The venerable former senator and failed presidential candidate George McGovern, who died today at 90, is being remembered by many friends and foes alike as the archetypal ultraliberal.
McGovern, they say, effectively turned the Democratic Party over to wild-haired incompetents and left-wing dreamers whose extremism ultimately set the stage for the Reagan “revolution” and the rise of a right-of-center America.
There’s truth in that. McGovern’s early criticism of the Vietnam War (he first spoke against it as a newly elected Democratic senator from South Dakota in 1963) was out of step with a bipartisan Cold War consensus that smothered serious debate for too long.
Yet when you take a longer view of his career -- especially after he got bounced from the Senate in 1980 during the Republican landslide he helped create -- what emerges is a rare public figure whose policy positions shifted to an increasingly libertarian stance in response to a world that’s far more complicated than most politicians can ever allow.
Born in 1922 and raised during the Depression, McGovern eventually earned a doctorate in American history before becoming a politician. But it was as a private citizen he became an expert in the law of unintended consequences, which elected officials ignore routinely. He came to recognize that attempts to control the economic and lifestyle choices of Americans aren’t only destructive to cherished national ideals, but ineffective as well. That legacy is more relevant now than ever.
McGovern’s loss against incumbent President Richard Nixon in 1972 was the second-biggest electoral-college blowout up to that point, and he managed to lose even his home state. His campaign was run by future Colorado Senator Gary Hart, a greenhorn whose poor judgment was later made fully public in his own 1988 presidential bid (which ended after he was photographed with a young woman not his wife on a pleasure boat called “Monkey Business,” of all things).
The standard analysis was that it was a liability to be described as “another McGovern,” which meant “unelectable.” In August, the Republican magazine the Weekly Standard licked its chops in a story titled “Barack Hussein McGovern: The specter of 1972 is haunting the Obama campaign.”
Among the horrors of that convention 40 years ago? Support for Title IX, which banned discrimination against women in federal education funding, and the Equal Rights Amendment. Other delegates spoke out in favor of gay rights, legal contraception for unmarried couples (still a touchy issue in 1972), and abortion rights.
At the center of McGovern’s campaign, though, was his attack on U.S. foreign policy, especially in Southeast Asia. “Come Home, America,” read his iconic posters and buttons, calling for a swift end to American involvement in Vietnam and surrounding countries. From his first years in the Senate, he believed that the U.S. was mistaking a civil war for a new front in the Cold War, and he stressed even before President Lyndon Johnson’s massive troop buildup that U.S. involvement was “a clear demonstration of the limitations of military power.”
His understanding of military action wasn’t theoretical. A decorated World War II veteran whose harrowing experiences piloting a B-24 bomber colored his views toward war. He famously snapped at fellow Democratic Senator John Stennis, “I’m tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to fight.”
That emphasis on lived reality -- and the failure of government interventions to make the world stand at attention to the desires of politicians -- later turned McGovern to libertarian positions on more than foreign policy. He scandalized liberals in a 1992 letter to the Wall Street Journal, detailing his travails as the proprietor of a Connecticut hotel.
Having sunk most of his savings into the venture, it went belly up, he said, partly because of a bad economy but also due to “federal, state and local rules that were all passed with the objective of helping employees, protecting the environment, raising tax dollars for schools, protecting our customers from fire hazards, etc.”
Lamenting his lack of business experience while he was a legislator and presidential contender, McGovern concluded that “ ‘one-size-fits-all’ rules for business ignored the reality of the marketplace.”
As he explained, “setting thresholds for regulatory guidelines at artificial levels -- for example, 50 employees or more, $500,000 in sales -- takes no account of other realities, such as profit margins, labor intensive vs. capital intensive businesses, and local market economics.”
In 2008, also in the Wall Street Journal, he attacked what he called “economic paternalism” from right-wing and left-wing politicians who were seeking to ban subprime loans and the pay- day lending business. Such laws don’t actually help people of limited means, he stressed, even as they reduce everyone’s ability to deal with their finances. He also took aim at “health-care paternalism” that made it impossible for consumers to shop across state lines for insurance and stuck them with unwanted or unaffordable gold-plated plans. “I’ve come to realize,” he wrote, “that protecting freedom of choice in our everyday lives is essential to maintaining a healthy civil society.”
To his credit, he extended that insight even to choices that can become self-destructive. His 1996 memoir, “Terry,” details the life and death of his youngest daughter, an alcoholic who froze to death in a Wisconsin snowbank after a heavy bout of drinking. The short book is a miles-deep examination of family dynamics, theories of addiction, and human struggle that is both universally accessible and intensely personal. (He writes of his wife’s response to the news of their child’s death as “a cry heartrending and terrible. I can neither describe not forget it.”)
In a 1997 New York Times op-ed article, he emphasized that simply because some people abuse freedom of choice is no reason to reduce it. “Despite the death of my daughter,” he argued, “I still appreciate the differences between use and abuse.” He rightly worried that lifestyle freedom, like economic freedom, was everywhere under attack: “New attempts to regulate behavior are coming from both the right and the left, depending only on the cause. But there are those of us who don’t want the tyranny of the majority (or the outspoken minority) to stop us from leading our lives in ways that have little impact on others.”
McGovern believed that attempts to impose single-value standards were profoundly un-American and “that we cannot allow the micromanaging of each other’s lives.” But as governments at various levels expand their control of everything from health- care to mortgages to the consumption of soda pop and so much more, that’s exactly what’s happening.
In 1972, McGovern was out of step with the American public. Not anymore. Large majorities see the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as the mistakes and failures they plainly were. And his criticism of paternalism is wildly popular with everyone but our rulers. An August 2012 CNN/ORC International Poll found that only 40 percent of registered voters want the government to “promote traditional values,” a finding that is down from 57 percent in 2008. CNN also found that “six in 10 say that government is doing too much that should be left to businesses and individuals.”
These days, it’s politicians of both parties who are out of step with the voting public. As the nation prepares to pay its last respects to George McGovern, we can only hope that our leaders will learn from his example and become less confident in telling us how to live our lives.
(Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and the co-author of “The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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