observations and opinion
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:
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.