Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

McGovern, Ending Wars and Democratic Accountability

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Paul Rosenberg has a great piece on George McGovern, which in part makes the case that history gets the failed Democratic presidential candidate wrong.  It was McGovern, not those who supported the Vietnam, that was being pragmatic.

But McGovern’s patience with conventional practice was severely limited: when he saw it wasn’t working, he abandoned it. What set him apart was not so much his idealism (remarkable though it was) as it was the supposed opposite: his pragmatism in seeing what was working or not, and changing his strategy accordingly. This is what Johnson failed to do.

That’s real pragmatism, while most of what is justified as pragmatic in American politics involves continuing to do what’s not working.

He also quotes McGovern’s 1970 speech in the Senate on behalf of a bill he co-sponsored to end the war – a bill that ultimately failed.

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 honour 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 someday curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us. [my emphasis]

So before we vote, let us ponder the admonition of Edmund Burke, the great parliamentarian of an earlier day: “A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood.”

Those are powerful words.  But I want to focus on this as political theory. The Constitution vests the power over war and peace in the Congress.  It did that for a simple reason – that would place the responsibility on those who could be held accountable by the people.  It would mean Congress deliberating over the question, offering reasons, and taking a clear stand so there was no question where responsibility lay.

Political responsibility isn’t about what elites deserve.  It’s about finding ways to ensure the public can use its leverage.  Generally speaking I think it’s easier to pressure members of Congress than a president. But that requires acknowledging what McGovern says above – the president is only able to make war when Congress is complicit, and that means Congress has the means to stop it.

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Written by David Kaib

October 25, 2012 at 11:25 pm

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