On April 5, President Trump apparently saw some disturbing images on TV of Syrian children poisoned by chemical weapons, and decided on that evidence alone to completely reverse his policy toward Syria and that country’s embattled dictator, Bashar al-Assad. He went from scoffing at the idea of the Syrian forces gassing civilians to lobbing 59 cruise missiles at the airfield from which the chemical-weapons attack was allegedly launched. This happened in roughly 63 hours.
It was just one more day in the horrifying reality-TV presidency of Donald Trump: Tune in next week to find out which country we’ll be bombing next! But remarkably, a great number of Democrats were mostly supportive—including Hillary Clinton and most of the Senate Democratic caucus. Even Bernie San-ders mustered a relatively mild critique, carefully foregrounding the inhumanity of the chemical-weapons attack before calling on Trump to come to Congress for an authorization to use military force.
The Democrats’ majority support for Trump’s cruise-missile strike is emblematic of just how at sea they are in terms of foreign policy. The party’s conservatives and moderates remain in thrall to a liberal internationalism that has, at times, not looked much different from Republican hawkishness, while its left wing—still marginalized after decades out of power—has failed to put forward a compelling alternative.
One perspective worth dusting off in this context is that of George McGovern, who is the subject of a new biography by Thomas J. Knock, The Rise of a Prairie Statesman. McGovern’s foreign-policy ideas not only offered a critique of an earlier era of hawkish liberalism; they also provide an excellent foundation for a badly needed new approach by the American left.
George McGovern has long been known as the man who got steamrollered by Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election—the fourth-worst loss by popular vote in American history. McGovern’s popular image these days is as the avatar of a bunch of deluded leftists who seized the Democratic nomination, ran a far-too-left-wing race, and paid the price. His crushing defeat became the catalyst for a whole generation of Democratic politicians who rejected both the basic elements of New Deal liberalism and the dovish foreign policy of the New Left. From the 1970s through the Obama years, the Democrats would make their peace with many elements of the conservative economic and social agenda, from the War on Drugs and “tough on crime” laws to financial deregulation. In the 1990s and 2000s, they would also come to embrace a more hawkish foreign policy, often advocating the use of force as a way of solving various geopolitical and humanitarian crises.
This rightward swing in domestic and foreign policy was often justified by McGovern’s loss; if the Democrats were to rebuild a majority, the argument went, they would have to move the party back to the center. In retrospect, this strategy may have had the opposite effect, laying the groundwork for the numerous future crises—outsourcing, deregulation, inequality, mass incarceration, the spectacular decline of unions—that chipped away at what was left of the party’s electoral base.