George McGovern died today (1992-2012)

He was 90 at the time of his death.

It cannot be said that McGovern’s star-crossed 1972 Presidential campaign signaled the death of American liberalism (America’s version of social democracy). That death would finally come when Ronald Reagan demolished the politically conservative Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981. What his 1972 campaign managed to accomplish was the creation of a potent and enduring symbol, one which encapsulated the political impossibility of liberal reform in the United States. It did not matter a jot that McGovern was not a radical in any way at all. His reform program was quite modest. Yet his defeat at Richard Nixon’s dirty hands was so decisive that it suggested Americans in general would not support the political implementation of a just social order, a project which informed national politics in the prior decade. In this sense it can be said that McGovern’s defeat in 1972 ushered in the Age of Reaction in American politics. It was the watershed moment when the silent majority put down the young upstarts who wanted to run the country. Even the Watergate Scandal — which one might have expected to affirm completely and strongly the leftwing of the Democratic Party and which destroyed the corrupt Nixon Administration as well as the Party-man Gerald Ford — failed to deter the hard right turn made by the American elite after the 1960s. Militarism, predatory economics and social reaction would dominate American politics thereafter.

The 1972 Election remains an active and significant component of America’s political memory. Echoes of Nixon’s victory could be heard in Scott Walker’s decisive victory over Tom Barrett in the Wisconsin Governor’s Recall Election of 2012 and, for that matter, in the public and private despair felt by the Democratic Party left over Barack Obama’s reactionary administration. Both situations reflect the irrelevance of a center-left politics in the United States, a weakness revealed by the 1972 Presidential Election. A Heideggerian might consider this despair to be Uncle Sam anticipating his very death.

George McGovern was considered a decent man. I never met him and cannot confirm this observation from personal experience. But, if McGovern had been a decent man during his long life, we who remain alive might affirm his memory by appreciating the fact that his name will always remain associated with the effort to turn the country away from its self-selected destruction. This will be his posterity.

My — our — long wait: Enduring the Reagan Revolution

Ronald Reagan lays down the law to PATCO

I’ve pined thirty-years for something like the Occupy Wall Street movement. Thank God — I’m an atheist! — it’s here. I’ve waited that long because it’s been a little more than thirty years since the 1981 Washington, DC Solidarity Day March. The AFL-CIO organized and paid for it. (I was collecting unemployment but took a union sponsored bus to DC.) Estimates of the march’s size range from 100,000 to 5000,000 (I’m drawing upon my memory here). Whatever the precise numerical count might have been, the March was large. The purpose of the March was clear to the participants and to its adversaries. It expressed a popular disgust with the Reagan Administration, which had recently concluded the PATCO strike by firing the striking air traffic controllers. The PATCO strike was a seminal event in American history. It revealed the weakness of organized labor in America and the willingness of the Reagan administration to demolish a conservative union filled with labor aristocrats who had supported Reagan in the 1980 election. I thought then that the March would be the initial event of an on-going popular response to the Reagan Presidency. Surely many if not most Americans would see Reagan and his policies for what they were and what they promised. Surely they would push back.

In 1984, ironic as that date may seem to America’s critics, the Reagan reelection campaign gave us the now famous Morning in America advertisement, a trope which became the theme of the 1984 Republican National Convention, America’s kleine Reichsparteitag. This staged event frightened me when I watched it, more so when the spectacle was generally well-received; likewise the Reagan-Mondale debates, during which one could see Reagan’s dementia for what it was. As we know, a demented and ideologically driven Reagan easily won the election. His victory allegedly and likely did signal the death of the New Deal Coalition, Mondale being a figure associated with that kind of politics and Reagan having a political project opposed to the New Deal and its legacy. Americans could have repudiated Reagan and Reaganism in that election. But they did not.

Today, Americans must try to master the consequences produced by their past political mistakes. Among these mistakes we would want to include our tolerating or even applauding policies which produced a declining standard-of-living and our accepting a party politics meant to insulate the political elite from the electorate. To be sure, our current and future standard-of-living along with the democracy deficit of the legacy parties provide just two of the many motives that have elicited the Occupy Wall Street movement. And these ‘problems’ were foreseeable outcomes specific to the so-called Reagan Revolution, which we today should characterize as a political project which consolidated neoliberalism and imperialism in American politics. We are living in the Reagan Revolution’s long shadow, and it is this history which we must master to address the problems of our present.

I wish to conclude by pointing out that it seems to have taken the many failures and betrayals of the Obama administration to convince some — many? — Americans that the legacy parties do not represent their interests. Perhaps, Americans needed to elect a black man president in order to learn that the political project created by rich white men only results in disasters for so many of them. They could recently learn this while they watched the one-time community organizer selling what they considered their birthright to Wall Street and America’s imperial apparatus. In any case, whether my speculative point about Obama’s historical significance is at all sound, it is unfortunate that Americans needed thirty discouraging years before they could begin face the truth about their leaders and their country. Let us hope that it is not too late to pull hard on the brake handle.