Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
They Said It:
All your culture, you say, is based ultimately upon this—a discrimination between right and wrong. True, profoundly true. But will you be able to say what is right and what is wrong any longer, if you don’t know for whom anything is right and for whom anything is wrong — whether it is for men with immortal souls, or only with mortal bodies — who are only a little lower than the angels, or only a little better than the pigs? Whilst you can still contrive to doubt upon this matter, whilst the fabric of the old faith is still dissolving only, life still for you, the enlightened few, may preserve what happiness it has now. But when the old fabric is all dissolved, what then? When all divinity shall have gone from love and heroism, and only utility and pleasure shall be left, what then? Then you will have to content yourselves with complete denial; or build up again the faith that you have just pulled down — you will have to be born again, and to seek for a new Self.
W.H. Mallock, The New Republic: Or, Culture, Faith and Philosophy in an English Country House, 1877.
THE LESSONS OF McGOVERN.
Conventional wisdom has it that George McGovern lost the 1972 presidential race to Richard Nixon in historical fashion because he was too far out on the cultural Left. The quiet Midwestern Senator bought into the peace movement, bought into the sexual revolution, and allied himself with the 1960s radicals. Then-Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, a Republican from Pennsylvania called McGovern “the candidate of the three A’s: acid, amnesty, and abortion.” The label stuck. Normal people – that is to say the “squares” – were offended by McGovern’s embrace of the peace movement, of the damn dirty hippies, and of radical chic more generally. Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, insider political reporters extraordinaire, called McGovern the “Goldwater of the Left,” a man who was too radical for the times and therefore unable to muster even the mildest enthusiasm among voters. Or so the story goes.
Without a doubt, the dominant issue of the campaign that year was the war in Vietnam. McGovern campaigned as the man who would bring the troops home, and then, once they were back, would slash the military budget. In so doing, he allied himself with the most radical of the radicals, the young, virulently Leftist anti-war activists who sang the praises of Ho Chi Minh and insisted that the United States was the evil aggressor, the violent colonial power seeking to crush an indigenous freedom movement. No less a radical than Tom Hayden – the founding father of the extremist Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Hanoi Jane Fonda’s second husband – detailed but, in typically Tom Hayden fashion, rejected this reading of history in a piece written to mark McGovern’s death in 2012:
Why did McGovern lose so overwhelmingly, plunging us into the disastrous Nixon presidency? There are those who drew the misleading lesson that the “McGovern Democrats” were too far to the left, too “soft on defense” to ever win the presidency. That lesson took root in Democratic politics and has lasted to this day. McGovern’s own campaign manager, Gary Hart, swiftly developed a “smart on defense” strategy to immunize himself during his later presidential run. The Clintons were scarred by the experience as well, distancing themselves from the man who had pulled Bill Clinton into his first presidential campaign. Even today, President Obama positions himself as a hawkish centrist far removed from the ghost of George McGovern. To this day, the Democrats have never recognized a peace caucus in the way they have accommodated every other issue-based interest group important to the party’s success. The result is a dangerous imbalance in the mainstream political spectrum of forces, marginalizing the voices of peace within the system and disenfranchising the peace movement as an outcast grouping.
On the one hand, it is unwise, we think, to pay too much attention to Tom Hayden and what he had to say about Vietnam, Nixon, and the importance of the peace movement. Indeed, much of the rest of this article involves Hayden patting himself on the back. In his telling, he and Jane, ended the war, riled up Congressional disapproval of Nixon’s war policies, and, most notably scared Nixon so much that he felt he had to order the break-in at the Watergate Hotel and the subsequent cover-up. Or to put it more bluntly: Tom Hayden never had a terribly strong relationship with reality.
On the other hand, Hayden is undoubtedly right that the Democratic Party and the political system more broadly have made far too much of McGovern’s supposed cultural radicalism. George McGovern wasn’t a hippie. He was a Methodist. He wasn’t a peacenik. He was a decorated air force pilot who flew dangerous bombing missions over Nazi occupied territory. He wasn’t a sexual revolutionary. He was the son of a preacher who married his wife Eleanor while he was still in college and stayed married to her for until she died, some 64 years later. George McGovern was as white-bread as any candidate in American history.
Moreover, his views on Vietnam weren’t all that radical, in retrospect. And nor were his views on the military budget. He was, in many ways, well within the mainstream of American politics on many of the issues, even those thought to be most determinative in his defeat. Writing in the New York Times, the journalist Timothy Noah put it this way:
[I]t’s doubtful President McGovern could have halted the war more precipitously than Nixon, who yanked the last combat soldiers from Vietnam a mere four months after his re-election. As for the three A’s, McGovern did not favor legalizing marijuana, let alone acid (though he proposed, sensibly, that possession of small amounts of marijuana be treated as a misdemeanor). Abortion was not, McGovern said, a matter for the federal government to address, but rather best left to the states. (This was less than a year before the Supreme Court would make abortion legal everywhere in the United States.)
McGovern did promote amnesty for Vietnam draft resisters, but [Political Science Professor and author Bruce] Miroff points out that Nixon himself “had spoken favorably about amnesty as late as the winter of 1972, and magnanimous amnesties after wars were in fact the American tradition.” . . .
Now, you may be asking yourself why any of this matters, why you should care about George McGovern and a presidential election that took place forty-five years ago. The answer is this: we have a different theory about McGovern’s defeat, one that may well prove relevant even today. We think that’s it’s possible that history is repeating itself, not perfectly, but at least enough to shake up the political world over the next couple of years.
We’re not the only people with alternative theories, of course. Hayden and Noah – and Miroff, the professor whose book Noah was reviewing – have alternative theories as well. Hayden, for example, writes that “McGovern made a disastrous mistake in choosing Senator Tom Eagleton as his running mate without knowing of his long treatment for mental illness. I remember sitting on a Venice living room floor with Jane when we heard the news, and immediately feeling the deflation of all our buoyancy, the sense that McGovern was doomed.” Noah also thinks that Eagleton played a role, likely the decisive role in McGovern’s landslide defeat:
Probably most damaging of all was McGovern’s jettisoning of Eagleton for vice president, a decision unrelated to Eagleton’s earlier slur (about which McGovern remained unaware). McGovern had failed to discover before choosing Eagleton that he’d been hospitalized multiple times for mental illness severe enough to occasion electric-shock therapy. This oversight made McGovern look incompetent, and his decision to remove Eagleton from the ticket, though inevitable, called McGovern’s greatest asset — his moral decency — into question.
This is silly. The margin of McGovern’s loss may have been embellished somewhat by the Eagleton business, but that was hardly the definitive factor in his defeat. Noah has an agenda here, as does Tom Hayden – as do countless others, including Miroff, who have tried to rehabilitate McGovernism for a new generation. They are economic leftists. They believe that income inequality is the defining characteristic of post-war America, and they believe that only economic statism can fix the problem and create a more equitable society.
Or to put it another way, they want to revise the “lessons of history” regarding George McGovern. They want to convince the American people – or at least the Democratic American people – that McGovern did not lose because he moved too far Left, and therefore there is no reason whatsoever to run from real, earnest leftists. According to the revisionists, “centrists” like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton embraced the military-industrial complex and, worse still, offered supply-side, free-trade, and deregulatory solutions to most of the nation’s problems. And they did so not necessarily because they believed in such policies, but because they thought the American public did. They bought into the idea that McGovern was trounced because of his leftism, and in so doing, they have been little better in office than the Republicans they defeated.
For our part, we have a little bit different take on the whole political milieu of the late 1960s and early 1970s and therefore have a different take on McGovern’s campaign and his eventual defeat. In our version of the story, McGovern was an honorable liberal, which is to say that he was truly and deeply concerned about fiscal matters and just as truly and deeply concerned about changing the subject away from cultural leftism and back to economic leftism. In order to make clear why we believe this to be the case, we’ll have to take a trip in our time machine, so just bear with us a moment.
As we have noted before in these pages, the contemporary Left is an intellectual mess. It purports to draw its intellectual power from the likes of John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and Karl Marx himself. And yet the Left is no more Marxist, nor Millian, nor truly Rawlsian than it is evangelical Christian. It is, rather, post-modern. And it is post-modern because it has to be something; it has had to rationalize the failure of the socialist eschaton to immanentize, the failure of leftism to produce a happy, equitable utopia. Post-modernism is many things, but it is, first and foremost, an intellectual rationalization for the failures of Marxism. The contemporary Left is, in many ways, a mere philosophical construct created for the express purpose of explaining away the failure of reality to conform to its erstwhile economic ideals. Or as Stephen Hicks put it in his classic Explaining Post-Modernism:
In the past two centuries, many strategies have been pursued by socialists the world over. Socialists have tried waiting for the masses to achieve socialism from the bottom up, and they have tried imposing socialism from the top down. They have tried to achieve it by evolution and revolution. They have tried versions of socialism that emphasize industrialization, and they have tried those that are agrarian. They have waited for capitalism to collapse by itself, and when that did not happen they have tried to destroy capitalism by peaceful means. And when that did not work some tried to destroy it by terrorism.
But capitalism continues to do well and socialism has been a disaster. In modern times there have been over two centuries of socialist theory and practice, and the preponderance of logic and evidence has gone against socialism. There is accordingly a choice about what lesson to learn from history. If one is interested in truth, the one’s rational response to a failing theory is as follows:
– One breaks the theory down to its constituent premises.
– One questions its premises vigorously and checks the logic that integrates them.
– One seeks out alternatives to the most questionable premises.
– One accepts moral responsibility for any bad consequences of putting the false theory into practice.
This is not what we find in postmodern reflections on contemporary politics. [Instead] Truth and rationality are subjected to attack . . .
In the United States, perhaps the most important and yet least discussed figures in the post-war Left was Herbert Marcuse, a post-modernist from the Frankfurt School, who emigrated to America, became the father of the American “New Left,” and devised a plan whereby to resurrect and renew what he thought of as socialism.
Marcuse came to the United States in 1933, roughly ten years after the Frankfurt School (the Institute for Social Research, affiliated with Goethe University in Frankfurt) was founded by Marxist law professor Carl Grunberg and just after Hitler and his National Socialists had taken power. Given the Institute’s explicitly Marxist outlook, the Nazis shut it down, which, in turn, forced Marcuse and many of his colleagues, namely Max Horkheimer, to recreate the school in a more hospitable environment, namely Columbia University.
Over the course of the next two decades or so, the Frankfurt scholars honed their philosophy – i.e. “critical theory,” – eventually coming to the conclusion that their original goal of rescuing Marxism from the dustbin of history was pointless. Stalin had turned out to be a monster, and the men and women of the West seemed disinterested in following his monstrous path into totalitarianism. They needed a new plan. As Stephen Hicks put it:
So, Horkheimer concluded, the situation is hopeless for socialism. The employed are too comfortable, the unemployed are too scatterbrained, the social democrats are too wishy-washy, the communists are too obediently following authority, and the National Socialists are undiscussable. As way out of the morass, the Frankfurt School’s members began to explore the idea of adding a more sophisticated social psychology to Marxism’s economic and historical logic.
As fate would have it, these intellectuals were every bit as disdainful of the common man as are their contemporary heirs. They too thought that the people were stupid and could be distracted and exploited by shiny baubles. As Hicks writes, they believed that “the intellectual capacity of the masses is much more limited, so appealing to and mobilizing the masses requires speaking to them about what matters to them and on a level that they can grasp.” And so this new and “more sophisticated social psychology” focused instead on the people’s “sexual, racial, ethnic, and religious identities,” something that the intellectuals were certain that even the most cretinous of men could grasp.
For our purposes today, we will focus largely on the sexual component of this social psychology. In 1955, Herbert Marcuse published his most influential work, Eros and Civilization, in which he made the argument that the Marxist class struggle was not as determinative a factor in human history as the struggle against repression, specifically repression of our true basic human biological needs and desires. Marcuse insisted that society was responsible not only for repressing basic instincts, but for manipulating and distorting the instincts in the first place. “The vicissitudes of the instincts are the vicissitudes of the mental apparatus in civilization,” he wrote, “The animal drive become human instincts under the influence of the external reality.” All of which is to say that society had imposed a fabricated erotic reality on human nature and that human eroticism, freed from society’s repression, could foster a better, more creative human reality.
In a very reals sense, then, Marcuse was the father of the Sexual Revolution, just as he was the father of the New Left. The two were irrevocably intertwined, of course, meaning that the assault on sexual “repression” and traditional notions of eroticism became very much an integral part of the New Left’s efforts to remake the Democratic Party and thereby to remake society.
The practical effects of all of this – of Marcuse’s sexual liberation and the Frankfurt intellectuals’ new social psychology – were both manifold and manifestly destructive. In the name of ending repression, the New Left pushed “free love,” which led, over time, to the end of traditional sexual mores and practices, which, in turn, enabled the destruction of the nuclear family, the rise of out-of-wedlock births, and the creation of the vicious circle of childhood poverty. And all of this, of course, was precisely as Marcuse et al. planned. In The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West, Michael Walsh, the music critic and screenwriter, provided a nice, tidy precis of the efforts and effects of Marcuse’s sexual revolution:
The assault on the citadels of Western culture had many fronts, but foremost among them was sex — the most powerful engine in human existence, the one that brings us closest to the Godhead, a force of such overwhelming power that it can change the courses of our lives, bringing death or transcendence in its wake. Children are its primary issue, but also transformative insight, bravery, courage, altruism, self-sacrifice; great works of art are born from the union, lives sacrificed and won, everything ventured, worlds gained . . . it started with the idea of the nuclear family.
The first step was to mock it (in the 1960s and ’70s, the idealized “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver” worlds of the pre-hippie era came in for particular scorn), then to accuse it of various crimes against humanity (particularly the newfound charge of “patriarchy”), then to illustrate that there were “really” other sorts of families, just as good, just as loving, just as valid as the traditional two-parent, opposite-sex nest. Finally, the nuclear family was simply dispensed with altogether, as behavior considered acceptable in the underclass, where sexual license had always just barely been suppressed, percolated into the higher culture. The morals of those with nothing to lose and everything to gain from a dysfunctional social-welfare system bubbled upward from the black and white underclasses into the middle classes, who had been induced to feel guilty on behalf of the “underprivileged.” And those considered “marginal” or “disadvantaged” no longer bore any responsibility for their destructive personal choices and behavior. It is no accident that the new social acceptance of out-of-wedlock pregnancies coincided with the rise of both bastardy and the abortion culture, the growing demand for contraception, and, later on, gay rights. Once Pandora’s Box was opened, all sort of things flew out, some of them at first seemingly contradictory, but all related by the very fact of their confinement in the box. The box had stayed closed for a reason, but under pressure from Critical Theory, it had to be opened. . . .
By 1972, much of the societal damage wrought by the sexual revolution was already clear and undeniable. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s seminal report on the destruction of the black family – caused by sexual liberation and reinforced and exacerbated by traditional welfare – was published seven years earlier. The collapse of traditional sexual taboos had created a societal desire for easy birth control and, in emergencies, for “safe” and legal means to terminate the “unwanted” products of those unions effected in the absence of said birth control. All of this split the country and split the parties – again, precisely as Marcuse et al. had hoped.
Like countless Marxists before and after them, the Frankfurt intellectuals witnessed the incompatibility of their theories with reality and chose to not to change their theories but to change reality instead. They started and waged the culture wars precisely to distract from, account for, and rectify the failures of the great socialist experiment. Witnessing economic Marxism’s uselessness, they turned to cultural Marxism, the effects of which were destructive and divisive.
Into this storm, George McGovern strode. He was no culture warrior. He was no sexual liberator, no champion of what Marcuse called “polymorphous perversity.” Moreover, even his opposition to the Vietnam War preceded the New Left’s “peace movement” by several years and was based not on the delusional notion that “love is all you need,” but on the hard-headed practical notion that Vietnam was the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The conventional wisdom is wrong. McGovern was a cultural moderate.
What he was, though, was an economic radical – an old-time prairie populist with new and grand ambitions fostered by the rise of the administrative and welfare states. In 2008, conservatives liked to talk about how Barack Obama was “the most liberal major party candidate ever.” If this was true, it reflected cultural liberalism, not the economic variety. For pure economic liberalism, no one save Roosevelt can match McGovern. His economic plans targeted the rich, corporations, and other purported founts of income inequality. He railed against Democratic moderates, insisting that they were part of the problem. “It is the establishment center,” he wrote in the New York Times, “that has erected an unjust tax burden on the backs of American workers, while 40 percent of the corporations paid no federal income tax at all last year.”
McGovern’s foes in the Democratic primary all portrayed him as a leftist dreamer, an extremist who would lead the nation down a dangerous and destructive path. Hubert Humphrey – the party’s 1968 nominee – declared that his primary strategy would be “to show that McGovern is a radical, just like Goldwater was in 1964.” They mocked his eminently mockable “Demogrant” plan as both unrealistic and devastating to the middle class. In short, they made the case that he was a true economic Marxist in moderate’s clothing, and thereby made Nixon’s job all the easier.
And here’s the thing: they were right. McGovern saw the devastation created by cultural leftism and chose to minimize its effects on his campaign as much as he could – even to the point of choosing a conservative, Pro-Life Catholic as his running mate. He didn’t shun the cultural Left exactly, but he did try to re-elevate the economic Left above it, to reinstate the Democratic Party’s economic welfare credentials. And in our opinion, this, not the war or the cultural nonsense, is what doomed him, what caused even his own partisans to abandon him and vote for Nixon, a crass ideological shapeshifter whom most people loathed, but nonetheless voted to reelect.
We suppose by now that you see where we’re going with this. Last week, we noted briefly that the midterm prospect for the Republican Congress look pretty dismal. It is possible, if not likely, that one or both houses of Congress will change hands next year. But that’s not to say that President Trump is doomed. The ongoing battle in the Democratic Party and among its media allies suggests that the Left may well self-destruct again. It may well allow its desire for true economic leftism to cloud its judgment and allow it to nominate another left-wing populist who will lose an eminently winnable election.
If you have read any of the New York Times’ recent and rather strange encomia to the Soviet Union; if you have seen how enthusiastic the supporters of Bernie Sanders remain, more than a year after the Democratic Party conspired to deny him its presidential nomination; if you have heard the gushing praise for Senator Elizabeth Warren and her populist message; if you know just how close the Democrats are to making universal, single-payer healthcare a permanent part of their party’s presidential platform – then you know that the economic Left in this country is once again resurgent. After literally decades of culture war, waged on behalf of every identity group imaginable, some on the Left sense some problems. They understand that exhaustion with the culture wars helped elect Trump in the first place, and they are desperate not to let that happen again.
Ironically, they don’t understand that merely piling layers of new economic leftism upon the old layers of cultural leftism will not attract more voters. It will, in fact, repulse voters further, making the odds of an eight-year Trump presidency far more likely. If he were still alive, they could ask George McGovern how well this formula works. Or – as is more likely – they can continue to convince themselves that there was nothing wrong with McGovern’s campaign that a better running mate wouldn’t have fixed.
Now, we know that the analogy here is not exact. No presidential candidate – much less Donald Trump – is ever going to win 49 states and go to bed early on election night. The nation is far too divided for that ever to happen again. Additionally, the American people have grown far more conditioned to the predation of the administrative and welfare states, meaning that they are less likely to see economic radicalism for what it is.
All of that notwithstanding the potential parallels between 1972 and 2020 should give Democrats pause. They could screw up a reasonable chance to recapture the presidency and control of all the levers of power in Washington. Indeed, based on the current attitudes and historical ignorance, they WILL screw it up.
Trump 2020? We can’t and won’t say for sure, but it looks more and more like a strong bet to us.
Copyright 2017. The Political Forum. 3350 Longview Ct., Lincoln NE 68506, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.