On Sunday, Democratic icon George McGovern, who served the state of South Dakota for more than twenty years in the House and Senate, passed away at the age of 90. Despite an accomplished record of service during WWll that included 35 combat missions as a B-24 bomber pilot in Europe earning him the Distinguished Flying Cross, McGovern was best known for his anti-war stance with regard to Vietnam, and his overwhelming defeat in the 1972 presidential election. Since his passing, McGovern has been rightly eulogized for his personal affability and agreeableness, but what must not be airbrushed over is the true nature of his influence on the political landscape. As unfortunate as it is, McGovern helped lead the transformation of the Democratic Party into a coalition of leftists distinct from the previous generation of liberals in the Kennedy mold. As a result, the country has never been the same.
It was McGovern himself who planted the seeds of that divisiveness. As the New York Times notes in its obituary, McGovern “became the chairman of a Democratic Party commission on delegate selection, created after the fractious 1968 national convention to give the rank and file more say in picking a presidential nominee.” As a result, the McGovern-Fraser Commission “rewrote party rules to ensure that more women, young people and members of minorities were included in delegations. The influence of party leaders was curtailed. More states began choosing delegates on the basis of primary elections. And the party’s center of gravity shifted decidedly leftward.”
“Leftward” is somewhat inaccurate. Democrats established a de facto quota system informed by identity politics, where people were encouraged to first think of themselves as members of sub-groups identified by race, class, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Nothing has changed to this day, as California’s 2012 Delegate Selection Plan, for example, reveals. Goals for representation at the Charlotte convention included dividing Californians into six subgroups with the “proper” percentages relative to the general population–as in 16 percent African-American, 29 percent Latino, 1 percent Native American, 10 percent Asian/Pacific Islanders, 12 percent LGBT, 10 percent Disabled Persons, and 18 percent Youth-Under 30.
In 1972, the Democrat convention in Miami turned into a circus. When party activists offered up selections such as migrant-worker organizer Cesar Chavez, Yippee Jerry Rubin, anti-corporate crusader Ralph Nader, Communist dictator Mao Zedong, and sitcom character Archie Bunker for Vice President, all the shenanigans did was push McGovern’s acceptance speech well into the next morning. Furthermore, the party platform with which Democrats emerged was anathema to middle America. Aside from the staunch anti-war position, they advocated amnesty for war resisters, the abolition of the draft, deep cuts to the military, a $1,000 grant to every American, a guaranteed family income well above the poverty line, prisoners’ rights, federal funding for local food cooperatives, the adoption of an Ethnic Studies curriculum bill, and a host of other leftist initiatives.
Yet it was McGovern’s opposition to Vietnam that resonated the most with his supporters. “Let us resolve that never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad,” he said at the convention.
The convention turned out to be the high point of McGovern’s campaign. Soon after, it was revealed that McGovern’s running mate, Senator Thomas F. Eagleton (D-MO), had been hospitalized for nervous exhaustion and undergone electroshock therapy. Despite McGovern’s promise to back Eagleton “1000 percent,” he was replaced by Kennedy in-law R. Sargent Shriver. The election was a rout. McGovern carried Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, earning 17 electoral votes, while Nixon carried 49 states and won 520 electoral votes.
McGovern reflected on that defeat as recently as a month before he died in a piece for the Washington Post. “The loss is there, an old wound never fully healed,” he wrote. “My disappointment was certainly personal, made deeper by the awareness that many thousands of young Americans, and far more Vietnamese and other Asian citizens, were going to and did lose their lives with the Nixon administration’s continuation of the war.”
For McGovern, like so many liberals, the war in Vietnam remains a one-sided telling of history to this day. It was another liberal icon, JFK, who escalated America’s presence in Vietnam, because he believed in the Domino Theory: if Vietnam fell to Communism, the entire Southeast Asian Peninsula would follow. In fact, that’s exactly what happened, and 2-3 million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians were slaughtered in the ensuing bloodbath. It was a bloodbath caused not only by our troop withdrawal, but the passage of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974 by a Democratically controlled Congress, cutting off all aid to Saigon. One year later, Communists gained control of the entire country. That leftists calculatingly omit these details when trumpeting the success of the anti-war movement is nothing short of appalling.
That 1974 vote arguably marked the point where the New Left effectively took control of the Democrat Party. The classical centrist Democrat liberals who had vigorously opposed Communist totalitarianism would thereafter become rarer and rarer within the party. Add the emergence of identity politics to the mix, and the resultant party was no longer “liberal,” but leftist.
It is a leftism that has polarized America. That polarization is best explained by the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto. While conceding the prevailing meme promoted by leftist obituaries that McGovern was above all else a “decent man,” he challenges New Republic writer Rick Perlstein, who laments that McGovern’s death reminds us of “this space between the longing for unapologetic good-government liberalism and its decimation in a fallen political world–in which the decent and honorable simply get crushed.” Taranto contends that leftists labor under the delusion “that left-wing politics and decency are one and the same thing.” “This moral vanity leads the left to excuse, or even not to notice, indecent behavior on the part of their own. It is the reason Obama’s re-election campaign has been less McGovernite than McCarthyite (and we don’t mean Gene),” Taranto concludes.
That vanity also explains the evolution of Democrats since 1972, and why that evolution is so detrimental to bipartisanship: there is a great deal of difference between challenging conservative ideology on the basis of political or intellectual differences, and completely dismissing it as fundamentally indecent–as well as unworthy of serious rebuttal. It is telling that a substantial portion of leftist rebuttal can be reduced to single words like “racist,” “misogynistic,” “nativist,” and “homophobic” or simple catch-alls, such as “cruel” and “uncaring.”
All of this plays into president Obama’s current campaign, where the focus has been far more on demonizing his opponent than laying out a vision for America. Yet even when Obama lays out a vision, it is marinated in a stew of “us against them” grievances that can be traced back to the radicalism that has been mainstreamed into the Democratic Party of today.
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