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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