The Establishment Center

Another battle over the soul of the Democratic Party, another war. This quote is from Sen. George McGovern’s 1977 autobiography Grassroots. He’s quoting from a speech he gave in Detroit on April 15, 1972, a little more than a month after he’d surprised everyone with a strong second-place showing in the New Hampshire primary; after George Wallace won the Florida primary with 42 percent of the vote; and after McGovern won a decisive primary in Wisconsin and picked up delegates in caususes in places as unlikely as Georgia and Mississippi (emphasis added).

It is the establishment center that has led us into the stupidest and cruelest war in all history … the establishment center has constructed a vast military colossus based on the paychecks of the American worker … It is the establishment center that tells us we can afford an ABM [for those of you unfamiliar with the term, that’s an anti-ballistic missile, the ’60s version of Reagan’s “Star Wars”] but we can’t afford good health care for the American people … It is the establishment center that says we can afford a $250 million [app. $1.15 billion in 2005, adjusted for inflation] guaranteed loan to Lockheed but we can’t afford a decent retirement income for our senior citizens. … It is the establishment center that says it’s okay to tell the American people one thing in public, while plotting a different thing in private. … The present center has drifted so far from our founding ideals that it bears little resemblance to the dependable values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I want America to come home from the alien world of power politics, militarism, deception, racism and special privilege… [p. 183]

That was nearly 35 years — nearly two generations — ago. Centrism has been the watchword of the Democratic party ever since the McGovern loss in 1972. Essentially, the party leadership “cut and run” from liberalism, despite the fact that McGovern and others (including Oregon Republican Senator Mark Hatfield) were proven by the results that Vietnam War was a mistake (McGovern had voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, Hatfield co-sponsored a 1970 resolution calling for an end to the war). Nixon’s vice president had to resign within a year of the election; his staff ended up in jail; his former attorney general and re-election campaign manager was convicted; and Nixon had to be pardoned by his hand-picked successor. But the lesson Democrats took from 1972 was that liberalism was dead.

Since then, The Democrats have elected only two Presidents. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Despite all of the good works Carter has undertaken since leaving the White House, in Grassroots (published during Carter’s first year in office) McGovern expressed this view about his 1976 presidential candidacy:

Indeed, much of what I knew about the former Georgia governor — which was little — disturbed me. I did not like his prolonged, almost bitter-end, endorsement of America’s role in Vietnam. I could not be comfortable weith any candidate who had supported the Vietnam madness as late as Carter had. … On a personal level, I recalled that he had been an active promoter of the “Anybody but McGovern” [playing off the ‘ABM’ theme] strategy in 1972. [p. 264]

Then, too, there is the role Carter played — at the urging of his National Security Advisor Zbiginiew Brzezinski — in bringing Islamic fundamentalism to Afghanistan in their successful attempt to draw the Soviet Union into a Vietnam-style guerrilla conflict that would weaken the USSR. Thanks, guys!

At best, the Carter and Clinton administrations represented holding actions in the country’s slide to the right. The economic and social damage done (under both Democratic and Republican administrations) during the Vietnam War and the twelve years of upper-class warfare waged by the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations — not to mention the extra-legal actions of events like Iran-contra — have never been wholly repaired in the Democratic interregnums. There’s always some degradation. It’s like a truck that pulls to the right being driven by a driver who keeps falling asleep. From time to time, he wakes up enough to straighten out his course but each lapse into unconsciousness puts the rig further and further into the ditch. At some point, the driver has to wake up and make a serious course correction or the truck goes over on its side.