The death of George McGovern has set off an avalanche of praise for the former senator and presidential candidate. As someone whose time on the political stage is long past and whose memory is unclouded by personal scandal, this treatment is entirely appropriate. McGovern was a distinguished war veteran and, by all accounts, conducted his long political career in an honest and honorable manner. Though such persons are by no means unknown in contemporary politics, for one reason or another they seem rare enough for a lot of people to think we would be better off if we had more McGoverns in Washington.
But however much respect the individual deserves, we also ought to acknowledge how McGovern helped transform the Democratic Party from the institution that effectively defended the West against Communism in the aftermath of World War II into one that stood for appeasement of the Soviet empire. Though the fall of the Berlin Wall has allowed many who opposed the policies that helped bring about that outcome to pretend as if there was always a wall-to-wall national coalition opposing the advance of Communism, McGovern’s passing is a reminder of how that that consensus was destroyed.
The decisions by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to make Vietnam an American war may have been ill-advised, but the animating spirit of the anti-war left that McGovern led was not so much about the wisdom of that commitment as it was agnostic about the need to stop the Communists. Vietnam is now buried so deep in our political history that one might as well talk about the Spanish-American War as that conflict. But one unfortunate aspect of the way America moved on after the fall of Saigon is the way the political left avoided responsibility for the tragedy that America’s defeat created. American disgust with the waste and loss of life in Vietnam was understandable, but the war helped turn the Democrats from a bulwark of the Cold War coalition to its critics. This led not only to the abandonment of South Vietnam to the tender mercies of North Vietnamese commissars and “re-education” camps, but also helped set the stage for a decade of Soviet adventurism that was only halted during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
The McGovern Democrats didn’t just hijack their party. They led it to a historic defeat at the hands of one of the least popular incumbent presidents. Richard Nixon’s lies and follies have allowed his opponents to portray themselves as being before their time. But it was the radicalism of McGovern’s followers that scared the nation into giving Nixon a landslide re-election.
In the years that followed, Democrats would be careful not to put on another left-wing freak show like the 1972 convention that nominated McGovern, but the South Dakotan’s followers would nevertheless have their way in terms of setting the agenda for the party. In the decades that followed, the bulk of Democrats would become reflexive opponents of restraining the Soviet Union as well as embracing the welfare state in a way that earlier generations of Democrats would have found troubling.
Despite the nostalgia for the anti-war movement and the ongoing dislike of Nixon, history’s verdict will not be kind to the McGovern Democrats. They helped defend the excesses of modern liberalism that wreaked havoc on the poor and built the infrastructure for our out-of-control government debt. If the Soviet empire fell, it was in spite of the efforts of the McGovern Democrats to prop it up and to oppose anti-Communist measures. While today’s Democratic Party is a very different animal than the one he led in 1972, we can hear echoes of his influence in its equivocal stance towards American global power and its addiction to big government.
We should honor George McGovern the man, but we should remember that the political influence of his movement did the country and the world great harm.