So the election is over, and the results known. Americans have endured a political process that testifies at once to the wonderful virtue of citizen involvement, as well as to the moral cesspool of lies, undue influence by the wealthy, and the raw pursuit of power over principle that ill fits a great nation.
Now we await what comes next. Will our elected representatives realize that our problems are too great to allow another four years of foiling the president at every turn? Will we let them? Or is time to come home to greater values?
One of the lights in the shadows of the worst of American politics shone again in the waning weeks of this election, only to be extinguished too soon. Recalling the life of George McGovern reminds us that optimism about our country is warranted if we can boldly reclaim the values that can make us great.
Mr. McGovern was inspired to enter politics by Adlai Stevenson’s speech at the 1952 Democratic convention in which he said his concern was not just winning the election but how it would be won. He wanted his campaign not to eliminate the opposing party, but to be an opportunity to “educate and elevate a people.”
Over his political career, McGovern was labeled a liberal, a badge he wore proudly and defended to the end. Whatever the label has come to mean, to him it conveyed a belief in progress, in the goodness of humanity, and in freedom for the individual. It is possible, he thought, to build a better society, to use our collective power through government toward that end, motivated above all by compassion for others.
These convictions were clearly at the heart of his life and political career, illustrated most clearly by his opposition to unjust wars and by his commitment to feeding the hungry. His visit to Vietnam in 1965 showed him the human cost of an unjust war. He wrote, “My anguish over our continuing involvement in that faraway country was the driving force of my public career.”
After coaching John F. Kennedy to tell a South Dakota audience that farmers can do more for the cause of peace in the world than any other group, Kennedy put him in charge of his Food for Peace program. McGovern then established the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. He worked with Republican Bob Dole to sponsor the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, as well as the International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program. With roughly 44 million Americans now “food insecure,” and with nearly 1 billion people going hungry worldwide, he reminded us that it is “unconscionable to let one single person suffer over food.” Today’s petty political feuds are small potatoes, he says, compared to the problem of feeding our global citizens.
McGovern’s era in government was one where politicians often worked together, even as friends. He writes that he attended Pat Nixon’s funeral and explained his presence with his former political enemy to a reporter by saying, “you can’t keep campaigning forever.”
But we’ve become a nation in which perpetual campaigns often replace governing, where fear runs deep, where lying is accepted in politics, and where some of us seek to deny, rather than work with those of different political philosophies. In the wake of this election, we should heed McGovern’s call in 1972, in his words, to come home, “from secrecy and deception . . . from military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation . . . from the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism . . . to the affirmation that we have a dream . . . to the conviction that we can move our country forward.”
McGovern once said, “You know, sometimes, when they say you’re ahead of your time, it’s just a polite way of saying you have a real bad sense of timing.” Well, his timing seems to be bad, once again, because we could use him now more than ever. Would that we had a political process that educated and elevated us, rather than saturated our cynicism. Would that we had more political leaders willing to work together and put voters first. Would that we had more leaders driven by compassion and repelled by war and poverty.
Whatever you might think of George McGovern’s political philosophy, on this day after the election we can do worse than to heed the final words of the last book he wrote: “This is the time to step out and to step up. This is the time to heal our nation’s rifts and to deliver on her promise as we see it: a republic that is good to all. It is not for nothing that I will go to my grave believing that this is the greatest country on earth.”
He did. Now it is time for us to prove him right.
Mark Hanson is a guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.