Last summer Howard Dean, a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, traveled the country giving what was, for a mainstream American politician at the beginning of the 21st century, a fiery, unashamedly liberal stump speech to large, wildly cheering crowds. Dean connected the dots between out-of-control military spending, a crumbling infrastructure and the lack of social programs like adequate health coverage for all U.S. citizens. He drew a straight line from unbridled corporate corruption to the Bush administration; from a growing prison population to decreased funding for early childhood school and nutrition programs; from the rise of global terrorism to Bush’s neo-conservative, saber-wielding foreign policy.
At the same time, Dean was also shattering fundraising records with his Internet campaign. At that point he looked like a sure winner who would finally give some backbone to a floundering, centrist Democratic Party that had spent the last 30 years running away from its own best liberal tendencies in the name of an imagined political expedience. Within six months Dean, the renegade, retro Democrat, had been hog-tied and gelded by a Democratic National Committee (aided by the press corps) that was scared witless of a leadership shift away from the safe center.
Howard Dean’s brand of unabashed liberalism harkened back to the proudly progressive workingman’s Democratic Party of the pre-Reagan Republican revolution. That party still had strong echoes of the humane New Deal era as its guiding principles. Gov. Dean was a phenomenon the likes of which had not been seen in mainstream Democratic politics since George McGovern ran for president in 1972, in what had been the last great gasp of Democratic Party-sanctioned liberalism.
McGovern’s new book, The Essential America: Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition, is a quietly passionate and articulate look at liberalism, an elegant argument to the world and—just as importantly—to the Democratic Party for its reinstatement as the guiding principle in the formation of this country’s policies. A WWII veteran who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, McGovern’s elder-statesman and liberal credentials are impeccable; he was the inaugural director of the Food for Peace program as well as a U.S. senator from South Dakota for 18 years. A vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, McGovern was the Democratic Party nominee who ran for president against Richard Nixon in 1972.
In The Essential America, McGovern lays the groundwork for the case of liberalism as though he were making an argument in a court of law. Which is not to say the book is dry or difficult—it isn’t. It’s actually pretty gripping, given the subject matter. McGovern begins by tracing the liberal beliefs and philosophies of the founding fathers. He explores the blend of secular and spiritual thinking that resulted in both the Declaration of Independence and The Bill of Rights. He goes on to remind the reader that now-sacred social programs instituted decades ago, such as Medicare and Social Security, were originated by liberal legislators to much protest and criticism from conservatives. Both programs were branded “socialist”—or worse, “communist”—at the time, yet now the mere mention of ending or cutting either program brings huge storms of protest from both sides of the aisle.
McGovern outlines the catastrophe of a government currently lacking in liberal input and presents what seem to be eminently workable solutions. He writes convincingly that we need to cut, and cut deeply, our pork-stuffed defense budget and end the Bush administration’s tax breaks for the wealthy. With the monetary surplus that would result, McGovern argues that our priorities should include taking care of U.S. citizens with universal health care and government-subsidized higher education.
Beyond our borders, he makes a good case that the seeds of terrorism are born in a bullying, ham-fisted foreign policy that should be at the vanguard of efforts to feed the world, rather than threaten it. He also speaks the unspeakable as he questions our government’s unflagging and unqualified support for Israel’s obstinate and inhumane Palestinian policy. He also asks why we have traded freely with communist China and the former Soviet Union for years, yet we continue to enforce an embargo against tiny Cuba because it is communist. In the cases of both Israel and Cuba, McGovern concludes that a small but powerful minority is calling policy shots that are deeply dangerous to global wellbeing.
McGovern comes down squarely on the side of the workingman and—woman. He is scathing about unchecked capitalism, corporate greed and a political leadership that serves just the wealthy few. All of his ideas seem reasonable, like good common sense, but against the background of the Bush administration, McGovern’s treatise is nearly revolutionary.
While McGovern encourages liberals (and by implication, the Democratic Party) to “just shed a little of their timidity and come out swinging,” the primary tone of The Essential America is one of quiet reason. McGovern connects the same dots as Dean—which are, in fact the basic tenets of the liberal tradition in this country—but he speaks in measured tones and invokes the founders for his validation.
This is not to say the McGovern is not angry—he is, and he says as much. But McGovern’s well-reasoned treatise is a welcome respite from all the pop-culture, fighting-Ann-Coulter-and-Rush-Limbaugh-with-fire, shock-jock style books out there (Lying Liars, etc. etc.) crowding the best-seller lists.