Commentary Magazine


McGovern’s Futile Warning on Unions

The extent to which George McGovern, who died in late October, was identified with American liberalism itself can be seen in headlines of his various obituaries. CNN’s headline called him an “unabashed liberal voice”; PBS went with “Liberal Icon”; the New York Times chose “Prairie Liberal” (though the online edition dropped the word “prairie”); and the Nation called him a “Touchstone of Liberalism.” The Nation obit, written by John Nichols, proclaimed McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, “the most progressive nominee ever selected by the Democratic Party.”

McGovern, then, possessed unimpeachable liberal credentials. Yet four years before McGovern passed, the liberal blog site Firedoglake was ready to send him packing, and used the occasion to call McGovern perhaps the nastiest insult in the liberal lexicon: “Wal-Mart Lover.” What could have prompted such spite? McGovern, though a committed liberal through and through, was concerned about the growing and coercive power of unions. He felt the need to speak out against the Democrats’ proposed anti-choice legislation, card-check. McGovern chastised his party for its extremism in the Wall Street Journal:

The key provision of EFCA is a change in the mechanism by which unions are formed and recognized. Instead of a private election with a secret ballot overseen by an impartial federal board, union organizers would simply need to gather signatures from more than 50% of the employees in a workplace or bargaining unit, a system known as “card-check.” There are many documented cases where workers have been pressured, harassed, tricked and intimidated into signing cards that have led to mandatory payment of dues.

Under EFCA, workers could lose the freedom to express their will in private, the right to make a decision without anyone peering over their shoulder, free from fear of reprisal.

Anyone who doubts that such “reprisals” were and are a serious danger might have been convinced by what they saw yesterday in Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder signed right-to-work legislation, which allows people to work without forced unionization as a condition of their employment, into law. Earlier in the day, the Democratic contingent in the state legislature promised violence if the bill went through. The bill did, and Democratic violence and death threats from unions and their Democratic allies emerged immediately. Union leader Jimmy Hoffa then went on CNN and promised more “war.”

It is a testament to the disappearance of moderate Democrats that George McGovern was concerned enough about the party’s growing anti-Democratic extremism to speak out. That aforementioned blog post at Firedoglake made it explicitly clear that “McGovern is the one who is out of step.” Union coercion, according to the left, is mainstream; moderation was long gone.

This has long been a challenge for modern liberalism: how to keep the violence that is always brimming just below the surface of leftist protest movements from getting out of control. But in order to do that successfully, the Democratic Party must have leaders who, like McGovern, are willing to take a stand against it. You’ll search in vain for such leaders today; the White House wouldn’t condemn either the threats of violence or the actual violence yesterday. Perhaps they didn’t want to draw attention to President Obama’s appearance at a pro-union rally the day before.

Democratic leaders might want to admit–even if just to themselves–that McGovern was right. McGovern might have recognized recent events as the natural outgrowth of the unchecked extremism of a Democratic Party too liberal for its “liberal icon.”

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