George McGovern: America's Critic and Champion

AP Photo

George McGovern of South Dakota pays a visit with his wife to the floor of the International Amphitheatre in Chicago, August 25, 1968, where he will attempt to capture the Democratic presidential nomination in the National Convention starting on Monday.

George McGovern, the former Senator from South Dakota and 1972 Democratic candidate for president who died Sunday at the age of 90, was perhaps the greatest exponent of an alternative American patriotism of the end of the 20th century. In this respect, McGovern’s predecessors were men and women like Jane Addams, W.E.B. Dubois, and William James. Historian Jonathan Hansen has described this critical patriotism well as the “claim that critical engagement with one’s country constitutes the highest form of love.” The critical patriot rejects the conventional patriot’s belief that loyalty to the state and, especially, to its military aims should be reflexive and unconditional. Critical patriotism fears that the patriotism of flag pins and yellow ribbons is, as Todd Gitlin has written, “affirmed too easily.”

This brand of patriotism—a call for the nation to live up to its highest Jeffersonian ideals—has been attacked from both the right and the left (and the fact that Jefferson himself did not live up to those ideals only makes the critical patriot’s plea all the more poignant). The anti-communist and now neo-conservative right views any criticism of the war-making powers of the state or even historical reconstruction of America’s complicated, conflictual history as by definition unpatriotic. The internationalist left thinks that linking the word “patriotism” to the quest for social justice inevitably taints that quest with the stench of jingoistic authoritarianism. But there is a way for a model of liberal citizenship to be a civic, cosmopolitan articulation of patriotism, a squaring of the circle. The speech in which McGovern accepted his party’s presidential nomination in Miami is McGovern’s most powerful distillation of this credo. The recurring trope of that speech, “Come home, America,” was not merely about abandoning the blood-drenched fiasco of Vietnam, although it certainly was very much about that. More expansively, McGovern said, “… together we will call America home to the ideals that nourished us from the beginning.” Those ideals did not include pacifism. McGovern was a bomber pilot who volunteered for the Army Air Force within days of the attack on Pearl Harbor. During the Second World War, McGovern flew 35 missions over Germany under harrowing conditions. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Yet, unlike John McCain or John Kerry in their convention speeches, McGovern was too modest to mention his heroic service. Perhaps it didn’t matter: The speech itself, delayed by an exercise of democratic (and Democratic) contestation on the convention floor that the candidate benignly indulged, wasn’t delivered until 3 a.m. As McGovern was later to ruefully observe, “there was nobody awake other than the insomniacs.” McGovern’s bungle of the timing of his acceptance speech looked like a Swiss watch compared to his catastrophic, unvetted choice of a running mate. As it turned out, neither the nation nor the candidate himself was quite ready for a vice presidential nominee, Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, with a history of electro-shock treatments. And then, of course, Richard Nixon’s henchmen were busily at work trying to steal the election anyway. Nothing would have saved McGovern’s star-crossed campaign. He ran again, briefly, in 1984, but McGovern would never become president.

McGovern was a man who bravely fought a war and bravely opposed another, and who gave the most powerful speech of his life at an hour when hardly anybody saw it. He was also a trained labor historian (he wrote his dissertation about one of the horrific episodes in labor history, the 1914 Ludlow Coal Massacre) who couldn’t win the support of the AFL-CIO at a time when organized labor was still an electoral powerhouse—and who years later, much to the disappointment of so many of his admirers, recorded commercials opposing labor’s card-check organizing bill. He became identified with support for reproductive rights—thus the “abortion” in the famous dismissal of McGovern as the candidate of “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion”—and supported them, in a time before Roe v. Wade, at the state level, though he was himself ambivalent. He was a man from a town of 600 in one of our most rural states, who rode a wave composed of the new, urban movements of sixties—African Americans, professional women, gay activists, sophisticated Ivy League experts—to within one victory of the White House. He was a calm but superb politician who repeatedly won statewide office in a conservative state, and put together a brilliant underdog strategy to win the nomination—but then there was that abysmal convention, followed by a similarly inept campaign. And he was known to almost all as a surpassingly kind and decent man, one who had been painfully shy as a child. Yet his ambition was, like that of any would-be president, more outsized than the rest of us can ever fully understand. The paradoxes are many, and they are substantial, but in his opposition to the war, McGovern not only was on the right side of the most important issue of his time; he fully embodied the critical love of country, the critical patriotism that he campaigned upon in 1972.


Born in a tiny rural South Dakota town in 1922, McGovern imbibed the High Prairie/Upper Midwestern Progressivism of that time and place. His father was a Methodist minister, and for a brief time McGovern was a minister too, before going off to fight the war, becoming a professor, and then, finally, beginining his political career. McGovern, who witnessed the despair of the Dust Bowl as his own parents struggled to make ends meet, retained this combination of egalitarian Protestant gospel, somewhat like William Jennings Bryan, and, also like Bryan, a deep suspicion of American military intervention abroad—a suspicion that the Jeffersonian Republic diminished itself every time it assayed an imperial adventure.

As a young man in 1948, McGovern enthusiastically worked for Henry Wallace’s third-party presidential candidacy. While McGovern quickly became repulsed by the Communist ideologues who attempted to hijack Wallace’s campaign, he retained Wallace’s deep aversion to the Manichean cold war politics of the then-emerging postwar consensus. In a shrewd and comprehensive history of McGovern’s doomed 1972 campaign, The Liberals’ Moment, the political scientist Bruce Miroff argues that McGovern, perceived by many to be the essence of liberalism (if not a dangerous radicalism) was in fact a different kind of liberal than the tough technocrats like JFK and his many acolytes, or the cold warriors of the Truman Doctrine. McGovern differed from the New Frontiersman not only in his dovishness, but also in his more populist suspicion that a post-Keynesian economy of plenty was inevitably ordained to feed the hungry and enrich the working class. The technocrats, perhaps, had never seen the Dust Bowl, nor researched the Ludlow Massacre.

It is thus no surprise that the great causes of McGovern’s life were hunger and anti-militarism. He became the Senate’s expert on the subject. With Robert Dole, a Prairie politician of a different, but also recognizable ideological lineage—he rationalized the Depression-era food stamp program, and it became one of the most important low-income stabilizers of the American social insurance state. Until the end of his life, McGovern never tired of speaking of this accomplishment. He held hunger/food/nutrition portfolios in both the Kennedy and Clinton administrations.

Yet in another paradox, McGovern, no economics savant, depended upon Ivy League economists like James Tobin and John Kenneth Galbraith in his presidential campaign to create his bluntly redistributionist tax, employment, and welfare policies: increases in the estate tax, elimination of the preference for capital gains (although McGovern also promised to reduce the top marginal rate to 48 percent); a guaranteed public job for all healthy, welfare recipients; and, most controversially, a “demogrant” of $1,000 for every American. This last was, at the time, the single most controversial of McGovern’s domestic policies—both Democratic primary opponents and Nixon suggested that it was like “[putting] half of the American people on welfare” (sound familiar?). McGovern, a politician, not a saint, saw the danger and modified the demogrant and job proposals. Ultimately, a variation of the grant passed in 1975 in the form of the Earned Income Tax Credit, an idea of Milton Friedman’s.

We are more familiar, however, with McGovern’s abiding anti-militarism, and it is important to note that it was not merely a pragmatic evaluation that Vietnam was not winnable, or was causing too much domestic discord, or even too much death. It was a complete rejection of the postwar perspective, shared by most liberals and conservatives, that American “force projection,” which included both thousands of nuclear armed weapons and hundreds of military bases around the world, best ensured the nation’s safety and its hegemonic, superpower status. This perspective meant not only warily confronting the Soviet Union (and, to a large extent, China) directly in Berlin or Cuba, but also via “proxy” wars and destabilization projects from Iran to Guatemala to Vietnam. McGovern opposed the all of it, the entire worldview.

To the paranoid right, Barack Obama is both “other” and “un-American.” But Obama would fire any aide who brought him a version of McGovern’s proposed defense budget—and then faint. In 1972, McGovern campaigned on a 35-percent reduction in the Pentagon budget over just a three-year period, something beyond the most fervent dreams of liberal Democratic members of Congress today.

Thus McGovern combined a deeply held opposition to the Vietnam war; his openness, notwithstanding his personal traditionalism, to the changing cultural currents of the moment; and his history (even scholarship) in support of lower-income Americans. In the early '70s, he seemed perfectly positioned to bring together the white, working-class, unionized base of the Democratic party with the insurgent constituencies of the “new politics” of that time: African Americans galvanized by the struggle for civil rights; white, middle-class women who identified with the emergent feminist movement; young, anti-war activists schooled in the campus militancy of SDS; and the nascent, post Stonewall gay-liberation movement.

McGovern had paved the way for these new political formations to achieve power within the party. The so called McGovern Commission, which he chaired following the party debacle of 1968, implemented a series of reforms which had the effect of neutering the power of the white, ethnic party bosses and their allies in the most conservative sectors of organized labor. It also introduced numerical requirements for minority and women’s participation at the convention. Primaries, rather than those smoke-filled back rooms would now pick the nominee. The faces of the party had been Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and AFL-CIO president George Meany—old slabs of well-done beef. After the commission reforms, it was Bella Abzug and Jesse Jackson. And McGovern, of course, won the nomination by exploiting these new rules—which enraged the old bulls that had been displaced.

So, the tantalizing “what if” of a New Left/minority/feminist/labor coalition—akin to imagining whether the Romantic poets of the early British 19th century could have joined their critique of early capitalism to the exertions of the emerging British industrial working class—was never to happen. In fact, there was not only no consolidation, but instead a dramatic split at a grave and continuing cost to the liberal project and the Democratic Party for decades. For the first and only time in its history, the AFL-CIO did not endorse the Democratic candidate for president, remaining strategically neutral. And really, could it have been otherwise? On one side stood George Meany, who hated everything about McGovern’s young anti-war shock troops. As he famously said in that same year of 1972, “The Democratic Party has been taken over by people named Jack, who look like Jills and smell like Johns.” On the other side, the empowered New Left forces, flush with their triumph, had a matching contempt for these defenders of the war and the hierarchical presumptions of white men like themselves. This new coalition of cosmopolitan “others,” which could carry McGovern only so far, are now the core constituencies of the Democratic party. But without the white working class, which split from the party in 1972, Barack Obama may yet lose his bid for reelection.

The new forces and labor looked at the flag and saw fundamentally different things. The candidate was helpless to bring them together. George McGovern loved America, and he deeply believed in its promise of liberty and justice for all. In that early morning speech in Miami, he reached for a higher synthesis: “We reject the view of those who say, “America—love it or leave it. “ We reply, ”Let us change it so we may love it the more.” No presidential candidate since has dared to make a heartbreaking criticism of the nation’s misbegotten and cynical policies the central contention of his campaign, and do it in the name of, yes, a higher form of love.  But even our greatest alternative patriot couldn’t convert critical patriotism into a winning coalition of just plain patriotism. After all, it wouldn’t be critical if most Americans, then or now, believed the things George McGovern did.

You may also like