November 4 is the thirty-fifth anniversary of one of the great wrong turns in American history: President Jimmy Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan, an event that gave us 35 years of savage income inequality, extensive environmental degradation and a borderline-irreversible coarsening of American political culture. Could this have all been avoided if Carter had suffered a loss three months before the election?
I’ve gone back and forth over the years on the issue of whether Senator Edward Kennedy doomed Carter’s re-election chances by launching a Democratic primary challenge, or whether Carter was simply done in by other forces beyond his control (such as the so-called “October Surprise”). Certainly, Team Reagan didn’t hesitate to exploit some of the arguments Kennedy made against Carter during that bitter primary:
There’s a part of me that thinks Kennedy was just being selfish and reckless with his primary challenge to Carter. Didn’t he know that such a challenge would be viciously divisive? Didn’t he know that if he failed, Carter would be hobbled going into the general election? Didn’t he know that fighting for a second Carter term would have been far wiser from a progressive standpoint?
There’s also a part of me that understands why Kennedy launched his challenge to Carter. He sincerely believed that Carter was not up to the task of moving our country in a progressive direction. He could not sit idly by as Carter struggled to deal with the twin burdens of domestic economic anxiety and instability in Iran. He simply had to make the case for a Kennedy presidency.
What if that case was successful? What if Kennedy had defeated Carter to become the Democratic Party nominee in 1980? What if the voters had a pure ideological choice on the morning of November 4–the choice between an undisputed progressive in Kennedy, and an undisputed right-wing conservative in Reagan?
It’s easy to argue that Reagan and the New Right would have destroyed Kennedy by dredging up Chappaquiddick and the infamous Roger Mudd interview over and over again. We’ll never know. It’s just as likely that Kennedy would have successfully cast the election as a choice between the New Frontier and the Dark Frontier, an opportunity to complete JFK’s unfinished work, a chance to once again reject the ghoulishness of Goldwaterism.
Had Kennedy defeated Carter in the Democratic primary and Reagan in the general election, countless lives would have been spared. We’d likely still have the Fairness Doctrine to protect the integrity of our media. We would not have turned environmentalism into a punchline. We would not lead the developed world in wealth disparity. We would have been a better nation.
As I read about the passion and enthusiasm of supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, I can’t help thinking that among Sanders’s older supporters, there’s a palpable desire to right the perceived wrong outcome of the 1980 Democratic primary, a moral mission to accomplish the goal that was not accomplished 35 years ago and arguably hasn’t been accomplished since: the nomination of an undisputed, unafraid, unbought and unbossed progressive as the Democratic party’s nominee, to make the case for a better path, a better way, a better alternative to the tyranny of trickle-down and the radicalism of the Republicans.
That’s the clear goal. The question is: can Sanders and his supporters achieve it?