Questions that have more to do with American culture than with American politics keep intruding themselves into the campaign, to McGovern’s embarrassment. McGovern prefers to discuss the “real,” political issues. Thus Eagleton was dropped lest his medical career distract the public from the “real” issues—Nixon’s record, the war, the economy. Eagleton’s ingenious but rather belated suggestion that his candidacy might serve to educate the public about “mental illness” was greeted without enthusiasm by McGovern and his advisers. (This issue, incidentally, illustrates the depth of the cultural divisions among us. Many Americans still resist the progressive view that neurosis should be regarded as a disease and not as a defect of character. Yet this “advanced” position has itself been under attack for years, and many intellectuals now regard the medical model of neurosis as naïve and outmoded.)
Since “cultural” issues seem to be working to McGovern’s disadvantage, it is easy to understand his desire to avoid them. Nevertheless those issues persist. In several states, for instance, busing continues to excite deep feelings. From McGovern’s point of view busing is another unreal issue. He seems never to have been able to understand or to identify himself imaginatively with the distress of working-class communities threatened with forced integration.
Working-class audiences may admire the courage and integrity of his defense of unpopular rulings of the Supreme Court, so striking in contrast to Nixon’s flouting of these rulings, but they are unlikely to take much comfort from McGovern’s assurance that he understands why parents are reluctant to send their children long distances to school by bus. Riding a bus to school is not what people fear. Rather, busing has become a symbol of the sacrifice of local needs and of whole neighborhoods to bureaucratic design—integration, urban renewal—imposed from above and supported, it appears, by wealthy suburbanites who themselves have nothing to lose from the implementation of these schemes. Rightly or wrongly, busing is identified with the disintegration of formerly close-knit ethnic neighborhoods, the collapse of schools that were once a source of local pride, the growth of crime, spiraling tax rates, and the collapse of the city itself.
Abortion poses a similar set of problems for McGovern. Here again working-class apprehensions conflict with the wishes of the liberals who make up the heart of the McGovern movement and who support legalized abortion either because they are feminists or because it coincides with the goal of “zero population growth.” McGovern cannot completely repudiate the demand for liberalized abortion laws without antagonizing many of his most devoted supporters, but neither can he endorse it: to do so would be fatal in working-class constituencies. Here too McGovern tries to escape from his dilemma by arguing that abortion is not a “real” issue—a disingenuous argument that has the additional disadvantage of being completely unconvincing.
There is only one way for a populist candidate to deal with these divisive cultural issues. Without denying their reality, he must attempt to …