to drop out; they “hope she will stay in the race and complicate Mr. Sanders’s efforts to consolidate the left.” That her campaign is now being fueled by a richly funded super PAC whose dark-money donors at the moment remain anonymous, and whose support she refuses to renounce in direct violation of her repeated pledges, has only bolstered suspicions about the true function and purpose of her candidacy.

Warren’s campaign memo—as if it walked straight out of Richard Daley’s 1968 office—pronounced that “Milwaukee is the final play” where, despite obviously not having anything close to the most votes or delegates, she nonetheless intends to “ultimately prevail,” presumably through the smoke-filled backroom deals engineered by party bosses which she once pretended to disdain.

There’s another, more recent historical episode relevant here: the 2016 GOP primary, where Republican establishment leaders openly plotted to deny Trump the nomination if he arrived at the convention with a plurality but not a majority of delegates. In response, Trump threatened that his supporters would engage in violence, telling CNN: “I think you’d have riots. I’m representing a tremendous many, many millions of people.” He menacingly added: “I think bad things would happen, I really do.”

Sanders, when asked this weekend on ABC News what would happen if he were denied the nomination despite having the most votes and delegates but remaining short of a majority, issued a rather more subtle and less thuggish but still unmistakable threat of widespread discontent among his many millions of supporters:

That Sanders will arrive in Milwaukee with the most delegates and votes is, needless to say, far from guaranteed. The Democratic establishment is rapidly snapping into line behind Biden like the sheep that they are, falling all over themselves to endorse him now that he won his first state in 30 years of running for president. The establishment corporatist money that typically fuels the Democratic frontrunner—that had recently abandoned Biden as his campaigned looked to be in as much of acute collapse as his cognitive capacity—has very quickly reappeared now that he appears to be Sanders’s only credible rival.

But what is clear is that Sanders is currently the delegate leader and is almost certainly to be so by an even wider margin after all the votes are counted on Super Tuesday. Far more importantly, the Democratic Party has already left no doubt that no matter what happens ultimately, they are fully prepared—with Warren’s active and eager help—to rely on a brokered convention to alter the will of the voters and impose the result they and their corporate donors and corporatist, militarist superdelegates want.

For a party that has spent four years insisting that removing Trump from power is an absolute prerequisite to saving the republic and all things decent in the world, it is bizarre, to put it mildly, to watch them embark upon the one strategy that is most likely to most fracture their own party and drive huge numbers of voters away from their nominee. They have an episode in their not-so-distant past—one that their elders who are plotting all of this obviously remember—which should serve as a very vibrant and compelling warning against doing this.

It is hard to believe they are not aware of what they are doing. Indeed, there’s every reason to believe they know exactly the harm this would cause. That’s why the New York Times’ headline reporting on this strategy made clear that the Democratic establishment was willing to risk another four years of Trump in order to prevent a takeover of “their party” by an actual advocate of the working class and a mild, incremental opponent of corporatism and militarism:

Those are not the actions of a party that regards removing Trump from power as its overarching priority. Those are, instead, the actions of party establishment apparatchiks who far prefer to lose to Trump and endure four more years of his presidency than lose their monopoly over the apparatus of an out-of-power Democratic Party and all the consulting contracts, funding opportunities, and lobbyist openings that go along with it.

And that’s the reason why the destruction of the Democratic Party establishment remains, for so many, such an overarching political priority. It’s hard to see how any meaningful political progress is possible without first removing that rot.

Glenn Greenwald is one of three co-founding editors of The Intercept. He is a journalist, constitutional lawyer, and author of four New York Times best-selling books on politics and law.

This article originally appeared on The Intercept.

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