In response to the 19 October, 2012 column by Griffin Johnson, “When You Smell Flowers, Look for a Coffin.”
There is a tendency I’ve observed in the American left to turn against its own leaders as soon as they do anything. Let me explain.
Given the recent passing of George McGovern, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1972 and the man whose nomination marked the ascendancy of the so-called New Left that swept a generation of Democrats into politics and, more than that, made ‘liberal’ a dirty word ever since, I think it might be instructive to consider Mr. Johnson’s article, and the grievances it appears to give voice to, in light of McGovern’s legacy.
Lyndon Johnson is today rightly held up as an exemplar of leftist politics—the only man after Roosevelt to get so many new initiatives through, from the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts to Medicare and Medicaid. Disagree though we might over the aims and underlying assumptions of these programs, the larger point is that today’s activist corps of naggers, schemers and occupiers—if they know their history, which admittedly is a big if—rightly credits him for doing all of this.
But in 1968 this same rabblement, the self-righteous collegians and company, was out and about smoking pot and peyote and holding up placards damning him for the Vietnam War by turns, as if the one somehow reinforced the other.
The Democratic convention of 1968 was naturally a nightmare. President Johnson could not run again because of his dismal approval numbers, Robert Kennedy was looked to as the one saving grace of the party only to be assassinated before he could be nominated, and race riots broke out in the Chicago convention hall which finally nominated Hubert Humphrey for president.
Nor should we forget the other assassination of 1968, two months before Kennedy’s, of the Rev. Martin Luther King. Predictably enough, the Democrats lost by a healthy margin and ceded all of the segregationist South to independent candidate George Wallace because of the Civil Rights Act.
As a result, the party looked inward and nominated four years later its most extreme candidate since William Jennings Bryan some seven decades prior. They might have renominated Humphrey and lost narrowly again, but they opted instead to give the nod to McGovern and lose by the widest margin since the founding of the republic. McGovern won only the seventeen electoral votes of the state of Massachusetts.
It’s perhaps unsurprising in retrospect that this should have been so—candidate McGovern was for amnesty for draft dodgers who fled the country not to go to Vietnam, for exchanging prisoners of war for troop withdrawals from Vietnam, for a 37% across-the-board reduction in defense spending, and for a guaranteed minimum income for everyone of $6,500, or $35,984 adjusting for inflation. You can imagine the fun the Nixon campaign had with that. The really funny part, though, is that reading that platform, there may yet be some students at Carleton puzzling over why he ever lost.
Mr. Johnson writes that “Our president ... still can’t get beyond the basic push-button idiocy that pervades American culture in its entirety.” I should add that Mr. Johnson still can’t get over the temptation that pervades the American left to turn against an otherwise effective, essentially progressive politician because he has to be president too, which, yes, involves bombing and killing, robots and all. But perhaps this is simply a fact of the left: if it is not insurgent, it is not at all.
“If you vote for him, remember that you are voting less for a person than for an institution, and if he is elected, recognize that you will need to manipulate that institution to get what you want,” Mr. Johnson goes on to say. I should only ask that he show me a so-called democracy anywhere in the world where one votes for anything but institutions, but parties, but organizations. Yes, he “listens to the Fugees”; Gordon Brown listened to the Arctic Monkeys. This is how politics works, how it has always worked.
Is he killing people? Name me the last American president who didn’t. As a result, though, for the first time in a long time, Democrats have the upper hand on foreign policy. Ours is an imperfect world. People die every day.
There’s surely no need to turn their deaths into political pornography for an opinion column.
But if you must, might you please light the way to the (necessarily utopian) alternative? Because people do have that tendency to die. They’re dying in the Foxconn factories where the computers Carleton buys en masse are being made as we speak, or our clothes, or our phones.
Such is the (dis)order of the world. It’s a timeless dialectic—the only thing that ever changes are the people doing the suffering and the people inflicting it. If liberalism is to do anything for anyone other than stamp its feet and make noise, it had better get over itself and realize it.