This Year Looks A Lot Like The 1976 Democratic Primary. What Does That Mean For 2020?

Jimmy Carter bested a giant, divided field in 1976 with a grimly delivered message about reaffirming love and competence to government. It sounds a little similar to Beto, but with a key difference.

Over the last two weeks, Beto O’Rourke has dropped a series of statements with a floating vibe.

This kicked off with a Facebook Live in which he and friends discussed the history of El Paso and some more random stuff that followed Donald Trump’s wall address. To the Washington Post, O’Rourke said he didn’t know what he’d do about people who’d overstay their visas, and pondered whether the old ways of American government could still work. On Medium, he’s dropped three earnest but affected posts about a road trip without a stated destination.

The collective effect has paused the Beto, Romantic Hero of Texas, narrative.

And while reporter Nia-Malika Henderson (correctly) pointed out that no woman could do this, political analyst Nate Silver is also correct that nobody seems to be receiving this turn from O’Rourke with particular warmth. The actual reason for the sudden Twitter freeze on Beto doesn’t have much to do with gender or establishment politics or people not being willing to open their hearts, though: It’s the aimlessness on display.

Maybe that dreaminess has some broader appeal beyond the broken confines of Twitter, but if the political history tells you anything, it’s that projecting razor competence is what people gravitate toward in chaotic times — even when it’s a soft, positive message.

Take 1976, when Jimmy Carter came out of nowhere to win the nomination and presidency. Depending on who you’re talking to, this is the most wide-open Democratic primary since 2004, 1992, or 1976. But 1976 is the year most likely to be like our own: a huge, divided field of liberal candidates ran for president after a period of nightmare politics. If you read enough about the 1976 election, you’ll pick up on a dead-ended weariness — the kind of emotional valence that feels familiar to 2019, a year that has begun with a dystopian joke about Marie Kondo throwing away most of the world because it does not spark joy.

“What Jimmy Carter has thought is that many people are turned off by the old politics, Watergate, stress, issues, and now,” Sally Quinn wrote at the time, “they simply want to make it through the night.”

The Vietnam War and Richard Nixon — both finished by then — dominated 1976. Carter’s campaign recognized early on, the New York Times wrote, that though there might “be passing moments of interest in other concepts,” one subsumed all others: “the issue of integrity” — and “the most successful candidates would base their pursuits on that foundation.” A decade later, Jerry Rafshoon, Carter’s TV ad maker, told the New Republic that the basis for the campaign’s materials — an array of gentle PBS-looking clips — was Carter’s existing message. “We looked at the footage we had, and these were the lines that were capturing audiences. Who came up with it? Jimmy Carter the candidate,” he said. “It worked for those times.”

And thus, in ads and on the trail: Jimmy Carter spent a lot of time talking about love.

“I want a government,” the central line went, “that is as good and honest, and decent, and truthful, and fair, and competent, and idealistic, and compassionate, and as filled with love as are the American people.”

Despite cratering the word “liberal” for a quarter century, during the actual campaign, Carter frustrated a wide array of Democrats and reporters by eluding ideological categorization. He seemed very liberal on civil rights, for instance, but Julian Bond wouldn’t endorse him; he was a final and Southern rebuke to segregationist George Wallace, but he’d shown a little friendliness to Wallace years before; he hadn’t opposed the Vietnam War, but called it a racist war in 1976, fought by those who couldn’t afford to evade the draft. He kept saying he was a nuclear physicist (he was not) and rarely gave specifics about anything he’d actually do on taxes, inflation, etc.

Instead, there was stuff like: “We’ve still got the greatest system of government on earth. Richard Nixon hasn’t hurt it. Watergate didn’t hurt it. Vietnam and Cambodia haven’t hurt it. … We still have within us the same strength, the same courage, the same ability, the same intelligence, the same educational capacity, the same religious faith, the same love of our land, the same concern about our children as have existed in the minds and hearts of the great people of the past.”

This was delivered to rapt, quiet crowds in a fairly grim manner — which was maybe part of the appeal, seeming serious after all the chaos.

Today, there’s a clear echo of the Carter language in Cory Booker’s vague but effusive “conspiracy of love.” Booker loves to talk about love and compassion, to post memes about realizing one’s inner possibilities, to a Carteresque degree.

The delivery is different: Booker is unapologetically dramatic and sort of cheesy; Carter was restrained. (As if to illustrate this point: Booker was in Plains, Georgia, on Sunday to attend Sunday school at Jimmy Carter's church with John Lewis; in his Instagram story, Booker says what an honor it is and tells Carter can say something if he'd like; a smiling Carter tells him to get in the photo, to which Booker explains that it's a video. "Oh, is it? Well, very glad to have you here this morning. I hope you'll come back. And I hope you run for president." The Instagram story continues with Lewis talking about how grueling working in cotton fields was, and everyone in the car singing "This Little Light of Mine.")

When Booker spoke to Iowa Democrats the night of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation vote, he spoke from his standard approach (“You can’t hate Republicans. We need each other as Americans. We’ve got to lead with love. You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. All of the people.”) — an approach that went over well inside the room. “I was very depressed and angry today about the Kavanaugh decision, and I really thought I wasn’t going to go tonight because I’m not in the mood for cheering and happiness,” one attendee told the Iowa Starting Line. “But I really wanted to hear Cory Booker speak. I’m so glad I came. I feel much better. I’m inspired. We need to make things better.”

This is also part of the reason O’Rourke and Amy Klobuchar have ascended from relative anonymity over the past year (and why the Obama crowd so loves Beto): the idea of a positive message that affirms our (Americans’) agency to solve problems.

But, critically, Carter’s vagueness was accompanied by a sense of competence and purpose (even if that is not what defined the Carter presidency). He’d served in the military, for one thing. Though Carter’s campaign autobiography Why Not the Best? opens with quotes from Reinhold Niebuhr, Bob Dylan, and Dylan Thomas, it is a straightforward account of growing up poor on a working farm. “I’m for Jimmy Carter,” musician Percy Sledge said during a campaign event, “because he’s got his shit together.” The candidate of love also volunteered lines like, about Richard Nixon, “I despise the bastard, but I pray that he will find peace.”

You can catch some of that dissonance in this horrific John Denver Folgers jingle glimpse into the 1970s, also titled “Why Not the Best?”:

View this video on YouTube

“All this love, human kindness, compassion, honesty, sincerity stuff,” Quinn noted, “it is hard to swallow. For anybody.”

But this is what worked in 1976. There are some notable structural differences between that year and 2020, including that in 1972 George McGovern suffered an embarrassing loss running as a very liberal candidate. Still, it seems obvious in hindsight that these tonal contours — competency versus inaction, calm versus chaos, goodness versus amorality — appealed to voters. As much as everyone's thriving in and cherishing the desolate nihilism of the current political moment, you can see why people would want to hear about resolution.

That's not necessarily a traditionally positive message, though. In his newsletter, Dave Weigel recently explored a difference between the messaging of candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and the approach of someone like Obama. Warren, he wrote, opened her campaign by “identifying the economic anxieties of voters and then immediately assigning blame. … Warren simply does not use the language of compromise or national unity; she uses the language of resistance.” In Iowa, she wove each aspect of policy through politics: “Whatever issue brought you here tonight, I guarantee it intersects with a Washington that is working for the rich and the powerful.”

There may be unseen divides between what works on Politics Twitter and inside a physical room — and it’s possible the last four years have primed the average voter less for ideological affirmation or rejection, and more for seeking coherence or feeling good about things. Warren’s coherent populism and Booker’s relentless affirmation could be equally popular in the same primary.

If 1976 offers any insight into 2020, it’s that more nebulous concepts — e.g., clarity and purpose — are what voters end up looking for.

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