Perhaps I should say a word or two about how I came to write the piece. I was as shocked as anyone when I first read Bill Kauffman’s conservative defense of McGovern. But amid the Obamacon boom last summer, the notion of conservatives for McGovern started to seem a little more plausible — especially considering that even though McGovern was not consistently anti-interventionist or pro-civil-liberties, he was certainly better than Obama
be. Surprisingly there actually had been some conservative and libertarian support for McGovern back in ’72 — both Lew Rockwell and TAC‘s Scott McConnell were pulling for him, while the Future Neocons of America, still Scoop Jackson Democrats at the time, hated him like nothing else.
This prompted me to think about how the modern pro-Bush Right was the same hoary anti-McGovern coalition: Scoop Jackson plus George Wallace. In my article, I should have made explicit the connection between the ’70s/’80s New Right and the Wallace movement: Richard Viguerie, for example, had raised $7 million for Wallace between ’72 and ’76, and Wallace was sometimes mooted as a standard-bearer for the populist third party that New Right strategists like Bill Rusher and Kevin Phillips dreamed of. Most importantly, though, the politics of alienation and resentment that fueled Wallace also fueled the New Right, though the emphasis shifted from race to religion. That alienation and resentment was not entirely misplaced, by the way.
The irony of the New Right was that its leaders — including Viguerie, Paul Weyrich, and Howard Phillips — inclined to something like paleoconservatism. (Indeed the 1982 anthology-cum-manifesto The New Right Papers includes essays from Samuel Francis, Clyde Wilson, and Thomas Fleming as well as Rusher, Viguerie, and Weyrich.) But the “culture war” rhetoric they pioneered was quickly appropriated by the Scoop Jackson brigade, who can deploy it far more effectively than the paleos ever could, because the Jacksonites embrace the love of all things military that has long since displaced traditional patriotism in the hearts of many Americans. (As Christian Zionism is now displacing old-fangled Christianity.)
However much New Right populists and metropolitan neocons hated one another, both reviled George McGovern even more. The result was a Right that was an inverted image of the McGovern Left: pro-war, anti-civil-liberties, but equally preoccupied questions of identity. The older anti-Communism, which was problematic enough, gave way to a crude nationalism (specifically, an amalgam of flag-waving and democracy-exporting), while fanciful notions of a conservative welfare state — “compassionate conservatism” or a pro-family welfarism — displaced the Right’s traditional anti-New Deal economics. Perversely enough, the Right as we know it today is not a creation of Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan, but of George McGovern, or at least the anti-McGovernites.
The older conservatism, it should be noted, would have been quite capable of resisting McGovern, albeit on constitutional, limited-government grounds rather rather than anti-counterculture grounds. That might have been less appealing to the electorate than class or culture war, which seemed to work well for Republicans in ’72 and ’04. Then again, the electorate soured on the wars and civil-liberties violations of Nixon and Bush pretty quickly after those contests, didn’t it? The anti-McGovern Right actually gave the Left its big wins of ’74, ’76, ’06, and ’08. Not only is anti-McGovernism bad in principle, it’s a lousy political strategy, too.
In all this, both in my original article and here, what I counsel is not that the Right should become pro-McGovern — I think that’s an obvious non-starter — but that we ought to be anti-anti-McGovern. I do give the senator from Avon, South Dakota credit for several of his positions, however: his stand against the Vietnam War, both in its earliest stages and at its height, was courageous and correct. He’s right, too, that “Freedom Means Responsibility” — which in turn means that if someone goes bankrupt because of a subprime mortgage, neither he nor his lender should be bailed out. His stand against card check is also commendable. Bill Kauffman has enumerated many of his other virtues. He was no Robert Lafollete, let alone Robert Taft, but he was no Richard Nixon or George Bush either. Nor was he a Kennedy-Johnson-Humphrey-Jackson Democrat. For that, I’d give him two cheers.