It's been a few weeks since anyone's written a why-are-we-still-fighting-over-the-1960s article, so the New York Times is going large with the topic in tomorrow's paper. The piece ties together two seemingly unrelated -- no, scratch that, they really are unrelated -- events, which are Connectucut Democratic Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal and his apparent past misstatements on Vietnam and Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul and his remarks on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (It's the excuse they've been waiting for! A Democrat and a Republican -- balance!). Anyway, here's the nut:
Why then, to quote the ubiquitous Bono, is our political debate so stuck in a moment it cannot get out of? In part, it is probably because so many of the Americans most engaged in politics — as well as those who run campaigns and comment endlessly on them — are old enough to remember Altamont. It is your classic self-fulfilling prophecy: the more the '60s generation dominates the political discourse, the less that discourse engages younger voters, and the longer the boomers hold sway over our politics.
On a deeper level, though, this all probably has as much to do with our basic human tendency toward moral clarity. As much as conservatives may view the decade as the crucible of moral relativism and the beginning of a breakdown in established social order, there remains something powerfully attractive about the binary, simplistic nature of it all, the idea that one could easily distinguish whether he was for war or against, in favor of equality or opposed.
Personally, I do think the 1960s remain an incredibly important touchstone in the politics of the 2010s, although I don't think either Blumenthal or Paul are necessarily great examples of that -- especially Paul, whose politically unpopular ideas are rooted in a libertarian philosophy that's not in the mainstream of either that decade or this one. However, I'm one of the few people around who's been to both a liberal Netroots Nation (formerly Yearly Kos) convention and the conservative National Tea Party Convention, and both groups had a lot of folks who were in their 50s -- i.e., old enough to have memories of the 1960s -- if not older.
Researching my book on the right-wing movement that's arisen since Obama, I found a lot of conservative grassroots, Tea Party style activists who were stronly driven by what they'd seen in the 1960s or early 1970s (which were really an extension of the '60s). This is just anecdotal, but I met a disproportionate number of Vietnam vets in their movement. The one that I focus on in the greatest detail in "The Backlash" -- Russ Murphy of the Delaware 9-12 Patriots -- is an ex-Marine who was in Vietnam even before the 1965 escalation of the war; he says that hippies in Swarthmore, Pa., actually spit on him when he returned from the war, and anger over his treatment still burns inside him today.
Why the 1960s? I think that Times gets it right in the age group. Baby Boomers are larger than the generation that comes after them, and they are in the power-wielding years of their 60s and 50s. One thing I found is people in this generation carrying vivid memories of the 1960s just have more time for politics -- on the grassroots level, some are retirees and some are unwillingly "retired" because of the economy and some are part-time workers or homemakers. It's just easier for them to go to Tea Parties and what not than it is for some 30-something raising two or three kids, who doesn't know Woodstock from Woodstein.
But what resonates about that decade? I think it's two things. First, the factors that led to a long (and in hindsight unusual) polticial consensus were beginning to melt away in the 1960s. From 1933 and FDR's New Deal through 1968, America was run by Rooseveltian Democrats and one (again, in hindsigh) liberal Republican in Dwight Eisenhower, and economically we had a large and properous, heavily blue-collar middle class. The 1960s was when the closing of factories began in earnest (at first in Northern cities, then everywhere) and when U.S. oil production peaked. The number of people attending college rose sharply from 1965 to 1974 but I think in a nation that raises so many financial barriers for children to attend college, this positive development helped sew some of the seeds of our division.
There were increasing reasons that now economically battered, traditional middle-class voters (think Sarah Palin and her core voters) and a now larger professional class (think Barack Obama and his core supporters) distrusted and disliked each other. The future Palinites resented self-appointed elites and their snooty attitudes, and those future Obamaites resented both the fact and the way that the other side ruled (mostly) from 1968 through 2008. It's very easy to trace these battles that we fight today in a straight line to the 1960s.
And the other reason -- alluded to in the Times article -- is that just as the national consensus was cleaving apart, you had issues that presented very stark contrasts with clear moral choices. Vietnam is probably the ultimate example. Whatever you think about the muddy waters of future American wars like Iraq, Vietnam was a conflict that clearly was about nothing more than the United States throwing its weight around halfway across the world, so it easily divided the nation between those who felt that we should be doing that kind of thing and those who thought it was wrong. Civil rights was another issue with little ambiguity, and to some degree that was true of the culture wars over sex and drugs and rock and roll.
I remember vividly how the 1960s loomed over my own time as a college student in the late 1970s. People were politically exhausted. Vietnam was over and what you might call the "low-hanging fruit" of civil rights -- things like segregation that were unambiguously wrong -- had been picked. The only political issues that created even a ripple for a couple of years were protests over apartheid in South Africa and the renewal of draft registration, because they were relatively safe and low-key echoes of the 1960s, almost like a Civil War type re-enactment of those great battles of our forerunners.
And it's not much different today. And I'm starting to think that the sad reality that those of us who remember the actual 1960s won't be around forever may not change that, not for another generation or two. The truth is it won't change until there's job opportunities and educational opportunties for all Americans, especially the middle class, and there's no more Vietnam-style wars over oil -- until we eliminate the things that on a daily basis remind us of exactly what it was that divided us nearly a half-century ago. And until then Americans will be doomed just like the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, "bourne back ceaselessly back into the past."