Democrats Forget McGovern at Their Peril

Democrats Forget McGovern at Their Peril

McGovern was the darling of progressives and anathema to most everybody else.


Fifty years ago, George McGovern was shellacked by Richard Nixon in one of history’s most lopsided presidential contests. If this year’s midterms are any indication, Democrats haven’t learned from his defeat.      

Then, as now, Americans are repelled by left-wing policies. McGovern excited anti-war activists by vowing to pull the United States out of Vietnam straight away. His domestic platform was just as extreme. During primary season, Democrats alarmed by McGovern’s rise gave him the unofficial slogan “amnesty, abortion, and acid” in hopes of nominating someone more moderate. Yet they couldn’t deny the nomination to McGovern, who went on to lose forty-nine states to Nixon. McGovern was the darling of progressives and anathema to most everybody else.


The parallels to our day are striking. Take abortion. President Joe Biden and Democratic congressional candidates are banking so much on the pro-choice cause that they’re pledging to enshrine a federal right to abortion until birth. Never mind that a significant majority of Americans would outlaw abortion in the third trimester. Moreover, according to a recent New York Times-Siena College poll, just 5 percent of likely voters name abortion as their biggest concern. Voters are nowhere near as left-of-center as Democrats would like them to be.   

Although he lost the presidential election, McGovern won the heart of the Democratic Party. Its next three presidential nominees, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis, were McGovern-lite and fared accordingly. Carter beat a hapless Gerald Ford in 1976 but was trounced by Ronald Reagan four years later. Mondale and Dukakis then lost in similarly spectacular fashion. How many Democrats remember this not-so-ancient history?     

The record suggests a course correction is possible. McGovern was not preordained to win the nomination in 1972 when both Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey were mainstream alternatives. Nor did his ideas have to prevail. Vexed by his party’s leftward drift on foreign policy, anti-communist senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson twice sought the presidential nomination. There was also notable Democratic opposition, particularly in the South, to the ever-growing welfare state. 

Democrats who have deviated from the McGovern playbook have often done well. Bill Clinton became the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win two presidential terms, thanks in no small part to his centrist platform. Clinton wanted abortion to be “safe, legal and rare,” criminals locked up, and illegal immigration kept to a minimum. It turned out those policies were resoundingly popular with the American people, who rewarded him at the ballot box. Although he governed as a progressive, Barack Obama ran as a moderate by appealing to working-class voters. Democrats historically have won by occupying the center ground, not the left wing.        

It's not like today’s Democrats cannot do this. Liberal hawks like Elaine Luria and Stephanie Murphy have been strong advocates for national defense in the House, while Colorado’s Jared Polis rejected the covid hysteria entertained by so many other governors. They ought to be the face of the party, not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Stacey Abrams.

Democrats, the choice is yours. Follow McGovern into the political wilderness or ditch his radicalism and win elections. 

Daniel J. Samet is a Doctoral Candidate in History at the University of Texas at Austin and a Rumsfeld Foundation Graduate Fellow

Image: Reuters.