George McGovern Now Conservative?

George McGovern Now Conservative? It’s been occasionally remarked in recent years that George McGovern, who lost the 1972 election to Richard Nixon in a landslide because he was so ultra-liberal, became more conservative after leaving public life and starting his own business. A column in today’s WSJ, “Freedom Means Responsibility,” will certainly add another log to that fire.

His thesis is that, “Under the guise of protecting us from ourselves, the right and the left are becoming ever more aggressive in regulating behavior.” He laments that attempts to fix very real problems associated with subprime mortgages, the inability to afford health insurance, and payday loans could well make things worse for a lot of people in order to make things better for a relative few.

Since leaving office I’ve written about public policy from a new perspective: outside looking in. I’ve come to realize that protecting freedom of choice in our everyday lives is essential to maintaining a healthy civil society.

Why do we think we are helping adult consumers by taking away their options? We don’t take away cars because we don’t like some people speeding. We allow state lotteries despite knowing some people are betting their grocery money. Everyone is exposed to economic risks of some kind. But we don’t operate mindlessly in trying to smooth out every theoretical wrinkle in life.

The nature of freedom of choice is that some people will misuse their responsibility and hurt themselves in the process. We should do our best to educate them, but without diminishing choice for everyone else.

Now, here’s my question: Has McGovern become that much more conservative? Or have the goalposts of our political discourse simply moved that much.

It’s an honest question rather than a rhetorical one. I vaguely recall going to the polling place in Houston with my parents in 1972 but, being as I was a couple weeks shy of my seventh birthday, I was less attuned to matters of public policy then than now.

From what I’ve gathered since, though, McGovern was a genuine hero during WWII and continued to serve his country admirably for decades. Meanwhile, even aside from his personal shortcomings, Richard Nixon would be a disappointment to most modern conservatives. He imposed wage and price controls, advanced affirmative action and environmental regulation, and appointed Harry Blackmun to the Supreme Court.

At the same time, “conservative” is often a reactionary ideology famously, as the late William F. Buckley put it, “standing astride history yelling Stop!” Modern-day conservatives (and, indeed, modern-day liberals) are much further to the left now than in 1972 on social issues ranging from gay rights to the role of women to what’s appropriate to air on television.

McGovern’s view on Iraq is remarkably similar to his views on Vietnam, so that much hasn’t changed. But he’s more conservative on economic issues and governmental regulation than quite a few modern-day Republicans.

So, which has changed more: George McGovern or the definition of “conservative”?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    James, correction – it was the 1972 election, not 68. As time goes by, I more and more admire McGovern for his service and beliefs.

  2. James Joyner says:

    it was the 1972 election, not 68.

    Fixed! I knew that, really. Indeed, I did the math right in the third paragraph.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    McGovern voted for Ford in 1976 — that suggests he had an idiosyncratic approach to things.

  4. Steve Plunk says:

    The goalposts have moved. Take a quick look back at what this country used to be about and you will see how we have changed.

    McGovern is absolutely right. Government’s effort to make life fair to everyone has resulted in less fairness overall. Government’s desire to solve all problems has created problems. Government’s role as the tool of the people has been reversed to the people serving the government.

    A little more libertarian thinking would serve us all well.

  5. […] Joyner suggests that it’s not just the fact that McGovern has changed, but that the goalposts of American politics have been moved and I think he’s pretty much right in that […]

  6. yetanotherjohn says:

    In the days of McGovern, there was an old saw about a liberal was a conservative who hadn’t been mugged yet.

    Perhaps McGovern’s economic conservatism is explained by the end of your fist sentence.

    became more conservative after leaving public life and starting his own business

    If so, that would say that it is McGovern who moved at least as it relates to economic conservatism.

    BTW, I think we will see fewer politicians in both parties who served their country in the military (though I expect to see more republicans who have served than democrats as a percentage). McGovern was of an age when it would have been very much an exception not to have served.

  7. floyd says:

    I voted for McGovern in’72. I never really exited the Democrat party, They “LEFT” me!
    The Democrat Party has become “PROGRESSIVELY” more of an embarrassment to their recently acquired heroes, Caligula & Lenin[Vladimir that is]
    This leaves long term loyal Democrats with only
    “hope” for “change” while chanting a disheartened…”yes we can”. Can What? Nobody is sure, but we may be about to find out if the Republicans don’t find their “muse” PDQ! [lol]

  8. Christopher says:

    floyd,

    That’s the big fallacy, that we don’t know what “yes we can” means. The only ones who don’t are those liberals and unintelligent people who turn a blind eye

    You and I knows what it means. He believes in liberalism, and will raise taxes, raise spending, increase government regulation, and deal kindly with terrorists as they sneak into the country to blow us up. That is what Obamessiah supporters are voting for.

  9. tom p says:

    BTW, I think we will see fewer politicians in both parties who served their country in the military (though I expect to see more republicans who have served than democrats as a percentage). McGovern was of an age when it would have been very much an exception not to have served.

    Agreed, definitely… tho maybe for different reasons.

    Question: Are there any conservatives left out there? (I mean “true” conservatives) Because all I see are “faux” conservatives. I know you guys are out there, and I respect you, but you are becoming increasingly hard to find.

    For instance, I found myself in a some what heated discussion yesterday with a “so called” conservative yesterday. And yet, as I was complaining about the trillions of dollars of debt incurred during the Bush Admin, he was making excuses for it.

    He said (beleive it or not) “What would you have us do? Pay a 75% tax rate?” and I was talking about the fact that my sons would be saddled with this debt,(and maybe pay a 75% tax rate) and that that was WRONG. In other words, fiscal responsibility is out the door with so many of today’s “conservatives”. (just lower taxes, NOW)

    “As long as I don’t have to pay for it!!!”

    We “liberals” may not agree with you “conservatives” about what the proper role of gov’t is, but by God, I would think we can agree that somebody has to pay for it.

    And I would hope that we could agree that our children shouldn’t have to. (personal sacrifice, and all that)

    tom

    ps: A small challenge… What are you going to do with your tax credit? This is not my money, it belongs to my sons, I will not spend it. I am giving it to them. They will do with it as they see fit.

    pss: should any one care, my sons are 19 and 21. For anyone with children between the ages of 0 and 18, I would put it into their college fund. That might actually help our economy… as opposed to China’s.

  10. floyd says:

    Christopher;
    Of course you are correct, what I should have said was “they are not sure” to clarify that I meant the loyal Democrats.

  11. floyd says:

    tom p;
    I’m going to use mine to pay a portion of this years real estate TAX INCREASE. I now pay more on a per month basis for real estate taxes, than all the house payments I’ve ever made COMBINED!
    Guess where I live? That’s right, Illinois, a prolific breeding ground for political corruption, and Senator Obama’s home state.

  12. PattyCake says:

    I think McGovern was always a moderate. He was painted as an uber-liberal by his opponents, who wanted Nixon to retain the mantle of “moderate” for himself.

    My tax credit is going towards health care and property taxes, both of which went way up here in Texas.

    In addition to saving for their college, we are hedging our children’s future employability by teaching them Chinese.

  13. anjin-san says:

    Did you miss this line?

    “Under the guise of protecting us from ourselves, the right and the left are becoming ever more aggressive in regulating behavior.”

    The argument that McGovern has become more “conservative” does not really hold water. The people who pass as conservatives today have waged an aggressive battle against freedom in this country. Threats to freedom come from both the far left and right. I think that is Sen. McGovern’s point.

    As for history, well, he is just one more combat vet who was slimed by the right for political gain…

  14. DL says:

    While it is true that the goal posts have changed, it is more true that the players have changed. Now the game is, screw the rules, forget sportsmanship, be a maverick and deliberately fumble the ball, win at any cost – even if cost means bribing the referree (kissing up to the media?)or scoring touchdowns for the other team (overspending-amnesty -embryonic research)

    It is the politicians only that get to play the game and are willing to wear the other team’s jerseys if need be -even if it means scoring TDs for the opposition. Just look at team McCain –

    The fans, alas, don’t seem to care very much, and continue to pay (vote) for the lousy players.

  15. tom p says:

    I’m going to use mine to pay a portion of this years real estate TAX INCREASE. I now pay more on a per month basis for real estate taxes, than all the house payments I’ve ever made COMBINED!
    Guess where I live? That’s right, Illinois, a prolific breeding ground for political corruption, and Senator Obama’s home state.

    Floyd: OUCH!!!

    You have my sympathies. The same is true for all too many here in your sister state of Misery, home of a Republican House, a Republican Senate, and a Republican Governor, all of whom working together can not solve the problem of sky rocketing real estate tax bills, (inspite of several bills passed to suppossedly address this situation) instead only finding new ways to aid and abet developers in the taking of property form people like you and me, in the interests of higher profit margins.

  16. […] Thank God we didn’t have to wait long for a successor to emerge to fill the void left by the end of Ron Paul’s presidential bid. [Outside the Beltway] […]

  17. Nicolas Martin says:

    Wrong on the concept. McGovern’s views are not conservative, they are libertarian. He wants to upend the status quo, not preserve it. And good for him!