George McGovern Conservatives

In the The American Conservative, Dan McCarthy presents as a hero of the antiwar Right former South Dakota senator and onetime Democratic candidate for the presidency, George McGovern (1922- ). From Dan’s account, it seems that McGovern is a “€œtemperamental conservative, an antimilitarist, and a committed decentralist,”€ and the GOP, by demonizing his person, has rendered itself “€œrepellant”€ to “€œmost Americans, including many conservatives.”€ Moreover, the decision made by the neoconservatives to bolt the Democratic Party, over McGovern’s candidacy, in 1972, brought an unnecessary can of worms into the Republican camp. While driving the party they entered on domestic issues toward the left, the anti-McGovern neoconservatives talked the GOP into embracing a recklessly interventionist foreign policy. GOP operators were also not incidentally able to reconstruct the image of McGovern, from a critic of the Vietnam War into a pacifist-appeaser”€”and a perpetual punching bag for the likes of Sean Hannity and the Kagan boys. The neocon war against McGovern, which the GOP took over, with a neocon brain-trust, has dominated Republican national elections. Last month, these campaigning tactics (alas) came a cropper, when the “€œMcGovern coalition”€ trounced an archaic reproduction of the Cold War liberalism of the 1970s.

Dan’s argument is not entirely original, and another antiwar critic of the neocons and the party they captured, Bill Kaufmann, has been making it for decades. Part of this critique is undoubtedly true. Those neoconservatives who entered the GOP and soon became its puppet-masters were, indeed, fixated on the McGovern candidacy and what it portended for American politics. They were also far from silent about what they expected from the party and movement they would soon be guiding: a decidedly pro-Zionist foreign policy, and a Scoop Jackson approach to dealing with the Soviets, one that stressed human rights and helping Soviet Jews leave Russia. It is also the case, as Dan points out, that NRO and other movement conservative organs treat GOP presidential opponents as caricatures of George McGovern. This mythmaking has served the same function for the GOP as the war on the ghost of Herbert Hoover did for the Democrats after the Great Depression.

But there are two points on which Dan’s argument breaks down. One, not all neoconservatives entered the GOP, at the time that Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz did in 1972. Many of them, such as Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer, stayed in the Democratic Party in order to maintain their group’s leverage there. A insightful essay by Jacob Heilbrunn, also in TAC, shows how this system of cooptation works. In the most recent electoral contest, the neocons divided their forces among three candidates, once the campaign of their preferred candidate, Rudolph Giuliani, had floundered.

Although Hillary and McCain thereafter became the neocon favs (and the neocons even created fresh support for Hillary among easily manipulated GOP voters in order to stop Obama), the neocons had loads of resources on the winning side. They had prominent allies in the Obama camp, who would push their party-line after Election Day. Without always arranging for a division of forces, the neocons have prospered by working both parties at the same time.

Two, McGovern was at least as bad as some of the neocons claimed he was. Domestically, he was never a “€œdecentralist”€ but on the Democratic Party’s left. Already in 1969 he used his clout in the party to introduce quotas for women and blacks at Democratic presidential conventions. He also actively worked to impose racial and gender quotas on all enterprises receiving government funds, and he enthusiastically backed and even hoped to expand Johnson’s Great Society programs. Although while in business years later, McGovern offered some strictures about economic regulations, such complaints were not characteristic of his behavior as a senator. McGovern was also an early backer of the Equal Rights Amendment and an enthusiast for one of Sarah Palin’s favorite forms of government control, Title Nine, which forbids “€œgender discrimination.”€ Lest anyone think that McGovern has recently changed his spots, it might be helpful to look at his book that came out this month, Abraham Lincoln. This part of a left-liberal series on American presidents, edited by Sean Wilentz, is a two-hundred page celebration of Lincoln for his governmental reconstruction successes, destroying the “€œRepublic,”€ which was a white, male monopoly, and launching our “€œstrong centralized government.”€

In his attitude toward the rest of the world, McGovern was no latter-day Robert Lafollette; nor does he bear any resemblance to those well-meaning patriots who formed the America First Committee. He was a Communist sympathizer, who is proud of having fought fascism in World War Two, on the side of our supposed Soviet friends. During this edifying adventure, McGovern flew thirty-five bombing missions over enemy territory. The effect of his bellicose activity was incinerating unprotected civilians, particularly after the German and Austrian civil defenses had failed during the last year of the War. Unfortunately, Stalin became our enemy once this good war had ended, and so Bill Kaufmann’s small-town Methodist, who sang in church choirs, advocated peaceful coexistence with Stalin’s slave empire.

In 1948, McGovern joined American Communists in founding the Progressive Party, which drafted as its presidential candidate someone who was known to be quite soft on the Soviet government, former Vice President Henry Wallace. It is telling that the socialist Norman Thomas pointedly refused to back Wallace, for having refused to distance himself from his heavily Communist constituency. Not surprisingly, McGovern, when he ran for president, called for massive cuts in the defense budget and for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. He took this position less because he hated war than because he disliked opposing the Communists. He might well have been the least anti-Communist U.S. Senator in American history.

Equally important, McGovern helped seal the marriage between two Lefts, one consisting of Communists and Communist fellow-travelers and the other the party of cultural radicalism. The charge against him made by the usually unobtrusive, liberal Republican senator Hugh Scott (who pace Dan was from the Philadelphia Mainline and not from Tennessee), that McGovern stood for “€œappeasement, acid, and abortion,”€ was entirely on target. McGovern was as far to the left on social issues as he was in his economic views and in his pro-Communist foreign policy. Under him the Democrats moved decisively leftward, and one can not understand the path subsequently taken by that party without looking back to 1972, any more than one can understand where the GOP and conservative movement have drifted without considering their fateful occupation by the anti-McGovern neocons. 

Although there are many things that reasonable Americans are justified in holding against the neocons, to the extent that some of them looked askance at McGovern, it is impossible for me to criticize them. McGovern was a thoroughly reprehensible comsymp, as opposed to a thoughtful critic of military overexpansion. His partisans whom I encountered every day for years on American campuses were drawn from two equally repulsive groups, fanatical anti-anti-Communists and lifestyle radicals. I never met a libertarian or consistent opponent of war in all of my encounters with these groups, and so when I find the admirers of Albert J. Nock and Murray Rothbard saluting McGovern and his friends as likeminded libertarians, I can only attribute this to insufficient historical information. With due respect to Bill, who is a truly gifted stylist, I must respectfully dissent from one overly generous judgment that he offers in Ain”€™t My America: “€œThe George McGovern, dyed deeply in the American grain, is a hell of a lot more interesting than the burlesque that was framed by his neoconservative critics.”€ As much as it pains me to take the side of my hated enemies against longtime friends, the neocons were dead right about McGovern.



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