The New McGovernites
The editor of "The New Republic" suggested the other day that "the new liberal political culture emerging on the Internet" looks a lot like the McGovernite revolution that descended on the Democratic Party in 1972. In a lecture at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Peter Beinart said the mostly young Internet activists are clearly taking over the party. If so, this would be the first ray of sunshine for conservatives and Republicans in almost a year. The McGovern movement severely damaged the party, pushing it toward four presidential defeats in five tries, until Bill Clinton won by dragging the party back to the center in 1992. If the Internet people had prevailed in 2004, Howard Dean would have won the nomination and then been buried in an enormous landslide, just like George McGovern.
Beinart wrote one of the most impressive magazine articles of 2004, a 6,000-word piece on the failure of liberalism to reshape itself in the wake of 9/11 and the rise of Islamofascism. He was highly critical of liberal "softs" who tolerate Michael Moore and MoveOn.org, the potent Internet-based group that has urged antiwar liberals to cooperate with the totalitarian left, specifically with International Answer, a front for the World Workers Party, which has defended Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and North Korean madman Kim Jong Il. Beinart called on liberals to cut themselves off from totalitarian movements and from people who imagine that the terrorist threat is minor or nonexistent, just as mainstream liberals in 1947 girded themselves for the Cold War by ejecting pro-Communist and soft-on-Communism types like the followers of Henry Wallace.
That article was blunt. The speech last week was more circumspect and polite--no harsh words for the soft-on-totalitarians types like the George Soros-financed activists at MoveOn. Still, Beinart fears that the new activists are "largely in the dark about what they believe" and will come to power without the ideas they need to govern.
Let's assume that Beinart is right and that the Deaniacs are today's McGovernites. This would be an excellent time to ponder what the McGovern reformers did to the party. The changes at the 1972 convention removed the power of the city bosses and party regulars to determine the nominee and, in theory at least, increased the number of Democrats involved in selecting nominees. In reality, though, the reformers, through rule changes and some stealth and manipulation, stacked the convention and radically changed the party. Affluent, well-educated liberals were in--a "new elite," as the Washington Post termed it. Party regulars, officeholders, and blue-collar Democrats were out. New York, a union state, had only three union members as delegates, though it had at least nine members of the gay liberation movement. No farmer was a member of the Iowa delegation. Only 30 of the 255 Democratic members of Congress were selected as delegates. A full 39 percent of delegates had attended graduate school. Over a third of the white delegates were classified as secularists, compared with 5 percent of the general population. The reformers installed rough quotas for blacks, women, Hispanics, and people ages 18 to 25. The total of female delegates tripled, to 43 percent, with heavy emphasis on supporters of abortion and the hard-edged feminism represented by Bella Abzug.
"A kick in the gut." Jack Newfield and Joe Flaherty, both pro-McGovern Village Voice reporters from working-class backgrounds, asked, Where are the quotas for Irish, Italians, and Poles? "The McGovernite movement," wrote Murray Rothbard, a prominent libertarian, "is, in its very nature, a kick in the gut to Middle America."
The regulars who picked candidates before the McGovern revolution always looked for a mainstream candidate who could win. McGovern's activists had to be mobilized and sustained by ideological appeals that put the movement and the candidate decidedly left of the electorate. So McGovern couldn't have won.
The McGovern reform commission and the people who changed the party in 1972 wrought lasting damage, and not just to Democrats: They helped mightily to create the modern split between red America and blue America. Many members of disfavored groups--Catholics, southerners, and much of the white working class and lower middle class--decamped for the Republican Party, while the Democrats emerged more clearly visible as the party of well-off liberals, the poor, identity and grievance groups, secularists, and the cultural elite. A second coming of McGovernite guerrillas wouldn't do much to improve that image.
This story appears in the November 7, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.