History Interrupted: Welcome to the 1970s

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History Interrupted: Welcome to the 1970s

Young people in attendance at a rally on the initial Earth Day in 1970. The Sixties ended with the expectation that a new dawn was upon us, but Reagan's version of a "shining city on the hill"—not to mention George W. Bush's, Bill Clinton's, and Barack Obama's—has meant that not even the modest dreams and demands of the 1970s have yet been met. (Photo: AP/Archive)

They say that if you can remember Woodstock, you weren’t actually there. It is therefore with some trepidation that I invite readers to cast their minds back to America, circa 1970.

No point in waxing Pollyannish about it. Vietnam was still raging, along with Cambodia and Laos. The Cold War was in full swing. Blacks and whites were newly made equal, but only in law. Women and men, not even that much. Some of the best Americans were being assassinated, including at Kent State.

Fair enough. But to get the bigger picture, consider how much had changed over the previous decade. Culturally and politically the difference between America in 1960 and America in 1970 was like the difference between smoke signals and smartphones. It was a whole ‘nuther country, and it was a lot better one.

Given all that, what might one have imagined the country’s trajectory to be over the next half-century? More Vietnams, just when the country was growing increasingly disgusted at the original version? The destruction of the middle class, just when it had been created in the first place over the previous decades? Mass incarceration of African Americans just when the civil rights movement had scored astonishing legal victories in eliminating Jim Crow? A vicious war on drugs just when everyone and his brother was getting high? Existential-scale planetary destruction just when the environmental movement was rising?

Maybe. But, unless you were especially prescient, I doubt you would have expected such a turn. Rather, I think the natural inclination would have been to predict a continuation of the then current direction, albeit – the laws of physical exhaustion being immutable – perhaps at a somewhat less frenzied velocity.

In other words, now that we’d made great strides in guaranteeing civil rights for blacks, surely others would follow in their wake. There would be equal pay laws and even an equal rights constitutional amendment for women. Now that the labor movement had helped to create a new middle class, it would be expanded, and new economic security and dignity would be secured for more Americans, especially people of color working the fields and busing the tables. Now that there had been a Catholic president without the sky falling, religion would become less of a factor in our politics. Now that we’d learned a moral lesson – not to mention a pragmatic one – in Vietnam, no more would we invade weaker countries to establish the regimes of our preference. Now that we’d seen the perils of rampant industrialism, we would become more vigilant than ever about protecting the environment. And after Watergate, surely we’d work more and more assiduously to drive the influence of money out of politics. Well, it – ahem – didn’t exactly go down that way. Not to say that there hasn’t been significant progress in some respects over these decades. But, for the most part, it has been a time of reversal. We’re still invading and occupying other countries, and still doing a piss-poor job of it. We’ve created the biggest environmental crisis in all of human history and we’re not only not addressing it in any remotely seriously way, but we’re still pretending to argue over whether or not it’s even real. Women have flooded the workplace but have no constitutionally guaranteed equality, and still aren’t paid the same for doing identical work as men. Religious monsters (or monsters pretending to be religious) became vastly more influential in American politics than they were previously, instead of less so. Money has flooded American politics – including even judicial races – in ways that dwarf anything in our experience since the time of robber barons and their paper bags stuffed with cash. And so on...

People on the right – who generally inhabit a fantasy world of paranoia anyhow – are fond of saying that America has gone crazy during this era and made a radical turn to the left. This is utter lunacy, and in fact the opposite is true. Just look at the two major political parties, for starters. Is the Republican Party of Reagan, Gingrich, the little Bushes, Santorum or even the “severely conservative” Mitt Romney to the right or to the left of the party of Eisenhower, Ford and even Nixon? There’s no question about it. Clearly, starting with Reagan and then again with each succeeding decade, Republicans have moved further and further to the crazy right. Eisenhower – who was president in the stifling Fifties, mind you – would not recognize his party today, would not want to be part of it, and would not be welcome if he did. “D-Day? Big deal,” they’d say to him. “How ugly can you be on gay marriage?”

"People on the right – who generally inhabit a fantasy world of paranoia anyhow – are fond of saying that America has gone crazy during this era and made a radical turn to the left. This is utter lunacy, and in fact the opposite is true."

The same is true of the hapless Democrats, and here the lunatic fringe of the right gets it especially wrong. But the fact is that this party has also moved rightward on most issues, and you can see it in the same fashion. Who are the more liberal figures: Franklin Roosevelt – who governed the better part of a century ago! – and Lyndon Johnson (leaving aside Vietnam) on the one hand, or Bill Clinton and Barack Obama on the other? It’s true that Democrats of today have better politics than do Republicans, though just how low is that bar? That’s like praising them for being more liberal than the Taliban. But it’s not true that they are more progressive than their predecessors. They aren’t. Both Clinton and Obama are good exemplars of a party that has mastered the ability to feed a sufficient quantity of rhetorical bon mots to their base, but can almost always be counted on to do the wrong thing when the chips are down. They’ll “feel your pain” alright, but then they’ll join with their GOP pals to ram through trade deals that will massively exacerbate that pain. They’ll tell you “Yes, we can”, you betcha, but it turns out that what that really means is “Yes, we can bomb other countries, serve the interests of Wall Street, and smash your civil liberties just like Republicans do”.

The ideological trajectory of both parties show the truth that, after the Sixties, the United States took a half-century hiatus from history, during which time we became in most respects a far more conservative country than we had been in the middle of the twentieth century.

And we’ve paid an enormous price for that foolish turn. We’ve squandered blood, treasure and reputation in a series of stupidly destructive wars. We’ve done nothing but exacerbate the situation further as the planet itself is threatened by wholesale environmental destruction. We’ve set the world’s record for incarceration, and have managed to wipe out virtually the entire cohort of young black males in the bargain. We’ve passed constitutional amendments in state after state discriminating against gays who simply want to marry. We’ve completely opened the floodgates to the wholesale invasion of monied influence into our public policymaking process. We’ve hollowed out the ranks of the middle class, driving more and more people into poverty, and creating the first new generation in American history unlikely to do as well economically as their parents did. We’ve made abortion more an more inaccessible, especially for poor women. We’ve stopped supporting scientific research. We’ve let our national infrastructure crumble. And we’ve taken seriously as national leaders the likes of Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and both Clintons.

The destruction has been wholesale, though it has taken remarkably long for most people to notice. Now, though, it feels like maybe folks have had enough. It may turn out that America is not now on the verge of a new progressive era, but it sure feels like it. And if it is, surely the events of last week were a marker. Not to say it’s all peaches and cream. Obama consorting with the same regressive right which has been obstructing the entirety of his presidency was not a pretty picture, but it paled in comparison to the issue on which he mortgaged his remaining scraps of integrity in doing so. Do we really need another Democratic president going all-out in order to jam secret and ugly trade deals through Congress and further decimate working people in this country?

That said, remarkable things are happening. Gay rights certainly leads the parade. Like Obama, the Supreme Court wasn’t exactly ahead of the curve on this issue. And the fact that this new major American policy is frankly the result of a single person – Justice Anthony Kennedy – having the wisdom and humanity to do the right thing is not exactly the most ringing endorsement imaginable. Just the same, the speed at which this major civil rights issue has reached more or less complete fruition is astonishing. Nobody even used the term ‘gay rights’ when I was a kid, and even if they did most people would have found both the phrase and the concept behind it laughably arcane at best. For that matter, I don’t think people even used the word ‘gay’ back then, other than to mean very, very happy. What an incredible journey it has been, in an astonishingly rapid (and mostly non-violent) fashion, bringing a sea change to our civil rights regime. We get to pat ourselves on the back for this one.

This last week also saw Obama’s anemic and partial remedy to America’s healthcare tragedy survive a stupid and trivial challenge in the same Supreme Court. And some of the worst actors in American politics took the bold step of calling for the removal of the slavery banner from state capitols. These are truly victories for progressive values, but only of the sort that can be labeled as such in comparison to the complete insanity of the day before. It’s kinda like giving yourself credit for ceasing to fire bullets into your foot anymore. Yep, it’s a smart move alright. Maybe next week you’ll go so far as to give up quaffing arsenic cocktails too! Regressives’ histrionics aside (which doesn’t leave them much), the truth is that they’ve had their day for nearly half a century now. There was a great American experiment with liberalism in the first chunk of the twentieth century, followed by a great experiment in conservatism in the second and into the twenty-first. That hasn’t been true in every policy domain, but it is true in most of them. In Iraq and Palestine (at least) the US returned to policies of naked imperialism not seen for a century. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution was shredded, along with our international commitments to both law and justice, and we created penal camps and engaged in torture. Tax, trade, labor relations and regulatory policies resemble those of the 1920s, and – here’s a shocker! – so does the distribution of wealth in the country. Red states pursue every manner of race-based voter disenfranchisement, including mass incarceration of blacks and voter roll purges of those not in jail. Abortion is far harder to access than it was a generation ago. We are more recklessly destructive of the environment than ever in human history. The list goes on.

Here’s the thing, though. You get the sense that people have had enough of this Experiment From Hell now. Oddly, they don’t want their only planet made uninhabitable in the name of enhanced Koch Industries profits. Oddly, they don’t want to plunge out of the middle class their parents inhabited. Strangely enough, they don’t want the government under their sheets, telling them who they can screw and which is the legally correct orifice to use. Nor are they interested in going to jail for having a joint or two in their pocket. They don’t want Dick Cheney’s stinking wars anymore, they don’t their tax dollars to be spent on torture and their own resulting shaming in the eyes of the world. They’re not comfortable with the NSA reading their email. They don’t want to be paid less because of their sex. They don’t want their jobs exported to foreign countries so that billionaire CEOs can become multibillionaire CEOs. They don’t think a minimum wage is a Stalinist plot. And they’re tired of seeing people beat-up on, discriminated against, or even killed for being gay, or black, or female.

The truth is that regressives have had literally everything – and I mean ‘literal’ in its truly literal sense – wrong. No matter what the policy question, theirs was the choice of ugliness, failure and destruction. And, whatever it was that caused American voters to lose their senses for a generation or two (what was that thing FDR once said about fear?), there is a lot evidence to suggest that the darkness is now lifting. You see it in Bernie Sanders’ campaign, and in the election of Bill de Blasio. You can see it even among Republicans in states like Kansas, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Maine, where they’ve been forced to disown the products of their own disastrous policies. You can see it in the embarrassment of embarrassing riches that is the GOP presidential field, dragging the party over the cliff yet again, this time before the first vote has even been cast. You can see it in finally sensible marijuana liberalization laws. And you can see it when a conservative-dominated Supreme Court is forced – for the preservation of what’s left of its sinking credibility – to uphold healthcare and marriage equality.

Christ, even the Pope gets it nowadays! How antediluvian does one have to be to be to the right of the Vatican? (Hint: Watch the Republican presidential primaries to find your answer.)

People just don’t want what regressives are selling anymore. And why would they, given a track record like that? Delighted as I am for this turn of events, the question for me isn’t so much why this is happening, as why it took so long.

That’s a subject for another day. Right now, all I know is that the Confederate flag is coming down, and the rainbow flag is going up.

Half a century later, we finally seem ready to enter the 1970s.

David Michael Green

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.

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