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Have Democrats Lost Their Liberal Spirit?

A new book explores the McGovern campaign and what Democrats have -- or have not -- learned from it.
 
 
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Intro written by Colin Greer: The following excerpt is from Bruce Miroff's book on the 1972 McGovern Presidential campaign, The Liberals' Moment. This is the first history of that epochal event in progressive politics. The book is rich in detail and its path takes us to the recognition that, for two or three generations, the leadership of the Democratic party and its guiding centrist message derives from politicos, DLC luminaries including Bill Clinton and John Podesta, who cut their teeth in the McGovern campaign and learned the wrong lessons from it.

In 1972 the American Left, -- and there was then a Left in America -- was destroyed in the same way the Right seemed to be destroyed in 1964. The Goldwater defeat was actually replicated on the Left by the McGovern defeat. The McGovern defeat was so devastating that professional politicians basically cut themselves off from the base of the people who make political life real at the local level and whose needs would push toward progressive policy if the public interest were a public priority.

Miroff shows that it is largely the McGovern campaign alumni who shaped what's legitimate and doable in Democratic Party politics since that time. They have been convinced that there is a fixed center in American political life, that this is a centrist nation and that successful politics can only occur close to that center.

This group badly misread a series of elections after McGovern. They thought Carter had been thoroughly rejected by the American public and forgot that Carter was actually rejected because of the Iranian hostage crisis, -- and lost only marginally. They thought that Ronald Reagan and the market economy defeated the Soviet Union, and so sacrilized the idea of a hawkish conservative electorate. But in fact it was the mobilized resources of the state -- large-scale public spending on the war and espionage machine that triumphed.

They also misread the Clinton victory; seeing the election of a centrist demo-republican seemed to confirm their story. In fact, Clinton won marginally in a three-way race. Throughout, as Miroff shows, the McGovern campaign alumni spawned and reinforced the demo-republicanism of the Democratic party. They saw, following their 1972 defeat, the upward swing of Republicans, the new role of big funders in the political game, and set about looking like the enemy. Miroff reports that Robert Strauss turned down the offer of McGovern's grass roots fundraising directory; the new party was looking in a different direction for its finances -- and its accountability.

Becoming the party of new professionals and new entrepreneurs, Democrats were now defined by social progressivism and economic restraint. Miroff argues this is exactly what the Republicans want them to be and why so much effort went into defeating Clinton's health care initiative; if the Democrats delivered big time to working people, they might win. Unfortunately, that was only a Republican strategic understanding.

The fact is, McGovern campaign alumni have lost any idea what really is possible in America. They keep using polls to predict and limit the future, forgetting that polls only really tell you about what is immediate. They're useful in tactical election campaigns. They're nearly useless in building a future.

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The Liberals' Moment
by Bruce Miroff

Despite the landslide defeat, the McGovern campaign bequeathed to the Democrats a talented, youthful cadre of strategists, organizers, and wordsmiths who as they aged would largely shape the evolution of the party over the following decades. [...]

The McGovern insurgency was an initiation in presidential campaigning not only for later Democratic leaders like Gary Hart and Bill Clinton but also for future Democratic strategists like Bob Shrum and John Podesta. It marked the coming of age for a new breed of Democratic activists, beneficiaries of the postwar explosion in higher education and alumni of the great causes of the 1960s, civil rights and the antiwar struggle. The 1972 campaign was the last time Democratic activists could wear their hearts on their sleeves all the way up to Election Day; the hopes they entertained, and the devastating disappointment they found in the end, were formative experiences whose reverberations are still felt in the politics of the Democratic Party. [...]

Vulnerable in electoral contests on matters of patriotism, strength in defending the nation, connection to working-class constituencies, and identification with unsettling cultural change, liberal Democrats have been branded as surefire losers by their centrist adversaries in the party. Leaders of the Democratic Leadership Council thus continue, almost as often as Republicans, to bring up the McGovern campaign as a warning of the electoral debacle facing the Democratic Party if it lets liberals back into its command. Yet centrists should not be too quick to read the story of the McGovern campaign as a validation of their philosophy and strategy. The centrist record since 1972 is only marginally more impressive than that of the liberals. Counting Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton as centrists, that wing of the party has only elected a presidential candidate under highly favorable circumstances -- against weak opponents and when the economy and international events were strongly in its favor. Moreover, the Democratic Party as a whole can hardly be said to have thrived during the administrations of these centrist presidents. The McGovern campaign, derided for its failures, provides in its successes some clues to the continuing electoral (and governing) weakness of Democratic centrists -- to vulnerabilities that centrists have evaded just as liberals have evaded their own.

One of the electoral vulnerabilities of centrist Democrats is that they engender a conviction gap with the Republicans. Intellectuals associated with the DLC have produced thoughtful manifestos staking out a centrist philosophy for American politics. Yet integral to the centrist approach has been a concern for the "inoculation" of their Democratic candidates on precisely those issues or themes upon which liberals, starting with McGovern, have been vulnerable. Shaping campaign positions out of a concern for "inoculation" invariably places centrist Democrats in a defensive crouch; centrists explain themselves by what they are not and out of a fear of what Republicans will say they are. To make matters worse, defensiveness often bleeds over into pure expedience. The DLC's greatest success story, Bill Clinton, heralded a centrist Third Way, but when, under the guidance of an ideological cross-dresser like Dick Morris, he practiced "triangulation" in the White House, the Third Way between liberalism and conservatism looked like nothing so much as opportunism.

Defensiveness and opportunism only exacerbate the identity crisis of the Democratic Party. In 2004 some voters who did not agree with President Bush or his policies nonetheless appeared to prefer his firm air of conviction to a Democratic challenger who seemed to have few convictions at all. Citing survey evidence, John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira write, "Despite difficult times for the GOP in early 2006, Republicans continue to hold double-digit advantages over Democrats on the key attribute of 'know what they stand for' and fewer than four in ten voters believe the Democratic Party has 'a clear set of policies for the country.'" McGovern and his liberal heirs have had convictions whose electoral vulnerabilities at least might be faced and partially fixed; the historical record does not suggest that the centrist wing of the party can say the same.

The conviction gap between the centrists ascendant in the Democratic Party and the conservatives who dominate the Republican Party leads to a passion gap in presidential campaigns. Following the centrists' strategy, with its defensive crouch and constrained aspirations, Democratic presidential nominees such as Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry generate scant enthusiasm for their candidacies. Dispirited activists come to feel that their party has no fundamental purpose or message save opposition to the right wing. Democratic partisans may loathe the ideology of conservative Republicans, but some envy how their Republican counterparts at least have leaders in which to believe.

That McGovern still hears from numerous admirers that he was the last Democratic presidential nominee who touched their hearts is a solace for him but a sad comment on his party. The most successful feature of the McGovern campaign -- and the one most relevant to the revival of the Democratic Party -- was its grassroots army. It is doubtful that the centrist strategy can generate the passions that inspire that kind of army. Leaders of centrist organizations, from the Coalition for a Democratic Majority to the Democratic Leadership Council and the New Democrat Network, have insisted that they, and not the disproportionately liberal activists of the party, speak for rank-and-file Democrats. The claim is less impressive than it sounds, since activists in both parties have, for as long as political scientists have been studying the matter, been more ideological than the mass of generally moderate party followers. It is also a claim that centrist organizations have not wanted to test, since they have remained small, elite organizations that do not even try to organize a mass following.

Perhaps the ultimate vulnerability for the centrist strategy of muffling the party's liberal values is that it fails the pragmatic test: it seldom works. The fate of Dukakis in 1988 has been paradigmatic for Democratic presidential candidates, with Clinton only a partial exception to the pattern. The centrist approach has been to seek the middle and deny all associations with the name and perspective of liberalism. But Republican attack artists have blasted through the centrist equivocations and pinned the liberal moniker on every Democratic presidential candidate, be they liberal or centrist. Democratic candidates, regularly put in the position of denying their party's most deeply held values, only deepen the impression that they are inauthentic as they awkwardly struggle to define what it is, other than liberalism, that they do in fact represent.

Twin evasions -- by liberals shying away from a reckoning with their electoral vulnerabilities, by centrists glossing over the dispiriting effect of their defensive crouch -- have left the Democrats wandering in a persistent identity crisis, even as their opponents grow increasingly divided and muddled themselves. Yet another round of Democratic soul-searching has been sparked by defeat in 2004 at the hands of a president whom Democrats despise more than any Republican since Nixon. Sophisticated and shrewd analyses since 2004 have laid bare the party's confused identity and generated some intriguing suggestions. Yet the analyses have, for the most part, fallen short in understanding the party's evolution since the 1960s and the paradox at the core of the identity crisis that it has produced.

Democrats are not likely to find guidance from the suggestion that they update the fighting faith of the original Cold War liberals from the Truman era for an age of international terrorism. Regardless of its subtlety and moral modesty in theory, Cold War liberalism became militant interventionism in practice. It was discredited for most Democrats by its disastrous implementation in Vietnam. It has been the neoconservatives, the unreconstructed Cold War liberals and their heirs, who, in the Iraq debacle, have made this approach to the world twice cursed.

More promising is the recommendation that Democrats hark back to FDR and New Deal liberalism and establish their lost identity as the party of the common good. For a party that has developed a reputation as a wrangling collection of self-regarding interest groups, indifferent to the concerns of the majority of ordinary Americans, a politics of the common good points toward ideological terrain upon which Democrats might reconnect with the constituencies that they have alienated. Yet the history underpinning this proposal is a bit skewed: a philosophy of the common good was present in the New Deal, but so was the interest-group liberalism that brought organized labor and senior citizens into the Democratic coalition. More important, the idea of a common good is probably too abstract and indistinct to serve as an identity for the Democratic Party. It is an idea that can be stretched to encompass almost any policy position and can be evoked by either party.

This is not the place -- and I am not the person -- to come up with a full-blown alternative that might help Democrats resolve their identity crisis. Yet the story of the McGovern campaign and its aftermath does hold some clues to a possible resolution. The McGovern campaign was a moment when Democrats had conviction and passion. It was also a moment when they went down to an overwhelming defeat. Examining the campaign with an eye to how to recapture the first without bringing on the second can serve as a therapeutic exercise for troubled Democrats.

Revisiting the McGovern campaign, we might learn that parties have strong messages not because they have labels or brands but because they articulate core convictions. It has not been the label of conservative that has been central to Republican electoral successes since 1980 but the core convictions that it expresses: small government, traditional values, a strong military. Democrats will not get far in addressing their own identity crisis if they fixate on a more appealing label for the party. Rather, they need to articulate and elaborate core convictions that can be counterpoised to those of the Republicans: economic justice, social equality, a more multilateral and multifaceted strategy for national security.

Centrists can readily object that these are precisely the values that have made liberals so vulnerable in national elections. Yet they are the animating values of most Democrats, and it is ultimately fruitless to hide them. Instead, Democrats, especially on the party's liberal wing, need to be working not to parade these values in defiance of the concerns of constituencies that have turned away from the party, but to reshape and refine them to take into account the beliefs and the interests of those constituencies. In this enterprise, unfortunately, George McGovern will not be a model: McGovern movingly articulated liberal convictions, but he did so in a fashion that pushed away many traditional Democrats. The best exemplar for this ideological feat remains the man who gave the Democratic Party its liberal identity in the first place: Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR understood, better than any of his Democratic successors, how to blend the liberal vision of political transformation into the American political tradition, and how to make a new liberalism into the necessary next step in the progress of the ancestral American faith.

The question of what to call the Democrats' core convictions -- progressive, liberal, or something else -- is not the critical question. But it will inevitably come up, because Republicans can be counted on to label these convictions as liberalism, with all of the negative associations that they have attached to the word. When Democratic presidential candidates are assailed as liberal, they only heighten the confusion by further equivocating about what they are. They will be better served by acknowledging the label and giving an account of what it means in their own terms. They will come across as more authentic, as McGovern has recently argued, if they react with pride in the liberal tradition, with its heroes and its grand accomplishments, from social security to civil rights. The mounting failures of conservatism under George W. Bush suggest that its era of ascendancy might be coming to an end and that Americans might become open once again to its traditional alternative if it is convincingly defended.

An essential step in resolving the identity crisis of the Democratic Party is to recover what Democrats believe, their core -- and liberal -- convictions, and to refuse to conceal them any longer. Equally essential is the honesty to work through the traumas of liberal defeat, particularly 1972, and to learn from liberal failings. Battling against centrist Democrats and their circumspect strategies, liberal Democrats have had the luxury to revel in their ideological fortitude while neglecting its drawbacks. Ironically, a Democratic Party liberal wing that witnessed presidential candidates who stood by its core convictions might become less rigid and uncompromising about their applications. The twenty-year-old debate between liberals and centrists in the Democratic Party, now grown sterile and tiresome, might be superseded by a more fruitful discourse in which liberals and centrists unite around core convictions and struggle over the most pragmatic ways to get them across to the electorate.

I have suggested that the identity crisis of the Democratic Party has its origins in the McGovern insurgency of 1972, and that working through this critical piece of its history is part of the therapeutic process through which Democrats can regain their confidence that they know who they are. It is remarkable how fully the issues that troubled Democrats in 1972 remain vexing three and one-half decades later. Nonetheless, the brevity of the liberals' moment under McGovern does not presage inevitable frustration for liberalism in our own time. Several features of contemporary American politics suggest that the setting for a liberal presidential candidacy is more favorable than it was when McGovern ran. The Democratic Party is not as bitterly divided as it was in 1972, especially because so many of the intractable conservatives who fought McGovern to the end have shifted to the Republican side. The party's progressive groups, such as the feminists, are generally less militant and more pragmatic than they were in 1972, when they still had far to travel to reach their objectives. Even the Republicans' advantage in the area of national security -- Nixon's hole card against McGovern -- is not what it used to be after Bush's Iraq disaster.

Parties and ideologies do not dominate forever in American politics. New Deal liberalism remade American politics, but it eventually came apart amid racial conflict, a failed war in Vietnam, and an economic crisis. The Reagan alternative has had a powerful run for a generation, but its own contradictions have increasingly come to the fore in this decade. As the election results of 2006 indicate, American politics is opening once again to the Democrats. But they will muff their opportunity unless they figure out what they stand for. It will not be George McGovern's unreconstructed liberalism. It may well be a liberalism that speaks in his deeply American voice of honesty and humane values, even as it reaches out to meet the concerns of those Americans who rejected what they thought he was saying about their country.

The Liberals' Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party, by Bruce Miroff, copyright (c) 2007 by the University Press of Kansas. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

You can purchase the book from the publisher here and from Amazon here.

Bruce Miroff is a professor of political science at State University of New York at Albany. He is the author of Icons of Democracy: American Leaders as Heroes, Aristocrats, Dissenters, and Democrats and most recently of The Liberals' Moment: the McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party.

 
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