U.S. Intellectual History Blog

McGovern and American History

This will be a particularly dashed-off post, as I am leaving town tomorrow and simultaneously packing and finishing my USIH Conference Paper.  But I wanted to say a quick word about George McGovern, whose passing yesterday has already been marked (more movingly and coherently than in this post, I fear) on this blog by Ray Haberski yesterday.

In reading many obituaries for and memories of George McGovern, two things have stood out for me. 

First, for a Senator from a small state, who ran for President but lost in a landslide, McGovern is unusually interesting and significant.  Beyond his 1972 Presidential campaign, McGovern is almost certainly most famous for leading the Senate opposition to the Vietnam War (and justly so). But he should also be remembered as one of the prime movers in the effort to reform the Democratic Party in the wake of the 1968 convention that so dramatically tore it apart.  McGovern was the first chair of the Democratic Party’s Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection (more usually known as the McGovern-Fraser Commission, after its first two chairs), which essentially created the primary-driven, modern presidential nomination process that we know today.  In doing so, McGovern essentially made possible his own nomination in ’72. But he also created the structural conditions for the modern, Democratic coalition.  And McGovern was a crucial figure in the creation of the so-called “New Politics,” which began, in a sense, with Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and eventually achieved presidential electoral success, albeit in much less liberal form, with the assent of Jimmy Carter.  Despite the fact that his party seems to have spent four decades trying to pretend his presidential candidacy never happened, the McGovern campaign launched the political careers of many significant party leaders of the future, including both Gary Hart and Bill Clinton.

And yet, the second thing that I’ve noticed, reflected in many of the remembrances, is how little McGovern is incorporated into our standard narratives about America’s last half century.  Corey Robin has blogged about how short and pro-forma President Obama’s official statement regarding McGovern’s passing was.  When I linked to Robin’s piece on Facebook, a friend pointed out that, in the midst of a Presidential election, Obama dare not say anything too nice about McGovern.  Unfortunately, my friend may be right.  To the extent that McGovern has been remembered at all in our political life, it’s as a politically disreputable failure. For years “McGovernite” was a pejorative term, used not only by conservative critics of the Democratic Party, but by Democrats engaged in periodic circular firing squads.  In recent years, I think it’s usage has declined; to a certain extent, it’s been replaced (at least in its intra-“left” uses) by “Naderite.”  But just tonight, Chris Matthews was accusing Mitt Romney of “sounding like McGovern” during the third presidential debate for expressing a desire for world peace. 

In this regard, it’s worth contrasting McGovern’s legacy with that of Barry Goldwater, another candidate from his party’s “extreme” wing who got crushed in a landslide victory by an incumbent president of the other party.  Goldwater’s campaign is today remembered by Republicans as the vanguard of modern conservatism. Goldwater is seen as having helped paved the way for conservative success, first within the GOP and then in the country at large.  Even Democrats came to see Goldwater as representing an older, somehow better, conservatism. When Goldwater died in 1998, President Clinton ordered that all flags on federal property fly at half mast on the day of his funeral. 

I hope that George McGovern’s death will spur us to think more concretely about the differences McGovern made in American politics. He played a crucial, and complicated, role in the transformations that the Democratic Party went through between 1968 and 1992.  Though McGovern’s vision lost out to a much more centrist and militarist one, McGovern represents more than simply a path not taken.

One final thing to note about George McGovern. Though other presidents and presidential candidates have fancied themselves to be historians (with two presidents even serving as President of the AHA), George McGovern is the only major party presidential nominee to hold a PhD in American history.  Completed at Northwestern in 1953, McGovern’s dissertation concerned the 1913-14 Colorado mining strike.  Among the professors he worked closely with were Ray Allen Billington, Richard W. Leopold, and Arthur S. Link.  A couple weeks ago, I blogged about some of the roles that the study of history plays in our politics.  George McGovern was that rare professional historian who left the academy to pursue a political life.  History blogs, at least, should make a point of remembering this about him.

5 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Great post Ben. The only person I know of that still refers to him or herself as a McGovernite is Leo Ribuffo, but he qualifies it in typical Ribuffo fashion by calling himself a “William Jamesian, Niebuhrian, Cold War revisionist, social democratic, unreconstructed McGovernite.”

    For a great history of McGovern relative to the reforms of the Dmeocratic Party check out Bruce Miroff’s The Liberals’ Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party.

  2. I love Ribuffo’s characterization of himself. I use a few different thinkers and historical actors, but my list is similarly long.

    Ben: Thanks for preempting the question I as going to ask about McGovern’s dissertation. In one of the obituaries McGovern explicitly stated that it was his study of American history that turned him into a “liberal.” I wonder how often historians’ politics are changed by their own studies?

    I also appreciate your Goldwater parallel. In many ways we can measure the center, or the long arc of a party, by its “extreme” candidates and players. – TL

    • Here’s the obit and here’s the quote: ” ‘I think it was my study of history that convinced me that the Democratic Party was more on the side of the average American,’ he said.” – TL

  3. McGovern had great influence on American food and nutrition policies, both international (Food for Peace) and domestic (food stamps, etc.). Particularly notable was his across-the-aisle alliance with Robert Dole on some of these issues. The work of these prairie statesmen, whose constituents raised food, was vital because in those days the key committees were dominated by Southerners from cotton and tobacco states.

    I take it you’re allocating Wilson’s Ph.D. to political science? Not separate programs then I believe, or even separate fields really.

  4. Wilson’s degree was officially in History and Political Science at the Johns Hopkins University and his dissertation was on Congressional power. McGovern’s degree was in History with a dissertation on the Colorado coal strike on 1913-14.

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