What it (once) meant to be a Democrat

This month, former Senator George McGovern frames his beau ideal of the crusading and committed progressive in his new book, What It Means to Be a Democrat. Addressing issues as varied as education, defense spending and universal healthcare, McGovern reminds the reader that “if there ever was a moment to define ourselves boldly, to stick to our ideals, it is now.” But now, McGovern’s ideal Democratic defense of public education is much narrower than it was when he ran for president 40 years ago.

“Yes, I’m sure that some private academies offer students more one-on-one attention and perhaps more intellectual stimulation than the neighborhood public school,” he writes. “But that doesn’t change my strongly held view that public funds should be invested in public education … Voucher programs that use public money to send kids to private school only divert money away from the overall goal of making U.S. public schools as robust as possible.”

When he ran for president in 1972, however, McGovern’s support for education was drawn more broadly. As Election Day neared, McGovern proposed his own tuition tax credit plan to help the parents of elementary and secondary schoolchildren offset the costs of a private or parochial education, just as advisers to Richard Nixon had done. Politically, McGovern wanted the Catholic vote, but this pretends that he was a maverick among liberal Democrats in wanting to aid families choosing a private, even faith-based, education. He was not.

Hubert Humphrey proposed his own tuition tax credit plan when he ran against Nixon in 1968. And McGovern joined 23 Democratic senators in 1978 to co-sponsor a plan championed by one of the nation’s most prominent Democrats, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, offering $500 in tax credits to families paying private school tuition.

“We cannot abandon these schools and we will not,” McGovern announced to a throng of Catholic high school students in Chicago in the fall of 1972, according to the Washington Post. Catholic schools, McGovern added, are a “keystone of American education,” and without government help, families would lose the right to give their children an education in which spiritual and moral values play an important role.

Presidential candidates were born to flip-flop, but McGovern’s newest manifesto reminds us how far Democrats have strayed from a movement they once breathed life into. Moynihan was prophetic in 1981 when he wrote that as vouchers become more and more a conservative cause, “it will, I suppose, become less and less a liberal one.”

If that happens, he added, “it will present immense problems for a person such as myself who was deeply involved in this issue long before it was either conservative or liberal. And if it prevails only as a conservative cause, it will have been a great failure of American liberalism not to have seen the essentially liberal nature of this pluralist proposition.”

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit