Of the candidates still vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, some must be regarded as well,  left of center. One in particular, Bernie Sanders, is an avowed socialist who actually was elected to the Senate from Vermont as an independent.

Democrats should beware that the American electorate rarely endorses radicals of any stripe at the highest national level. Essentially without exception, extremist candidacies for the White House have crashed and burned.

As background, the Republican party dominated the presidency from the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 until the election of Herbert Hoover in 1928. Of the 18 presidential contests during this period, the GOP won 14.

But the Great Depression of the 1930s crushed Hoover, who in 1932 lost his bid for a second term to Franklin Roosevelt in an epic landslide. FDR was reelected in 1936, 1940 and 1944, and his successor, Harry S. Truman, won the White House in his own right in 1948.

Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower disrupted this pattern in l952 and in 1956, but only because of his well-deserved status as a moderate and a war hero.  

Ike’s popularity did not extend to his party, which controlled Congress for only two of these years, and for only four of the 48 years from 1933 to 1981.

Democratic predominance was reasserted with John F. Kennedy’s defeat of Richard Nixon in 1960. JFK’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, remained loyal to the Kennedy legacy of responsible progressivism, “idealism without illusion.”

Meanwhile, the GOP had wearied of losing with such moderate nominees as Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey and Nixon, and veered to the hard right in 1964. Chosen to lead the party was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, an archconservative who had slammed Eisenhower’s domestic policy as a “dime-store New Deal” and promised a stark “choice, not an echo” to counter the Democrats.

But Goldwater frightened the electorate with his evident disdain for the Social Security  system and for landmark civil rights legislation, and by his apparent openness to the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. On election night, the Goldwater doctrine of “extremism in the defense of liberty” was soundly thrashed, as Johnson carried 44 states and an all-time record of 61.1% of the popular vote. Republican strength in Congress was shattered.

A similar calamity befell Goldwater’s polar opposite, liberal Democratic Senator George McGovern, in 1972.  McGovern’s radical advocacy of dubious social programs, near-confiscatory taxation and near-pacifism in post-Vietnam foreign policy repulsed the electorate.  The South Dakotan carried only one state, reliably Democratic Massachusetts, against Nixon, whose popular vote tally of 60.7% nearly matched Johnson’s.

By most indications, both Goldwater and McGovern were of higher moral character thanthe men who defeated them. But they had strayed too far from the political mainstream to be considered seriously for the presidency of the United States.

Recently retired Democrat Jerry Brown, who served a total of four terms as a remarkably successful governor of California, believes in what he describes as the “canoe” theory of politics: “You paddle a little on the left, then a little on the right, and you go right down the middle.” On most issues most of the time, this is the surest course.


Joseph Tipler


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