Think Anew, Act Anew

observations and opinion

McGoverning Principles

George McGovern spent nine-tenths of a century in this world, trying to advance the idea that people should be fair, decent and rational.  The son of a South Dakota pastor and a teacher from Toronto,  George McGovern grew up in farm country, dropped bombs on Nazi Germany, became a pastor himself and later a professor.  Converted by FDR to the Democratic cause, he eventually was elected to the U.S. House and then the Senate from South Dakota. He was his party’s nominee for President in 1972.  Later he committed his work to eradicating world hunger, a cause that animated him into his 90th year.  He passed away this morning.

Called “the prairie populist”, McGovern espoused a 20th century liberalism rooted in real life experience.  He will be remembered best, however, not for his ideas but for losing the 1972 Presidential election, by a landslide, to Richard Nixon.   McGovern’s campaign was bold and unusual: he proposed a guaranteed minimum income, distrusted corporations and planned just to pull the plug on Vietnam.   He favoured abortion rights and seemed to be surrounded by people who didn’t shave (men or women).  Indeed, McGovern got the nomination thanks largely to the shaggy, unwashed element in his party, such as then 26 year-old Bill Clinton.

Once nominated, McGovern’s campaign made a colossal error right out of the gate, by choosing as VP nominee Tom Eagleton, a decent man who had lied about his psychiatric medical history. McGovern first defended Eagleton, and then tossed him overboard, a strategy which managed to make McGovern look incompetent, weak and disloyal all at once.  The election was over that week.   Nixon gobbled up the active centre and the rightward edges of American politics, leaving Senator McGovern clinging to the lefthand edge.  The Democrat carried just Massachusetts and D.C. while Nixon earned over 60 percent of the popular vote. 

Beyond Nixon’s re-election, the lasting impact of McGovern’s historic loss can be seen in the Democratic Party that followed him.  The word “liberal” rapidly became an epithet, synonymous for sloppy, lazy, weak, morally lax, incompetent, over-generous with tax money and over-punitive with taxes and rules.   Little of this actually fit McGovern himself – an ordained minister from the most conservative farm country on the planet – but the way Nixon painted McGovern as a liberal, stuck to succeeding Democratic candidates like a blue film.  It’s still there.

After 1972, Americans were taught the cartoon version of Liberal McGovernment, and that is why, today in 2012, President Obama faces the real possibility of defeat to an empty suit.   Many Americans just don’t believe in the real world anymore, and instead hew to the magic realist line dictated by FoxNews.  The land is torn asunder, red and blue. 

The Republicans drew this divide and have exploited it astutely, but the Democrats have made it worse:

  • first, they got scared of the word “liberal” and simply denied the existence of their own legacy.  The party learched rightward so fast, that in 1976 McGovern couldn’t bring himself to vote for its nominee (Jimmy Carter), casting a ballot for Gerald Ford instead;
  • second, they let the GOP write the language of politics:  government = incompetent; taxes = evil;  guns = freedom; abortion = murder, etc etc.  And then they  played defense, poorly.  To quote Bruno Gianelli (again) the Democrats “cowered in the corner and said please don’t hurt me.”  
  • third, the Democrats often behave just like the cartoon liberals they’re depicted as, and have painted their own “magic realist” vision of the world which apparently does not include the words “debt” “deficit” or “future.”
  • fourth, once the electorate was divided into two roughly even-sized camps (the Red and the Blue), the Dems accepted it, manipulated it and played it just as the GOP did.   Today the U.S. is gerrymandered into a crazy quilt of Red and Blue districts, all designed to lock-in the job security of incumbent Republicans and Democrats.  You have to stand a long way back to see a country, and not an abstract painting.

Anyone who remembers the great Obama speech of 2004 knows that his “there are no red states, there are no blue states, there are just the United States of America” was the real message – that a centrist, common ground existed, and could won by anyone willing to go there.  It thrilled people to think politicians might travel to where most of the voters actually lived.

After 2006 and 2008, it looked like the Democrats had forged that new coalition of voters – the vast majority who believe in reasonable regulation, liberty, community responsibility and the theory of evolution.  But the GOP wasn’t giving up its turf so easily.  GOP tactics since the Obama election have sharpened the divide, and the Democrats have been pretty ineffectual in response.   Once again, America seems to be two countries, and we are left to wonder if the 2006-08 elections weren’t flukes, born of enmity to Bush and afterwards, Obamamania.  The centre ground – the common ground – seems to be disappearing again. 

After his crushing loss in ’72, George McGovern said,  “For many years, I wanted to run for the Presidency in the worst possible way – and last year I sure did.”   That was true in 1973, Senator, but people have found even worse ways to do it since.   The 1972 election was the start of a process that is making the nation ungovernable.   Americans would do themselves a favour if they examined the aftermath of the Nixon-McGovern election and decided to stop the continental divide.  It would be a fitting legacy for the late Senator, if people did.  

What would Senator McGovern think of this thesis?  Is it reasonable to put so much freight on the shoulders of one losing candidate for President?  He meant well, after all.  Even as fair-minded a fellow as George McGovern might not appreciate being singled out as the innocent lightning rod that helped burn down the house of American politics.  Perhaps the good Senator would say to me, what he said to a pro-Nixon heckler, late in the ’72 campaign: 

 “Listen, you son-of-a-bitch, why don’t you kiss my ass?”

Rest in peace, Senator.  You get the last word.

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One comment on “McGoverning Principles

  1. redscott
    October 22, 2012

    You don’t get unity, success, or any of those good things without standing for something potentially rewarding but also possibly divisive first. The Republicans endured a historic wipeout in ’64 but believed in their whacked out version of conservatism and set about fighting for it for the next 20 years, not running from people calling them crazy or out of the mainstream or whatever. The Democrats ran fleeing from a liberalism that at least attempted under McGovern to forge a coalition of the young, minorities, and the working class. As you note, Obama ironically seemed to assemble the coalition that McGovern was aiming for but (true to the form of the last 40 years) drained it of any content other than allegiance to him as a symbol or dissatisfaction with Bush. One of the reasons why Obama’s political support seems to have been rocked so hard by the 1st debate is that it was pretty soft to begin with. The Republicans know what they believe in. The Dems don’t seem to have any real commitments or “deal-breakers” on the economy or foreign policy that they wouldn’t foreswear if inconvenient. It’s hard to build lasting and resilient political support on shifting and thin ground like that. Instead of running as far away from ’72 as they could, occupying a principle-free zone for the next 40 years, the Dems might have done better to consider the things that McGovern had tapped into that were worth exploring and separating those from the personal failures of McGovern the individual candidate. If they’d done that and consciously tried to build a party around those things, making it responsive to the needs of average workers and a more pluralist society, maybe they’d have something stronger to fall back on when things don’t go so well and the almighty polls aren’t favorable.

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This entry was posted on October 21, 2012 by in The U.S.A..
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