As we explore the causes of the nation’s political and cultural crisis, George Packer’s list of common explanations (Last Best Hope, p. 38), resonates with my own experience in many ways. It’s worth sharing as a starting point for any discussion:
- The powerful few saw their chance and grabbed the spoils of capitalism for themselves.
- Vast impersonal changes blew across the world, flattening old structures and leaving behind new groups of winners and losers.
- One party descended into extremism and then nihilism, dragging half the country with it and making the whole country ungovernable.
- The other party sliced up its half into groups, calculating that the sum of them would keep it in power.
- America became more diverse, those long silent began to speak, and the traditional [conservative] population sank into hateful opposition.
- Bipartisan elites sold out their lower compatriots to a new global order.
- The end of the Cold War took away our last national cause and set us fighting among ourselves in ever nastier skirmishes.
- Americans went on a self-centered spree that continued for half a century while the common good withered away.
Packer describes the Fifties as a period of order and stability, which jibes well with my early adulthood during that period. Though nuclear bombs and McCarthyism disrupted the peace and alarmed the citizenry, they didn’t threaten the national culture and institutions. I was in college in the Fifties, attending one of the few universities that didn’t require a loyalty oath of its faculty and students (a requirement McCarthy set in motion); not only that, we read Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The combination set off an investigation by McCarthy’s minions. Shades of things to come. But Congress censored the Senator and put a stop both to his outrages and to President Nixon’s a few years later. Democracy worked.
He doesn’t include Vietnam, and certainly I would include that war. Not only was it the nation’s first defeat, it radically changed the nature of war. For the first time, soldiers on the ground met the enemy face to face—indistinguishable from civilians—war turned into personal trauma and dissent into a crime. Homeless shelters became filled with casualties of that war. For the first time also, there were massive protests against the war, burning of the flag, and wholesale refusal to participate. I served on a federal grand jury during the Nixon administration whose sole purpose, it turned out, was to turn file drawers of “draft-dodger” records into indictments. It is easy to forget, or not acknowledge, that non-college educated Americans fought this war. College students could receive deferments, and did.
The Civil Rights Movement is, of course, the largest of the “long silent” groups that spoke up. It might have become a historic example of successful peaceful protest, except for that day in April 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated. We were in Chicago at my parents’ that day. The south side of the city burst into flames around us. The word went out: if you don’t want to be burned, put your flag out. My father did so. I went to a nearby grocery with my six-year-old, and not only the intersection but the aisles of the store were gridlocked. Black and white drivers and shoppers were so afraid of bumping each other, by car or cart that they couldn’t move at all.
My six-year-old daughter pulled at my sleeve. “What’s wrong? Something’s wrong.”
On the way home to Michigan, we drove through burned-out streets and lost radio contact with Chicago. We heard later, and I can’t verify this, that leaders of two Southside African American gangs had met on the Midway (near the University of Chicago), shaken hands and agreed to use their power to restore the peace.
What followed is what Packer describes as the slicing up of the Democratic Party. For me and my family this was the experience of movements bursting forth daily, each targeting some aspect of the stability—“the establishment”—that had repressed them. Streets filled not only with Vietnam protesters, but with marching African-Americans, women, and gays. The demands for social justice were long overdue, but the forgotten working class was angry, sometimes violent, in its response. In the Ann Arbor area, the principal of the alternative high school was tarred and feathered by members of the neighboring blue-collar community.
What resulted was a bunch of separate cells—Packer’s “slices”—each on its own mission, joined only by their rejection of the current culture. When protesting students at the University of Michigan decided to overthrow “the establishment” by running for city council, it wasn’t the Republicans they targeted; it was the Democrats, who were a majority on the council for the first time in decades. I know this because a student radical defeated my councilman husband. This is the story of a university community, and I don’t remember any recognition that that “establishment” included the voice of working-class America.—and eruptions on the right, like the Tea Party, Barry Goldwater, and others.
By the time the ’80s came, the rise of Ronald Regan felt like a counter-revolution—the revenge of capitalism. Packer opens and closes with references to this resurgent force, and it deserves, in my own experience, a new blog—probably more than one. I’ve been blogging as a liberal, urging my own side of the battle to acknowledge their role in the current crisis. It’s time to turn to the other forces, which were enormous.
But first, I’d like to sum up the liberal side’s role. Confrontation forces attention on neglected issues. It also polarizes. When people turn the language of opposition into the language of enemies, they have turned the language of democracy into the language of war and legitimized acts of war on the democracy. Too many of the protests for justice, legitimate and needed, have turned into revenge and destruction of an “enemy” culture.