Early Sunday morning George McGovern, the former Democratic senator from South Dakota, best remembered for his principled stance against the Vietnam War and resounding electoral defeat against Richard Nixon in the presidential election of 1972, died at the age of 90.
The Democratic Party and, more importantly, American liberalism has lost one of its greatest champions with his passing and it remains unclear who will carry its torch in his stead.
Despite the best efforts of conservatives to label President Obama an anti-business class warrior intent on wealth redistribution, the facts of his first four years in office paint a far different picture.
After the failure of the Bush presidency and the collapse of our financial markets due to deregulation and over-leveraging, Barack Obama and congressional Democrats swept into office in 2008 with a mandate of change and hope for the future.
Liberals and progressives alike saw the historical circumstances at the time as the second coming of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal — another chance to make good the Great Society they had promised for posterity.
In the face of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the politics of the past seemed intent on making themselves prologue.
Yet after assuming office, President Obama never pursued a policy agenda containing the sweeping programs that characterized the experimental nature of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The federal government, under Obama’s stewardship, never broke up the big banks, adequately regulated Wall Street or prosecuted its wrongdoers during or immediately after the financial crisis.
Indeed, whether on tax, immigration or foreign policy, the Obama administration has either perpetuated the policies of its predecessor or failed to act entirely.
President Obama did not allow the Bush tax cuts to expire, attempt comprehensive immigration reform, shutter the prison at Guantanamo Bay or end the use of drone warfare.
During the second presidential debate President Obama portrayed himself as the politician he has acted as and in fact always been; namely, a centrist Democrat, not a liberal lion. Responding to an audience member’s question about energy and gas prices he said, “We’re actually drilling more on public lands than in the previous administration” in order to “have efficiency energy, because ultimately that’s how we’re going to reduce demand and that’s what’s going to keep gas prices lower.”
A perfectly fine answer, if one is intent on pandering to the coal and natural gas corporations while maintaining support from car companies and commuters. However, if one is concerned with the alarming rise in global temperatures, increasing frequency of natural disasters and the despoliation of our planet, this answer should give one pause.
In climate change, we face an existential threat to our species. Yet President Obama refuses to so much as mention its name, let alone the fact that higher gas prices would help mitigate it by forcing people to reduce their energy consumption.
The word liberal has become, as a result of conservative efforts, a label of shame in today’s American politics. Since the 1972 election, conservatives have tried to defame their opposition, and they now seek to finish what their predecessors failed to, due to the efforts of liberals like George McGovern. Only with the end of progressive taxation, the shredding of the social safety net and the repeal of environmental regulations will conservatives be content.
The history of America should give liberals plenty of which to be proud. Liberals ended slavery. Liberals won the vote for African Americans and women and expanded it for the young. Liberals enacted Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Liberals passed laws strengthening civil rights, environmental protection and public education and they are now in the process of legalizing marriage equality.
Conservatives opposed all of these measures. Every single one of them.
Some may protest this long list of accomplishments as being bipartisan, a claim that is no doubt true. Democrats and Republicans came together to make them a reality — liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans. It is now all but impossible to find any liberals left in the GOP and even more difficult for any Democrat to admit he is liberal.
As we say goodbye to the last of the liberal establishment loyalists, it would be wise for today’s liberals to remember the efforts of George McGovern. In 1972, as the de facto head of the Democratic Party, he proposed a platform that remains arguably the most liberal in the nation’s history for any major political party.
In it, he endorsed the “immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, amnesty for war resisters, the abolition of the draft, a guaranteed job for all Americans and a guaranteed family income well above the poverty line.”
In hindsight, the promise of these policies and ones like them championed by liberals today would enrich our politics, and our country is all the poorer for Democrats not embracing them.