Almost three years from the day that George McGovern passed away there had been very few debate over the legacy of the liberal icon. Curiously it was The American Conservative writers like Daniel McCarthy and Bill Kauffman who presented a fair and respectful analysis of his career, the present of his ideas and even his unexpected conservativism. McCarthy and Kauffman are two of my favorite political writers and although on several issues I disagree with them, in general I share the vision of the misunderstanding that conservatives for longtime had over McGovern who was an honest antiwar patriot. I haven’t read much coming from liberals even thinking that McGovern was supposed to be his icon and while could be true in the grassroots level it seems like the liberal elite was never their biggest ally not in 1972 and not now. So when someone try to ask where is his legacy now the answer could be more complex than speaking of people involve with his campaign.
There is a general consensus over that the Democratic Party had a difference in their interventionism from the GOP is that since the antiwar base is still on great part link at some level to the democrats is more difficult for them to get in a complete conflict with a democrat administration like now the Obama’s White House. One could point that one of the issues is the never ending cultural war. A family man, veteran and man of faith like McGovern was not precisely a liberal cultural warrior in the sense of Bill Maher. His positions over abortion, drugs and draft as recounted by Daniel McCarthy where exaggerated by republicans. But the cultural war that happen later was exploited by neocons and liberal interventionists from both parties to avoid the discussion over foreign policy. One doesn’t had to been an expert pollster to notice rank-and-file democrats are more anti-interventionist than their leadership and that rank-and-file republicans are not interested in the massive nation-building overseas.
The myth of 1972 was that McGovern represented a dream coalition of the broad left and that was true only at some level. While it’s true that a large part of the antiwar movement drive to the McGovern camp and the Democratic Party there were some notable exceptions. The entire alphabet of the left was competing against McGovern the SWP, SLP and CPUSA but the most interesting formation in opposition of the democrats was the antiwar People’s Party who unlike the other parties was more near to the New Left ideals however the nomination of George McGovern affected their goals when they were thinking than the democratic nominee was going to be Hubert Humphrey they hope at least the 10 percent of the vote but with McGovern as nominee the situation change and then they only a get the 0.10 percent. Karl Hess probably the most known left libertarian was never a big fan of any liberal including McGovern, he supported Benjamin Spock of the antiwar People’s Party and even serving as secretary of education in his Shadow Cabinet. It was something interesting because nowadays thinking in an alliance between free market libertarians and the left seems difficult but in that days it was natural on the basis of opposition to war. The dreams of a left libertarian alliance proposed in the 60s by Murray Rothbard died with the McGovern campaign who unlike Mark Hatfield the other big opponent to the Vietnam War don’t necessarily had decentralist tendencies. Also the dream of a left third party that represent the broad left was gone since most of them went into the Democratic Party.
The interesting thing about McGovern is that while it’s true that since him there had been antiwar democrats these were not necessarily McGovernites. Gary Hart the campaign manager of McGovern in 1972 ran against McGovern in the democratic primaries in 1984 as a charismatic populist. Jesse Jackson was more influenced by MLK than from the former senator of South Dakota. Jerry Brown was closer however define one the most heterodox politicians in America as a McGovernite wouldn’t be honest. Dennis Kucinich positions are closer to McGovern but he managed to be friendly to conservatives in a way not even George McGovern could. Among the actual possible democratic contenders in 2016. Hillary Clinton is the most neoconservative in the race and now represents the exact opposite of McGovern. Elizabeth Warren is too interventionist to imagine listen from her Come Home, America. Bernie Sanders still likes to call himself a socialist something that McGovern never was. The most curious case is Jim Webb who as a Cold Warrior there is not much doubt that in the 70s he oppose McGovern now if he still had some chance to win is because of the McGovern coalition.
Outside the Democratic Party his influence is limited since the Republican Party become Anti McGovern party. But even there when Pat Buchanan ran in 92 against Bush the main cause was foreign policy especially the Gulf War. Some commentators mocked Buchanan of being a born-again McGovernite but in famous speech in the Republican Convention there was again an attack against McGovern among other liberals however Buchanan become the peace candidate of the 90s. His positions over immigration wouldn’t made happy many liberals although as far as I know the former senator from South Dakota was not for Open Borders. In an exercise of alternative history it would had been interesting seen Buchanan receive a McGovern endorsement. Among the independents one probably can find the most principle McGovernite. Ralph Nader like McGovern lived a scandal free live and like him express his sympathy to honest conservatives. Nader was antiwar even as his biographer Justin Martin recalls that in 70s he don’t made public his foreign policy position over his tactical position of also working with republicans on consumer protection. Neither Nader nor McGovern were cultural warriors they instead were worried over a working class exploited by the big guys and that with nothing were almost forced to go to war. However the supposed McGovernites over the Democratic Party never realized that and viciously attacked Nader in his presidential runs. Link Ron Paul and George McGovern seems like something hard to sell after all in economic policy they are on opposite sides but foreign policy could unite them. I still remember watching the Ron Paul Rally in Minnesota from the 2008 campaign in which Bill Kauffman in his brilliant speech mention the most famous phrase from McGovern: Come Home, America. The liberal and libertarian so different but at the same time so similar in their desire of a peaceful America. If radical libertarians like Lew Rockwell supported that call in 1972 there is something that makes one wonder how a call for peace could transcend ideologies and idiosyncrasies. The Ron Paul campaign with the time become a Rainbow Coalition of the right. From Hispanics to minutemen. From peacenik liberals to militias. From veterans to strippers. It seems for a moment that the cultural war was over although maybe isn’t truth yet.
George McGovern was one of the most decent politicians in the recent history. He was a man of deep conviction. He was a liberal in the best sense of the word but not in the worst. He manage to appeal to the conservative sensibilities of a Middle America forgotten both by his liberal supporters and the anti McGovernite conservatives. While he wasn’t successful his cause is good enough to be defended. Probably McGovern was extremely confident in the possibility of government as a force of good something that might not always be truth. McGovern was a party man and he never broke with the democrats. In 2008 he even endorsed Hillary remembering that she worked for his campaign. Now that McGovernism seems death in Democratic Party it is still alive in other places. The Buchananites, Naderites and Paulinites with all their differences could be more honest in claiming the legacy of McGovern than his fellow democrats. Maybe the day of the real victory of McGovern wasn´t Obama in 2008 maybe it’s going to be the time when a peace candidate wins. If some day there is a peaceful America that day would be the real victory of McGovernism.