George McGovern and the path not taken

George McGovern in 1972 tried to unite the old New Deal liberalism and the New Left radicalism.

He courted African-Americans, feminists, college students, gays and lesbians, environmentalists and peace advocates, while at the same time promising to close tax loopholes for the rich and using the money to grant property tax relief for middle class Americans.

George McGovern in 1972

All the issues he campaigned on—especially economic inequality—have become every more relevant today.

Yet he went down to defeat, and all the Democratic candidates from then did their best to distance themselves from McGovernism.   He was supposedly the Democratic counterpart to Barry Goldwater.

But while Goldwater’s followers reacted to their defeat by doubling down on their beliefs and going on to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Democratic leaders—Jimmy Carter, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama—have run away from the supposed taint of McGovernism.

I think the difference between the legacy of Goldwater and the legacy of McGovern is that Goldwater’s movement had the support of wealthy individuals and corporations, and McGovern’s didn’t.

McGovern at the start of 1972 was as little known as Bernie Sanders at the start of 2016.   Odds-makers gave him a 200 in 1 chance of winning the Democratic nomination.   When he did win, the Democratic Party as an institution did not support him.   President Nixon meanwhile stole the Democrats’ thunder, by creating the Environmental Protection Agency, calling for a guaranteed annual income and announcing that peace was at hand in Vietnam.

President Nixon discredited himself in the Watergate affair, and Democrats rebounded.   But the Democrats did not offer a credible alternative to Republican policies, and could not hold on to power.  Thus began a political cycle that continued ever since, of voters swinging back and forth between Republican and Democratic presidential candidates while the condition of the country grows worse.

The national figure today who comes closest to resembling George McGovern is Bernie Sanders—a Senator from a small state who seemingly came out of nowhere to lead a movement.

The top leaders of the Democratic Party are as hostile to Sanders’ followers as they were to McGovern’s 45 years ago, but the Sanders followers seem to have more staying power than their predecessors.

Even Bernie Sanders is not really a peace candidate, as George McGovern was.   That is the forgotten part of McGovern’s legacy that we need the most.


When I think of George McGovern, I think of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s talking about McGovernite morality.

Think about this.

George McGovern was a patriot and a church-goer.   He served his country bravely in war, married and was faithful to his high school sweetheart and was liked and respected even by his political opponents.  Newt Gingrich avoided military service, cheated on at least two of his three wives and was distrusted even by his political allies.

Yet most Republicans stood behind Gingrich, and most Democrats feared to be associated with McGovern.


What Democrats Still Don’t Get About George McGovern by Joshua Mound for The New Republic.   Written in early 2016, but still relevant.

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One Response to “George McGovern and the path not taken”

  1. Edward Says:

    “Yet most Republicans stood behind Gingrich, and most Democrats feared to be associated with McGovern.”

    I think the answer to this riddle is that McGovern was politically different from and a threat to these other Democrats and Gingrich was not this for his associates. A closer Republican analogy would be Trump.

    The McGovern/liberal hawk split may have been one between cold warriors and anti-imperialists.


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