Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

George McGovern, Martin Luther King, And The New Deal Coalition

Posted by Phoenix Woman on October 21, 2012

The late George McGovern was in many ways a very brave and principled man, both at war and at peace. He also was Exhibit A in the fracturing of the economic-liberal and social-liberal coalition that FDR used to pass the New Deal.

He was a bonafide war hero — probably the best bomber pilot to operate in the European Theater during World War II — who came to understand the costs of war, and ran post-war relief missions over Northern Italy to drop off food for the starving Italians. Unfortunately, his rift with George Meany and other union leaders over Vietnam reinforced his strong anti-union sentiments, sentiments that conservative activists like Rick Berman effectively manipulated:

Last week the talk of our progressive blogosphere, and with good reason, was the Wall Street Journal editorial by 1972 Democratic nominee George McGovern, the Pope of Principled Liberalism, arguing the right-wing line on the Employee Free Choice Act, liberals’ most promising strategy in a generation to make joining a union easier and more fair.

It was creepy. It was embarrassing. …


… The fact is, George McGovern is one of those Democrats who, along with Al From, has never had much use for the AFL-CIO.

It’s one of the subplots of NIXONLAND: the bright-eyed anti-war reform Demorats who formed the core of McGovern’s movement became locked in a civil war with the old-line union leaders who were as uncomfortable with reform as they were comfortable with the Vietnam War. It got ugly. Long story short: AFL-CIO president George Meany, who chose to remain neutral in the 1972 presidential election but who obviously favored Richard Nixon, got the last word. At a Steelworkers convention in September, he explained that the “Democratic Party has been taken over by people named Jack who look like Jills and smell like Johns.”

To understand is not to forgive. But I thought I might help explain where this insane betrayal might be coming from. And there’s a Big Con lesson: our enemies are insidious, cunning, and resourceful. They took an old man seething with bitterness from thirty-six year old slights, and made of him an instrument of their will. They fight for keeps. We have to as well.

The big question is: How can we get the economic liberals and the social liberals to fight together, and as effectively, as they did up until fifty-odd years ago?

I keep thinking of the efforts of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, who with his fellow civil rights activists was able to tightly control how the civil rights marchers behaved themselves. He was murdered before he could attempt to influence how the anti-war movement in America was perceived.

Most American school texts and most mass-media mentions of Dr. King skip over the last five years of his life, which were spent working with unions as well as with anti-war activists. (That’s why, among other things, most Americans know about his “I Have a Dream” speech, but far fewer know about his landmark speech “The Drum Major Instinct”.) He had been working on building bridges to reinforce the weakening New Deal coalition of social and economic liberals, efforts that fell apart with his death. Instead, the anti-war movements, the social-justice movements, and the economic-justice movements, were left to pull away from one another and often out of the Democratic Party even as the conservatives were consolidating their efforts to take over the Republican Party.

4 Responses to “George McGovern, Martin Luther King, And The New Deal Coalition”

  1. Charles II said

    Over at DailyKos, SeaTurtle gave the most moving memorial of Senator McGovern’s life that I have seen:

    Way back ‘in a galaxy far, far away’ and certainly in another life, I found myself lost under the Capitol, trying to find the subway system that links all the congressional offices. I wandered around, asking various people how to find it, and being one who did not receive a ‘direction chip’ at birth, I proceeded to go around in circles, getting more and more anxious because I was going to be late……….

    Much to my utter surprise you walked up to me and asked me if I was lost. It must have been self evident! When I explained where I was trying to go, you very kindly said that it was a little tricky to find and that you would take me there. I was astonished that a man who had just run for the presidency would take time out of his schedule to help a young person.

    As we walked the lengthy walk to the subway, you chatted very easily with me about inconsequential things making me feel very much at ease. I felt very nervous because I was afraid that the topic of your losing election would surface; I had not voted for you. I need not have worried because you never pushed, pried or asked leading questions. You never talked about that campaign, the war, your points of view or the election or about you. You were a real human being. I was sorry to reach our destination because I was feeling very comfortable with you. You made a deep impression on me.

    He made a deep impression on a good many of us. It’s hard to forgive Richard Nixon for what he did to defeat this very decent man, and hard to forgive Tom Eagleton for his dishonesty, which so very much helped Nixon.

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