It is summertime, which means a time to peer at the political future with a gaze to the political past.
The holiday that many consider the unofficial beginning of summer affords the opportunity to shake off the residue of a just-completed school year and to begin contemplating what lies ahead. Considering what the immediate future holds in politics requires that one consult the past.
The presidential election of 2012 offers an excellent example of why this is almost a necessity because it is a referendum of sorts on two basic governing philosophies. The partisans would label the upcoming contest as the decisive battle between capitalism and socialism, or corporate greed and societal benevolence. Arguments surrounding these characterizations have no conclusion, and will not be won by either side. How did we get to this point?
I would contend that the 2012 election began over 40 years ago. In 1964, following an initial attempt in 1960, a brash, plain-spoken United States senator from Arizona named Barry Goldwater gathered a sufficient number of committed ideological conservatives to lay hold of the nomination of the Republican Party for President. Rather than running on a specific set of programs that he would implement, Goldwater ran sounding the alarm over the growth of the size and power of the federal government and the need for classical conservative principles to be employed to shrink the government, and in turn elevate the individual. Goldwater’s words sound eerily familiar.
“Our tendency to concentrate power in the hands of a few men deeply concerns me,” he said. “I am convinced that most Americans now want to reverse that trend…. I think that the people’s uneasiness in the stifling omnipresence of government has turned into something approaching alarm.”
Goldwater went on to state, “Let us remember the nation’s interest in reducing taxes and spending. Economic growth will be achieved not by government harnessing the nation’s economic forces but by emancipating them.”
It is quite easy to project those words forward to the current GOP nominee Mitt Romney. As normal as those words seem today, they were viewed as symptomatic of a rather radical conservative uprising afflicting the Republicans of the 1960’s.
In 1972 the Democrats were destined to seek a nominee on the left flank of the ideological spectrum. Following the tumultuous 1968 Chicago Democratic nominating convention in which the old guard Democrats such as host city Mayor Richard Daley exacted iron clad control over the process those who believed themselves to be voiceless in party processes were determined to change things. In 1969 the Democratic Party created the McGovern Commission, whose charge it was to draw up new rules for delegate selection for future conventions. The goal was to open all of the decision-making processes of the Democratic Party to a wide variety of interest and ethnic categories, and to do so by establishing quotas. The McGovern Commission declared that its actions, “demonstrate the intention of the Democratic Party to ensure a full opportunity for all minority group members to participate in the delegate selection process.” The Commission furthered directed states to “overcome discrimination by affirmative steps to encourage representation on the National Convention delegations of minority groups, young people, and women in a reasonable relationship to their presence in their state’s population.” The plan succeeded in formalizing a majority comprised of numerous minorities coalescing under the Democratic Party banner. Their nominee in 1972 was none other than the architect of this new approach to political openness and decidedly liberal true believer, Sen. George McGovern from South Dakota.
So how did Goldwater and McGovern fair in their respective races? In 1964, Republican Goldwater carried only six states, Mississippi being one, against Democratic incumbent Lyndon Johnson and received a paltry 39 percent of the popular vote. In 1972, Democratic nominee George McGovern ironically received only 39 percent of the popular vote and carried only the state of Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. in losing to Republican incumbent Richard Nixon. The average voter, for the most part, dismissed both campaigns as misadventures of feckless ideologues.
In reality, however, these two campaigns, perhaps more than any other, laid the ideological groundwork for the modern debate. Goldwater kicked open the door on the propriety of making a discussion of the role and limits of government a centerpiece of any political campaign. McGovern ushered into the room all manner of Americans who had previously been marginalized politically because of who they were or the ideas with which they identified.
Now it seems that from these initial discussions we have all formed opinions and chosen sides. These two very divergent sets of beliefs in what American government is supposed to be have moved from the fringes of the right and left to the core of the debate over who we are as a country.
The political conventions this summer will be reunions of sorts of the ideological offspring of Barry Goldwater and George McGovern.