When I think about our 2017 world, I’m mostly impressed by its “nobody could have seen that coming” aspects, both good and bad. I didn’t envision the Internet, LGBQT rights, or today’s go-go China, on the one hand, or charter schools, climate disaster, and creepo 1 percenters, on the other. So like most historians these days, I’m not keen on theories of history that downplay the complexity of change over time– as in, the idea that nothing fundamental ever really changes, or that situations repeat themselves in cycles, or that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I’ve always thought historical processes were way too complicated for simplified schemas like these.
But as I mentioned last week, I’ve been thinking lately about my years as a twenty-something in 1960s Berkeley, and that’s forcing me to rethink my views of historical change. Because the background political scene from those years supplies some great evidence for the other side.
To see what I mean, here’s a quick list of political basics from those years– cherry-picked to make my point, of course, but still impressive:
- As governor of California, we had Ronald Reagan, still the top dog in our ongoing series of show-biz-fabulist-buffoon politicians; and like his successors, Reagan managed (apparently with minimal effort) to steamroll every opponent, many of them highly qualified. California also had an ex-show-biz senator (just for one term, thankfully), and Shirley Temple herself as a congresswoman. Neither of them had Reagan’s seductive effectiveness, but just their existence tells you something about where politics stood in those days.
- In Richard Nixon, we also had a president who deliberately cultivated an image of psychological instability, probably building on a foundation of real nuttiness. That’s easy to forget nowadays, because the presidents who’ve followed make Nixon look like such a towering figure. But look up “Madman theory” on Wikipedia, and you’ll learn that it was “a feature of Richard Nixon‘s foreign policy. He and his administration tried to make the leaders of hostile Communist Bloc nations think Nixon was irrational and volatile. According to the theory, those leaders would then avoid provoking the United States, fearing an unpredictable American response.” Remember, this was in the context of hair-trigger nuclear weaponry.
- Plus Nixon had made his career as a McCarthyite commie-hunter, and he pioneered our contemporary forms of coded racism. His “southern strategy” and judicial nominations explicitly appealed to all those angered by the Civil Rights movement; slightly less explicitly, his appeals to the “Silent Majority” pushed the idea that liberal elites and intellectuals were responsible for minorities’ new presence in American life, as for so many other ills. (He was also antisemitic, but at least he kept that private.)
- Of course there were also the wars, mostly in Indochina but occasionally erupting elsewhere as well, and just like today’s wars they seemed endless. Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American already depicted America’s Vietnam escapades, then semi-clandestine, and (as we all know) things got much much worse over the next two decades, through five presidential administrations; even after we left Vietnam, we continued supporting the auto-genocidal Pol Pot in nearby Cambodia. Again, nuclear weapons lurked in the background. Russia and China were supposed to be on Vietnam’s side, and there was always the possibility that events would spiral out of control.
- And then there was the violence at home, at levels that today would trigger code-red terrorism alerts. We remember the Kennedy and King assassinations, but there was a long string of other political violence, involving all kinds of groups, some of them talking terrorizing lingo: the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, the KKK, and various other groups. In response, we also had regular calls to give police more leeway in dealing with all the chaos. Clint Eastwood’s 1971 movie “Dirty Harry” (in which a cop disposes of various evil-doers, despite weakling authorities trying to slow him down) was as characteristic of the era as anti-war demonstrations.
Sound familiar? Here we are fifty years later, and the items on my list are all back, as if they’d never been away.
Which suggests the disturbing possibility: maybe they actually never have been away, maybe they’ve been lurking in the background all along, as part of the American political systems we’ve inherited and seem unable to get rid of. After all, no one’s ever doubted that hucksterism, anger, paranoia, and violence have been a long-time presence in American life– we need to incorporate them into our memories of “The Sixties,” and remember that they brought us Reagan/Nixon/Eastwood along with all those liberation movements. Doing so has at least one consolation: maybe our 2017 troubles aren’t quite the unprecedented calamity they may seem.