Friday, August 29, 2008

The Forgotten Hero Of The Democratic Convention: George McGovern

Of course, Barack Obama was the hero of the Democratic convention. He re-defined American politics. He gave us a frame for the issues of our time that I truly believe will give us generations of progressive government. We can't count our victories yet, and we all have a lot work to do, but after hearing Senator Obama's speech last night, you're going to have a hard time convincing me that we can lose.

However, I'd also like to step back a moment and acknowledge a great American who in many ways made Senator Obama's triumph possible. He has been one of my heroes since I rang something like ten thousand doorbells for him thirty-six years ago: George McGovern.

Most people think of George McGovern only as the failed Presidential candidate of 1972, the ultimate liberal loser. He was so much more than that. Like Obama he was a powerful and courageous orator. He dared to stand up on the Senate floor and proclaim, "This chamber reeks of blood!" because of its support for the Vietnam War. He was a genuine war hero who flew numerous missions over Europe during World War II - but rarely mentioned the fact to further his political career. He ran an honest and honorable campaign, and the memories of my work in that campaign will always remain a constant source of hope and inspiration for me. And until this year, he was the only Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party who put forward an unabashedly progressive agenda - Obama's clarion call for radical progressive tax reform could have come straight out of the McGovern platform.

However, George McGovern's most lasting legacy was the work of the McGovern Commission, which completely revised the rules of the Democratic Party and brought about what may be one of the most sweeping, and certainly most under-appreciated, changes in the way American democracy works. That is George McGovern's contribution that made last night possible.

Much of the anger of the 1968 Democratic convention was process driven. Few remember, and many young people do not even know, that most of the delegates at the 1968 convention were not selected through primaries or caucuses. Most delegates were selected by the state committees of the Democratic Party, which were, for all intents and purposes, "smoke-filled rooms." What enraged liberal activists in 1968 was not merely the fact that the Democratic Party had rejected the antiwar movement, it was the fact that it had rejected democracy. In primary after primary (in the relatively few states that actually had binding primary elections), the voters chose the antiwar candidates, Kennedy and McCarthy. It seems astounding today, but Humphrey did not win a single primary. Yet, because of the backing he received from LBJ and other power brokers within the party, Humphrey was the inevitable nominee. That fact, even more than the substantive issues that were at stake, was what drove activists to the streets of Chicago.

In the wake of the disastrous 1968 convention and the defeat of the Democratic Party, George McGovern chaired a Commission to draft new rules for the procedures for the selection of delegates. Most party insiders would have favored cosmetic changes that left the fundamentals of the old system intact. That was not George McGovern's way. The McGovern Commission drafted new rules that required that every delegate be selected by means of some form of democratic electoral process, either a primary or a caucus. "Winner take all" primaries were abolished. The McGovern Commission rules required that the make-up of the convention that would choose the Presidential nominee of the Democratic Party represent the will of the voters, not the party bosses.

McGovern paid a steep price for these reforms. In 1972, McGovern himself was the first nominee selected through this newly-mandated democratic process. This did not sit well with some of the powers-that-be. A particularly loathsome organization called "Democrats for Nixon" came into being. It was not just McGovern's opposition to the Vietnam War and his espousal of a strong progressive agenda that turned the bosses against McGovern. It was the fact that they didn't select him and couldn't control him.

I believe that in time scholars of American political history will recognize the reforms of the McGovern Commission as one of the great milestones in the development of American democracy. It has taken the scope of our democracy to a whole new level. Combined with the growth of the internet that has created the potential for broad-based fund raising, first explored in the Dean campaign in 2004 and developed more dramatically through the Obama campaign this year, the process opens the door to change agents who want to upset the status quo and move the party in a different direction. In many ways, it is this process that has supplanted the need for third parties. If we don't like the direction in which the Democratic Party is headed, we have the power to change it.

Barack Obama stood on many shoulders when he accepted the Democratic Party's nomination last night. Among them were the strong shoulders of a prairie populist, George McGovern.

1 comment:

Ralph Hitchens said...

Better late than never (I come late to this blog). I studied the McGovern campaign in grad school in the late 70s, & concluded that the senator and his savvy campaign manager, Gary Hart, were counting on a strong 3rd party run by George Wallace to level the playing field with Nixon. When Wallace got shot and dropped out of the campaign, his voters moved into the Nixon camp, thus validating the now-acclaimed "Southern strategy." But a healthy Wallace _might_ have brought about a 40/40/20 electoral division. Might have. It was always an uphill battle, but it was not unwinnable.