The Long Slow Death of American Progressivism

The death last week of George McGovern, the Congressman, Senator, Presidential candidate, and legendary American progressive, was a day that saddened me deeply. Not only because a great man had gone, but that he had gone with so little fanfare; outside of the better broadsheets and news websites, his passing was a footnote; not as the man who worked with every fiber of his being to end the Vietnam War, or the man who took presidential nominations out of the hands of party insiders, but as a failed Presidential candidate, and would-be target of Richard Nixon’s Watergate conspiracy.

The 24-hour news outlets have zero interest in replaying the story of McGovern as he actually was, because it is perceived that there is no audience for a man of McGovern’s supposed radicality. And that is because since Vietnam, the American Left has been dying a long, slow death, ever sliding further and further into disrepute, mediocrity, and irrelevance. With a very few exceptions, there are no progressives left in Congress; Bernie Sanders being the best known. Protests are now such a rarity that every left-leaning group possible attends, in a mixture of wanting to get their voices out, or just wanting to hang out; the dedicated activists of decades past have, in many ways, been supplanted by white kids with dreadlocks who are trying to be edgy, not actually seeking change. In all of its happenings, the Left appears disorganized and absurd; the Right has completely succeeded in making liberal activism an object of ridicule, not something that laypeople even pause for a moment to take seriously.

The problem seems intractable, particularly since there is no McGovern left in Congress, or with the support needed to be one. As mentioned, there are a few progressives, like Sanders, or Sherrod Brown, and there are a few running for office like Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin, but they aren’t able to do anything to create change because the rest of their party has run to the center right and into the arms of corporate donors, abandoning the people the Democratic Party used to serve; the working class, the laborers, the urban poor, i.e. Americans who aren’t in Mitt Romney’s Rolodex.

For example, this is a quote of McGovern’s from the debates in Congress over a bill to end the Vietnam War:

Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land—young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.

Can you imagine any sitting Congressperson or Senator saying anything half as blunt? Moreover, if they did, do you think that corporate-backed media would cover it? It’s unlikely, to say the least; at best, the pundits on CNN would probably wonder if the person saying it had been on the bourbon beforehand. Dissent is not seen as a positive anymore; it’s seen as a sign of madness.

This otherizing of any form of protest against American policy, especially foreign policy, is seen particularly when it is related to our current President. Four years ago, Barack Obama swept into office with a huge mandate, a friendly House and Senate, and proceeded to make a complete hash of it. The vast majority of progressive legislation that he proposed during his campaign failed to pass, but where he has succeeded is in making the “War on Terror” even more scary than it was under George Bush. As Glenn Greenwald has been reporting for years now, Obama is doing his damnedest to make his drone war permanent, a legacy to last him past the end of his probable second term, categorized as the incredibly creepy-sounding “disposition matrix,” or, more colloquially, the administration’s kill list:

The “disposition matrix” has been developed and will be overseen by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). One of its purposes is “to augment” the “separate but overlapping kill lists” maintained by the CIA and the Pentagon: to serve, in other words, as the centralized clearinghouse for determining who will be executed without due process based upon how one fits into the executive branch’s “matrix”. As Miller describes it, it is “a single, continually evolving database” which includes “biographies, locations, known associates and affiliated organizations” as well as “strategies for taking targets down, including extradition requests, capture operations and drone patrols”. This analytical system that determines people’s “disposition” will undoubtedly be kept completely secret; Marcy Wheeler sardonically said that she was “looking forward to the government’s arguments explaining why it won’t release the disposition matrix to ACLU under FOIA”.

This was all motivated by Obama’s refusal to arrest or detain terrorist suspects, and his resulting commitment simply to killing them at will (his will). Miller quotes “a former US counterterrorism official involved in developing the matrix” as explaining the impetus behind the program this way: “We had a disposition problem.”

Not only has the supposed savior of the Democratic Party started killing people outright, without any due process, he has made it legal to not just spy on Americans deemed to have no links to terrorism, but to hold their information in databases for years, something the comically warmongering President Bush balked at. His drone campaign targets 16-year old boys, justified by adviser Robert Gibbs, who said it was okay to kill the boy because his father was a schmuck. Seriously. These are the people in charge of our government. Their policies, however, are only making our situation worse.

I understand why many, if not all, of you reading this will go on and vote for Barack Obama. Many people that I respect, like PZ Myers and JT Eberhard are resignedly voting for him, and encouraging others to do so, because Mitt Romney would be a catastrophe for this country. I get it. I do. He is better than Mitt Romney only by the skin of his teeth, only because he’s remained moderately left on most domestic policy issues. That’s it. Such is the state of our electoral system.

When you vote for him, I want you to remember that Barack Obama is a hair’s breath away from a catastrophe for the United States already. That is the plain and simple truth. Four more years of him is going to continue these authoritarian policies, just as much as they would under Romney.

In short, we need George McGovern now more than ever. We need, in the words of Duncan Campbell, who wrote in a touching tale of the man’s humanity to The Guardian, some bravery, decency, and compassion to return to the office of the Presidency.

One thought on “The Long Slow Death of American Progressivism

  1. Pingback: No Confidence: Thoughts on Election 2012 | Ashley Miller

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