May 14, 2008
The popular narrative of liberal decadence and decline suggests that sometime in the 1960s the Democratic Party was captured by coalition of ethnic and political radicals. A party that was previously committed to American civil religion, anti-communism and the redemption of mans’ soul through individual effort and hard work became the vanguard of rights activists, pacifists and welfare junkies. The quintessential Democrat – the patriotic, God fearing blue collar economic populist – found himself without a party and so built a new home in the GOP. Frustratingly, this is not only the opinion of the American right, but also of most historians, political scientists and even mainstream politicians. Through them it has become public orthodoxy. The implications for policy making and electoral strategy are obvious. The failure of various reform movements since the 1960s has been taken as evidence not only of poor leadership, but also that reform itself is basically un-American and, thus, unattainable.
The flashpoint of this change in American politics, that is the moment when mainstream liberalism was hijacked by the far left, was 1968. In August of that year the Democratic Party gathered in Chicago to nominate its presidential candidate. The Democrats were in disarray. Eight years of government had witnessed an explosion of inner-city violence and a costly, tragic war in Vietnam. Democratic president Lyndon Johnson had been forced to remove his name from the nominating process and the Convention bustled with anti-war activists coalesced around Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. Outside in the city streets, anti-war activists clashed with police in a bloody confrontation that epitomised a moment of profound change and disorder within America. McCarthy and the anti-war activists were unsuccessful in the short-term; the Democratic Party entered the fall election on an ostensibly pro-war platform. But in time their protest opened the party up to the full participation of a variety of radical causes. By 1972 the anti-war movement effectively controlled the party and secured the nomination of one of their own: South Dakota Senator George McGovern. McGovern’s unabashed commitment to socially liberal causes (summed up by his own running mate as the unholy trinity of ‘amnesty, acid and abortion’) led to a landslide defeat. Yet, the party now belonged body and soul to the radical left. Even the first family of American do-nothing centrism, the Clintons, cut their teeth among this revolutionary milieu. Bill was a state co-ordinator for McGovern and Hillary a doorstep activist for McCarthy.
The subject of this essay is the coalition of radicals that gathered in Chicago in 1968 – both inside and outside the Convention. These were the Children of ’68. As this essay will demonstrate, many were far from young and most were committed to political engagement before and after that catastrophic year. But they were of ’68 because the trauma of that particular ‘annis horribilis’ defined them in much the same way 1789 did the French, or 1917 the Russians. They were children partly because their average age was very low, but also because they consciously and unconsciously exuded a wide eyed, bloodless idealism that is unusual among revolutionaries (who are typically power theorists) and practically unique in post war American politics. In many regards they were immature and infantile – as demonstrated by their theatrics, breast beating, widespread refusal to wash and indignant surprise and horror when they failed to get their way. In many other ways they were ‘beautiful’ in the manner that only newborn, sinless children can be. They saw no limits to their potential and no cause to compromise.
The purpose of this essay is to correct the oft-made assumption that the children of ’68 were Marxists intent on tearing down American society and reconstructing something new, socialistic and, most terrifyingly, foreign in its place. Naturally there were some elements within the New Politics movement (I shall explain that term later) who wanted to do precisely those things. But this article argues that the vast majority of the kids at Chicago were in fact radical conservatives who came from a very American tradition of anti-authoritarianism. Their aim was to challenge and reverse the growth in government that had begun in the 1930s. Not truly belonging to the far left at all, they were anti-bureaucratic and shared many similar traits with their contemporaries on the American right. Therefore, it is my contention that the wrong lessons have been taken from 1968. The New Politics was a fundamentally conservative movement, not a leftist one. Although its ideals were horribly mistranslated and even disfigured by its counter-culture style and audience, it offered a new analysis of power politics, a new manner of campaigning and a new coalition that are worthy of reconsideration. It communicated a message that is still relevant today and offers, perhaps, a fresh narrative for a party and a movement that is otherwise all out of ideas.
At the beginning of 1968 life was still pretty sweet for the average American. The economy was doing well; inflation and unemployment were both low. The US was lead by a popular president, Lyndon Johnson. This avuncular ex-school teacher was privately a vulgar philanderer given to bullying his subordinates and bugging the offices of his own staff as well as his opposition. But Johnson was also the last great Democratic president. A controversial one to be sure, but an incumbent whose record combined sweeping liberal reform with electoral success. After a landslide re-election in 1964, Johnson called upon Americans to construct a ‘Great Society’ that would balance racial tolerance and integration with publicly funded social programs. Although little interested in the redistribution of wealth the Great Society’s planners were convinced of the basic efficacy of American capitalism but had an activist commitment to compensate for its problems, one of which was the persistence of poverty. Thus Johnson wished to expand opportunities for Americans without necessarily guaranteeing a greater equality of outcome. He gave massive federal aid to education (a controversial move as it threatened traditional syllabi and integrated classrooms), increased medical coverage, created public service broadcasting, instigated consumer protection, environmental programs and even an ambitious public transport system. He declared a War on Poverty, spending some $3 billion on job corps, food stamps and model cities projects. But at the very heart of the Great Society was the integration into economic and political life of African Americans. Thus, congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that forbade discrimination in hiring or housing and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that assured minority registration and voting.
Johnson was initially popular not only for his vision and compassion, but also because he conformed to and manipulated the anti-communist mentality of his age. Democrats were accused of having lost China after the country went communist in 1949 and of having effectively permitted the Soviets to develop nuclear technology. Therefore, presidential candidate John F Kennedy ran on an aggressive Cold Warrior ticket in 1960, urging Americans to spend more on military and space programs to catch up with the USSR (which in fact was far behind America in both). He committed US military advisers to Vietnam, which was engaged in a protracted civil war between the communist north and the pro-Western dictatorship in the south. When he assumed office after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson stepped up support for the beleaguered south, believing that were it to fall to Marxists then a domino effect might take place, turning the entire region Red. On 2nd August 1964 some Vietnamese torpedo boats apparently launched an attack upon a US destroyer, the Maddox, in the Gulf of Tonkin. Johnson responded with a declaration of full military support for the south and the Vietnam War, which would claim the lives of over 58,000 US troops, began in earnest. It should be stressed that the ‘great game’, as Vice President Hubert Humphrey cheerfully described Vietnam, was initially very popular. Opinion polls suggested that up to 1968 the public broadly favoured US presence in South East Asia and when the fateful Tonkin Resolution came before the congress it passed the House unanimously, and the Senate with only two nays.
The golden era of the 1960s – an epoch of consumer excess, full employment, noble sentiments and moonshots – came to a horrible and distressing end on 31st January 1968. The previous day the Viet Cong launched an offensive against Saigon. The US and South Vietnamese were taken by surprise as this was Tet, the Vietnamese New Year and hostilities were traditionally suspended for the festivities. On the 31st a small troop of the Viet Cong rushed the American embassy, the symbolic centre of US presence in Vietnam. The media sent back home pictures from Saigon that revealed the apparent superiority of the communists and the tenuous strength of the American forces. Their own embassy had been over-run where it mattered: live on colour TV. In fact the Tet Offensive was a failure. The Americans and Southerners responded well, pushing the Viet Cong back to Hue in the North and decimating their troop levels. But America was shaken. Some responded to the humiliation by demanding that the president allow the US military to expand and intensify the war, a war many felt bureaucrats and politicians did not allow the generals to win. Some began to call for the immediate and total withdrawal of all troops from Vietnam. This was the spark that ignited the New Politics.
Vietnam was not the only issue that divided Americans and it is the argument of this essay that it has for too long been regarded as the sole raison d’etre of the New Politics too. The Civil Rights revolution filled many white Americans with status anxiety and raised expectations within the African American community that typically went unfulfilled. Many black ghettos in America’s industrial heartland (notably Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles) erupted in riots and looting in response to police brutality, joblessness and poverty. Worse still, in early 1968 the economy began to overheat and it burnt the consumer hardest. Johnson’s dictum that the United States government could fund both ‘guns and butter’, that is Vietnam and the Great Society, was economically short sighted. Spending rose rapidly, but Johnson refused to increase taxes to curb rising prices. When he did so it was too late, the economy had become imbalanced and borrowing and wages were out of control and out-marching productivity. As a result, throughout 1968 consumer prices jumped 4.3% and in October consumer prices leapt at a frantic 7.2% annual rate. Americans had not witnessed such a sudden rise in living costs since the early 1950s and, having experienced only a pleasant harmony of growth and stability for a whole decade, they were unused to it. Some put the blame on Vietnam. Many more put it on rising welfare rolls and entitlement programs for ethnic minorities. The Great Society had become in the eyes of some a Great Handout to the poor at the expense of hardworking Americans. Thus, the issues of civil rights and inflation were intertwined and the New Politics revolution was as much about economics as it was war.
In November 1967 Senator Eugene McCarthy declared that he would challenge President Johnson for the Democratic Party nomination. His campaign was initially driven solely by the issue of the Vietnam War and it was lucratively funded by a coalition of liberals from the Northeast. McCarthy was written off as a protest candidate but, after Tet, he began to draw greater attention from the media. He gathered around him a generation of young liberal activists dubbed the ‘Children’s Crusade’. They became ‘clean for Gene’, cutting their fashionably long hair into reassuringly short crew cuts and trudging through the snows of the New Hampshire primary for their champion. Among them one could find, to quote one of the movement’s biographers Norman Mailer, ‘young men with a full chop of beard and a fifty pound pack on their back, young poetesses, pale as Ophelia, prim as Florence Nightingale, college boys in sweaters with hints of Hippy allegiance, Madison avenue types in side-burns, straw hats, and a species of pill-taking panache.’ McCarthy was an urbane, witty man with a gentle, laconic disposition that served him well on television and suited a public desperate for idealism tempered with conviviality in a violent and uncertain era. McCarthy’s narrow 49-42% defeat in New Hampshire on 12th March 1968 was a moral victory. Facing certain defeat in the upcoming Wisconsin primary, Johnson quit the race on 31st March and told a stunned nation that he would neither seek nor accept his party’s nomination for re-election. On 27th April Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s garrulous, verbose Vice President, declared that he would run too, effectively picking up the Great Society mantle.
In late March New York Senator Robert Kennedy announced his own candidacy. The brother of a murdered president, Robert brought charisma, passion and a shared national memory to the race. He ran well among blacks, latinos and the very poor. Both strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, Kennedy and McCarthy swapped victories throughout the spring and early summer. The primaries played out against a background of hope and despair. Martin Luther King was shot dead on 4th April and the US descended once more into riots and disorder. On 5th June Robert Kennedy too was assassinated, after winning a wafer thin victory over McCarthy in California. The shocked and exhausted McCarthy vowed to carry his campaign on to the convention, winning every single primary that lay before him. But all this was in vain. The Democratic nominating convention was composed of a small minority of directly elected delegates (selected in the primaries) and a vast contingent of unelected delegates appointed by party and state officials. Among these delegates, Hubert Humphrey had built up an insurmountable advantage.
When he arrived at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, McCarthy had won all but four state primaries, yet he trailed Humphrey for votes by 601 to 1,759. The ambition and idealism of the early primaries had descended into chaotic anger and mob fury. A campus fuelled movement of Hippies, Yippies, socialists and peaceniks descended upon Chicago to demonstrate against the war. There they were met with the full force of Mayor Richard Daley’s police, who ruthlessly broke up rallies and marches. When the kids ignored an order not to sleep in Lincoln Park, the police over-reacted. They used nightsticks and teargas to dispel the largely peaceful crowds, hitting, among others, Allen Ginsberg, Jean Genet and William Burroughs. In an embarrassing international incident a holidaying British MP was maced in her hotel lobby and thrown into the back of a police van. A good illustration of the horror of Chicago was given by this report in the New York Times.
For no reason that could be immediately determined, the blue-helmeted policemen charged the barriers, crushing the spectators against the windows of a Haymarket Inn, a restaurant in the hotel. Finally, the window gave way, sending screaming middle aged women and children backward through the broken shards of glass. The policemen then ran into the restaurant and beat some of the victims who had fallen through the windows and arrested them.
Like the Tet Offensive at the beginning of the year, the anarchy of Chicago took place where it mattered: live on colour TV. Indeed it was one of the few moments in modern history when the revolution was televised. The images forced America to face its own terrible divisions and inner-fascisms. The police brutality sent a clear message that no revolution, be it peaceful or ugly, would not be tolerated. A combination of unelected delegates and ‘Gestapo tactics’ confirmed the nomination of Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey went onto face a narrow defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon, by 42.7% to 43.4%. In early 1969 seven ‘leaders’ of the insurrection were arrested and tried for conspiracy to incite a riot. Among the most infamous were New Left activist Tom Hayden and Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. In February 1970 all seven defendants were found not guilty of conspiracy, two were acquitted completely, and five were convicted of crossing state lines with the intent to incite a riot. Those five were each sentenced to five years in prison and fined $5,000. At the sentencing Abbie Hoffman suggested the judge try LSD and kindly offered to set him up with a dealer he knew in Florida.
The police violence was partly the result of bad coordination and rumours of intended mass violence (Mayor Daley took seriously rumours that demonstrators planned to spike Chicago’s water supply with hallucinogens). But it was also symptomatic of a wider culture war. The protestors at Chicago were perceived to be radical anarchists and Marxists who wanted to violently overthrow the American system and replace it with a bizarre panacea of drugs, sex, communal living, miscegenation, abortion on demand and a generous rate of welfare provision. One of their number stated that, in advance of Chicago,
Gentlemen, joy, nookie, circle groups, laughing, dancing, sharing, grass, magc, meditation, music, theatre and weirdo mutant-jissomed chromosome-damaged ape-chortles have always been my concern for Lincoln Park. Yours for the power of the lob-throb, Ed Sanders.
The rest of America perceived the children of ’68 through the prism of the counterculture. But the prism distorted reality. The first problem that faces the historian addressing the children of ’68 is one of precise definition. From his vantage point, Norman Mailer concluded that they comprised three groups: the utopian liberals who signed up to campaign for either McCarthy or Kennedy, the socialists and the existentialists. The utopians were mostly middle class students. The socialists were largely drawn from the process-obsessed New Left, which was ‘interested for the most part in altering society (and being conceivably altered themselves – they were nothing if not Romantic) by the activity of working for a new kind of life out in the ghettos, the campuses and the anti-war movement.’ The existentialists were condensed into the Youth International Party (Yippies) and were considerably less didactic. They were devoted to ‘a politics of ecstasy… programmatic about drug taking, Dionysiacs, propagandists by example, mystical in focus (Rubin had once burned some money in the middle of a debate with a Trotskyist).’
In many regards these groups were very different and often antagonistic towards one another. But they were united in several respects. They were all opposed to Vietnam, all detested the established method of doing politics and, for 1968 at least, felt a generational kinship. There was a moving moment at Chicago when the police forced the Yippies and New Left agitators into the square beneath McCarthy’s campaign headquarters. The teargas from the street drifted up into McCarthy’s office, along with wounded protestors covered in blood, bruises and shards of broken glass. The McCarthy people began to weep, partly because of the gas and partly through sheer anguish and exhaustion. The Yippies down below sent message that if they supported them, McCarthy’s people should flash the building’s lights on and off. Like a giant birthday cake, the Hilton began to blink with tiny points of flickering light. The crowd below cheered.
All these radicals marched under the banner of the New Politics, a necessarily vague term that comprised a number of movements that were often bound together by isolated points of policy congruence (Vietnam, social liberalism, racial tolerance), scepticism towards the efficacy of Great Society reform, institutional conflict and their mutual desire to revise the New Deal political and electoral order. Their unity at election time hid a variety of internal conflicts and contradictions. Nevertheless the term New Politics is appropriate because it reflects the conscious alliance building that took place and because it was used by contemporary commentators to understand the collection of movements that sprung from the 1960s too. To quote Time it was the method by which ‘the traditional deployments of blocs and bosses would be short-circuited by new-mold men and electronic eloquence’. It was a revolution in style and process, from which emerged substance.
For some critics the New Politics was defined purely by generation and demography. In his masterly study of the Democratic Party reform movement, Byron E Shafer concluded that as much as the politics of Johnson’s liberalism was shaped by the memory of poverty and joblessness, the politics of the counterculture was shaped by affluence and indolence. He interpreted the conflict of the late 1960s as a wholly social and institutional one, between a New Class and an Old Class of American voter. The emergent New Class, ‘whose core appears to be college educated professionals and managers in the public sector – in government and in educational, professional, and other social-service institutions,’ had not experienced the misery of the Great Depression and as such did not appreciate the benefits of an enlarged, generous state. The Old Class, whose centres of power were located in party, state and city machinery and the trades union movement, was older, toughened by the experience of total war and less inclined to take free schools, healthcare and pensions for granted.
For Shafer, the New Class found expression through the New Politics. Opening up a whole new sphere and style of political activism, the New Politics gave a fresh voice to a brilliant generation. Inevitably, generational style is idiosyncratic, exclusivist and defined by its rejection of everything that had gone before. The New Politics generation saw itself as being outside of machine politics, it was ‘a national mobilization of irregulars’ that ‘sought no specific gain or advantage for any special bloc, or for themselves personally.’ The New Class was ‘beautiful’ in that it was unsullied by tired dichotomies of class, region, neighbourhood, gender or even family. Crucially, it thought nothing of personal material or political gain. Where the Old Class had fought for investment, growth and ‘jobs for the boys’, the New Class fought for justice and liberty on their own terms. It was a situation within which partisanship spawned philosophical identity, not vice-versa. More radical liberals, so Shafer argued, allied themselves with this New Class to produce an alliance of convenience. In this manner, long-term conflicts of interest between Democratic Party factions came to catalyse the birth of a reform movement. At its heart was ‘the new wave of party insurgents who had surfaced in the losing nomination campaigns of 1968, but its troops were the organized reform factions which existed within many regular parties across the country.’
Much of Shafer’s argument is self evident. The New Politics was indeed dominated by the young and they, by accident of history, necessarily had a very different set of cultural values to their forebears. But to suggest that the politics of 1968 was bereft of ideology and motivated purely by hormones, funk and frustration is disingenuous at best. In diametric opposition to Shafer, many historians of the late 1960s have emphasised principle over style – typically in a manner that reflects the concerns of their own narrow subject area. Historians of the progressive movement have dubbed it a second flowering of Midwestern progressivism. Historians of the New Left have placed it in the context of shifting ideologies on the far left – of the struggle of an enlightened generation of anti-bureaucratic students against the new power elites. Increasingly influential is the view that Vietnam was an umbrella for a cacophony of liberal, socialist, New Left, identity-driven and often oddball politics. The centrality of Vietnam to the movement’s cause belied its philosophical disunity and ambiguity. Opposition to Vietnam was a banner under which stood a coalition of the deluded and confused.
Yet the New Politics was remarkably consistent in its opposition to the war in Asia, arguably more so than most mainstream liberals have been to the war in Iraq. Vietnam defined the presidential candidacies of Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy like no other issue. It caused many to interrupt otherwise promising political careers to pursue a point of principle that at the very least deferred their goals. Senators Frank Church of Idaho, Fred Harris of Oklahoma and Mike Gravel of Alaska were elected on moderately pro-war platforms from deeply conservative states, yet all three chose to break rank and to risk presidential disfavour in opposing it. Outside of the mainstream Democratic Party and the large, established trades-unions no social protest movement supported the war and all were vociferous in their opposition. Age did not preclude anti-war sentiment or presence at the barricades. McCarthy, Kennedy and McGovern were hardly young – but their role in the nightmare of Chicago was every bit as important as that of the Hippies or Yippies. Counterculture moguls like Allen Ginsburg and Timothy Leary were old enough to be the fathers of many of the people they got ‘turned on’ with.
Perhaps one of the crudest and cruellest characterisations of the 1968 activists (besides youth) is inexperience. As it should be pointed out that Rosa Parks was an activist within the NAACP long before she took a role within the bus boycott movement and that Betty Friedan was a polemicist for labour long before she wrote The Feminine Mystique, so it should be noted that much of the Chicago leadership were experienced community organisers, civil rights activists and social workers. Jerry Rubin (co-founder of the Yippies and the Pigasus for President campaign, whereby he tried to get the Democratic convention to draft his pet pig) was far from the decadent, eccentric attention seeker that his own publicity made him appear. In his early twenties he spent time working in a Kibbutz in Israel and reporting on the Cuban revolution from Havana. At Berkley he became a civil rights protestor, leading his first demonstration against a local grocer that refused to serve African Americans. His story was not unique. Abbie Hoffman was involved in a voter registration project in the early 1960s and was attacked on several occasions by Dixie lynch mobs. Tom Hayden was a social worker in Newark.
As these personal histories suggest, opposition to the war was about more than opposition to the war. Many antiwar activists sought not merely to end the war in Vietnam, but (to quote Senator Frank Church) ‘stand up and question the basic structures and assumptions which have led to so much tragedy.’ Opposition to Vietnam was not an isolated policy disagreement, but was a key route in to a valuational dimension of conflict with the underlying principles of mainstream liberalism. The New Politics questioned the growth of executive power that had sprung from Roosevelt’s ‘claim to unilateral authority’ in the foundation of the New Deal and the execution of the Second World War. ‘By the early 1970s’, it was argued, ‘the American president had become on issues of war and peace the most absolute monarch.’ This was later confirmed by revelations that the White House had organised a series of break-ins to the headquarters of the Democratic Party at the Watergate Hotel in 1972. This seminal scandal was ‘the natural outgrowth of liberal policy; the development of a strong presidency relying upon implied powers to get things done that might be politically awkward otherwise.’ Anti-big government umbrella organisations such as Common Cause, established in 1970 by ex Secretary of Health Education and Welfare John Gardner, sought to unite apparently disparate issues like campaign finance, tax and electoral reform around the theme of opposition to the accumulation of executive power.
Opposition to Vietnam also reflected wider criticism of the Democratic Party’s commitment to confrontation with the Soviet Union. The New Politics stressed the limits of US ability to influence international developments, questioned the prominent role assigned to military operations by executive branch policymakers in the Cold War environment, and urged recalibrating US foreign policy to support reformers overseas. Returning from Vietnam, the future Democratic Tennessee Senator Al Gore wrote that, ‘we have an inveterate antipathy for communism – or paranoia… creating fascist, totalitarian regimes in the name of fighting totalitarianism.’ New Politics representatives often directed their energies to trying to redirect funding for the Cold War and covert military expenditure in to domestic welfare programs. Aid to undemocratic Western allies was questioned and some New Politics groups even questioned unequivocal US support for Israel.
Finally, opposition to Vietnam highlighted the New Politics critique of liberal economics. The New Politics believed that President Johnson’s promise of ‘guns and butter’ was fundamentally flawed. Not only had it self-evidently fuelled inflation, but it also demonstrated that federal policy was dictated by the needs of the Military-Industrial complex. For instance, Eugene McCarthy labelled himself not as an unreconstructed liberal, but rather as a ‘social liberal and a fiscal conservative’. He argued that the standard New Deal remedies for recession – ‘greater consumer purchasing power, more public works and public employment’ – were inadequate and even morally bankrupt. These typically amounted to ‘pork barrel’ economics, granting contracts or federal funds to politically powerful interest groups. By saturating the defence department and corporations that depended upon mass consumption or war to maintain profits, the government was empowering those interests and creating a cycle of dependency and political manipulation. Mailer opined that McCarthy was ‘probably, left to his own inclinations, the most serious conservative to run for nomination since Robert Taft.’
Even the Yippies and the New Left, who shared intellectual and political origins, were arguably more intent on reducing the power of the state than they were replacing it with a socialistic alternative. The Yippie manifesto was more libertarian than it was Marxist. Yippies demanded, ‘the legalization of Marihuana… abolition of all laws related to crimes without victims… open and free use of the media… a decentralisation of power and authority.’ Their economic views were so simple as to imply that they thought as little about the dialectic or the maths involved as possible. They wanted ‘a society were people are free from the drudgery of work’ and the ‘Adoption of the concept ‘let the machines do the work.” Their vision of utopia was a mix of Jefferson and ruritania. They desired, ‘a decentralisation of our crowded cites, encourage rural living… many varied tribal groups. Groups in which people exist in a state of basic trust and are free to choose their tribe.’ In essence, a return to pre-revolutionary pilgrim America. The New Left was arguably little different in its fight against ‘bigness’, regardless of form. It sought, ‘the establishment of a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.’ Within such a framework of thought, the welfare state was in fact merely one pillar of the Military-Industrial complex – the institutionalisation of the individual and of individual need. The Vietnam War stemmed ‘from the same framework of thought that determines domestic welfarism’, being programmatic and authoritarian in nature. Piecemeal liberal reformism rescued commercial interests, but granted it influence in government too. The New Left wanted to tear down the Great Society as much as it wanted to end the Vietnam War, for it hindered the genuine, free association of individuals and spontaneous community effort. It rendered people mere serfs to their social workers.
The New Politics questioned the New Deal policy of stimulating aggregate demand, sounding (to quote a radical congressman) ‘an audible outcry over the consumption-wild economy of the United States.’ This criticism extended to the labour movement, which ‘intoxicated with success and seemingly unlimited profits and higher wages’ had become ‘less productive’ and thus inflationary. Concern with the impact of excessive growth was reflected in the growing influence of the environmentalist movement and this antigrowth philosophy continues to exert a strong influence over the Democrats today. This inevitably created a cultural clash between the interests of older tertiary industries and groups concerned with the quality of life. Conflicting priorities of growth and environmental protection exacerbated differences in class interests: between those who cherished the environment and those that made their living out of cutting it down or digging it up. This reflected a wider shift in social identification away from supporting the rights of ‘producers’ within the economy to championing the rights of ‘consumers’. There emerged a ‘public interest advocacy’ movement, which grouped together a variety of groups and individuals who critical of government and corporate activity. These consumer advocacy groups, associated commonly with the leadership of Ralph Nader, abhorred monopolies and even collective bargaining practices that raised wages, costs and therefore prices.
Therefore, the New Politics was far more conservative than its critics realised. It was, wrote one admirer, ‘a movement whose strength was in the suburbs and the academy – two bastions of that faith which would state that a man must be allowed to lead a modest and reasonable life without interference from large forces. If corruption in politics, opportunism, and undue ambition excited their contempt, and injustice in race relations excited their disapproval the war in Vietnam encouraged their most honourable suppressed fury for it spoke of a large and outrageous outside force which would sweep their lives away.’
A fairer judgement about the children on ’68 can be made by considering what they did when they grew up. In the following decade the politics of culture shifted from an emphasis upon race and towards the subtler, more diverse concerns of Identity Politics. Pressure groups that championed the rights of the LGBT community, women, Mexican-Americans, Native Americans and a younger generation of African Americans complicated the counterculture scene and sparked a fierce reaction among blue-collar Americans. Older liberals like McCarthy and McGovern embraced these trends, continuing a perverse process that enlarged their activist base but almost wilfully shrank their pool of voters. Yet the sagacity of alliance with the counter-culture in the 1970s was a purely academic issue: it happened and this gave birth to the modern Democratic Party. After the mess of Chicago, the Democratic Party mandated McGovern to review the procedures for selecting delegates. The resultant McGovern Commission forced the Convention to allot delegates according to strict gender, generational and racial quotas and, where possible, for them to be democratically elected. As a result the power of small groups of activists capable of bringing their own blocks of voters to the polls increased, while the influence of machine politicians declined dramatically. By 1980 the Convention platform committed the Democratic ticket to upholding the legalisation of abortion, ending employment discrimination against gays and lesbians and increased spending for conservation projects. Crucially, the Democratic Party would never return to its Cold War anti-communism. When a Democratic president was elected in 1976, one of his first actions was to issue a pardon for Vietnam draft dodgers.
In the1970s the politics of growth became ever more prescient with the advent of stagflation – a queer mix of high unemployment and high inflation that defied good economic sense (one usually dampens the other). The new predominance of economic issues encouraged some New Politics activists to follow their critique of big government through to its logical conclusion. Although still very much part of the counterculture milieu, many radical conservatives began to give full expression to their fiscal conservatism. Typical of this evolution was Colorado Senator Gary Hart. Elected in 1974, Hart had been campaign co-ordinator for McGovern in 1972 and was a seasoned New Politics activist. He won his state primary on the back of a coalition of feminists, anti-war activists, environmentalists and consumer groups. Hart retained his commitment in the Senate to all these concerns, but he also began to argue strongly that the economic methodology of mainstream liberalism had become anachronistic, overly programmatic and even ‘reactionary’ (because many blue collar whites benefited from the resultant contracts). Excessive government spending distorted the free-market and caused prices to soar. Although it is true that Hart prioritised a reduction in military expenditure, he also supported some reductions in welfare spending and by 1980 had become a proponent of a balanced budget and a flat tax. Pledging to reject ‘pork barrel’ spending and the ‘narrow interests’ of labour and the Democratic Party’s established constituency groups, Hart even told a columnist that ‘we’re not all a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys’, a remark that greatly offended the Minnesota Senator. As a result of his economics, Hart was unpopular with labour and received little union PAC money towards his re-election. When he ran for president in 1984, Hart revived many of the themes of 1968 but communicated them in the language of fiscal discipline, reduced bureaucracy and economic modernisation.
A New Politics liberal with a similarly conservative record was California Governor Jerry Brown. When he was first elected, Brown exchanged his free limousine for a modest Plymouth, and spurned an extravagant janitorial mansion 13 miles from the capitol for a mattress on the floor of a $250-a-month apartment across from his office. Brown was a mercurial bachelor who practiced yoga, spent some time in a seminary and preached the benefits of vegetarianism. Style reflected substance. Brown frequently characterised the 1970s as ‘an era of limits’ that required a reduction in federal spending. ‘Government’ he argued, mixing fiscal discipline with environmentalism, ‘must lower its expectations in an age when not only government is limited in its responses, but the planet itself is losing resources capable of maintaining the high consumption of Americans.’ Hence, he was able to seamlessly integrate a traditionally liberal argument for the promotion of solar power while expressing a traditionally conservative urge to cut waste and save taxpayer money. Unlike Hart, Brown believe that the poor too would have to ‘reduce their standard of living’ in an era of limits. Welfare, suggested Brown, ‘was a charity, not a right.’ In 1992 Brown ran a maverick campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination that pioneered a call for campaign finance reform, but also for a balanced budget amendment and a flat tax.
Hart and Brown arguably were the spokesmen of the Yuppie generation. Often the yuppies – who are associated with the micro-technology boom of the 1980s, oversized mobile phones and excessive cocaine use – are mistaken for being quintessentially Republican. They are typecast as a vacuous, greedy generation that was unleashed upon the stock markets by Ronald Reagan’s deregulatory agenda. But this view is disingenuous. Cultural historian Bruce Schulman has rightly corrected it, pointing out that the Yuppies’ ‘zest for wealth did not foreclose the possibility of social reform. On the contrary, the second key tenet of yuppie ideology held that money making was not antithetical to meaningful social change, but absolutely essential for it… One could change the world by providing for it with natural, caring, environmentally safe, politically sensitive goods and services.’ In the late 1970s Yippie leader Jerry Rubin became an early investor in Apple computers and by the end of the decade was a multimillionaire. But Rubin’s embrace of capitalism did not, for him at least, equate with rejection of the social and emotional values of ’68. When he took a debating tour in the 1980s with his old comrade Abbie Hoffman, Rubin told audiences that drugs and sex had bred a culture of materialism and de-humanisation within the Yippie movement itself. Capitalism was ‘the real American Revolution – what we need is an infusion of capital into the depressed areas of our country.’ Social entrepreneurial-ship was the alternative to bureaucratic welfarism that the New Politics had been looking for.
Hart, Brown and Rubin did not sell out. They only appeared to because their attention was redirected by the challenge of rescuing an ailing US economy in an inflationary era. This radical conservative philosophy was still intact even if their preoccupations were not. Evidence of an enduring consistency for their radical conservatism was provided by one of the ’68 children who also tried to make it into the mainstream: Tom Hayden. While some Hippies and Yippies retired from politics (and life) in the early 1970s, others tasted power and wanted more. They took from the failure of their movement not the lesson that America was beyond redemption, but rather that they had to change tactics. Specifically, they had to tone down their style, cut their hair and get into office. A reporter at a 1976 New Left conference noted how far many of its delegates had politically matured in just eight years. A leader of the 1969 Vietnam War moratorium, Sam Brown, was now the state treasurer of Colorado. Jeff Friedman and Paul Soglin were the mayors of Austin and Madison, Wisconsin, respectively. Both had moved as students from big cities to their university towns, become Vietnam protest leaders and were elected by coalitions of students, minorities and white liberals. Also present was Tom Hayden who, that year, was running for the Senate.
After a period of living from hand to mouth in various communes in the early 1970s, Hayden moved in with and married the feminist actress Jane Fonda. Hayden radicalised Fonda, turning a run-of-the-mill Hollywood liberal into an antiwar icon. ‘Hanoi Jane’ flew to North Vietnam and gave radio broadcasts urging Americans to lay down their arms and surrender. A morally ambiguous figure (the North Vietnamese systematically tortured captured US soldiers) Fonda represented the heady ambition and naivety of her era. During the coming campaign she would make a number of rash comments about her husband’s opponent, including describing him as a ‘Chappaquiddick waiting to happen’, that suggested the couple were not yet ready for office. Nonetheless, looking for a vehicle for their own brand of anti-government, anti-business socialism, Fonda and Hayden struck upon the novel idea of running for the Senate.
The platform they concocted reeked of the New Politics’ layering of radical conservatism in a veneer of a hip-sensibility. The Los Angeles Times reported that Hayden ran on a ‘neo-socialist program that attacked both big government and big corporations and offered sweeping social and economic changes.’ He targeted the typical New Politics demons of the arms race, nuclear power and pollution. Yet, the Times noted with surprise that he attempted to paint himself as a ‘”fiscal conservative”… Words like “socialism” said Hayden, had no useful application: we have to work out “new ways of thinking”. In Hayden’s view ‘economic democracy is envisioned as an unfolding process of structural reform and expanded consciousness, powered not so much by state initiative (as… other socialists tend to imagine), as by continuing welling up of worker, community, and consumer resistance to corporate abuse… Hayden argues for economic democracy… on the conservative grounds that, as economic growth slows, social stability depends on the informed participation of all.’ Adopting the language of the ‘taxpayer revolt’, he explained that he would make savings that would be returned to the taxpayer by cutting the defence budget, government grants to corporations and ‘indirect subsidies to the privileged few’. His campaign was directed as much against government as business: ‘Hayden calls for giving people more power through community decision making and a diminishing of influence by the federal government and corporations.’ ‘Anyone who runs on ‘guns and butter” he told audiences in an attack upon Keynesianism, ‘is due for the psychiatric ward.’ As in ’68, Hayden’s campaign reserved its real venom for his opponent’s style of politics rather than its substance. Hayden told a reporter that he was ‘trying to win over people who are very alienated from the bumper sticker society and the politicians who are sold like soap commercials.’
What separated Hayden from that other Californian radical conservative creating a stir in 1976, Ronald Reagan, was his audience. Reagan’s crowd was overwhelmingly white and middleclass. Tunney ate into this support too, but he obsessed about building a new electoral coalition that consisted of ‘such disparate factions as young and old; defence workers and peace activists; blue-collar union workers and poor, urban members and ethnic groups.’ His strategy worked in two phases, first to ‘build a grassroots campaign and develop a program that would be the catalyst for a new Democratic coalition’ and second to run a ‘personality focused media offensive’. There was a ‘political schizophrenia inherent in his candidacy’ as he attempted to do both, but it was a method that drew back in to the Democratic Party New Politics activists ‘who find the electoral process repugnant.’ Thus, for Hayden the means were the ends. He repeatedly told reporters he did not think he would win but that this was unimportant. All that mattered to him was leaving behind a coalition committed to brining down big government and big business.
Initially most journalists took Hayden at his word and wrote off his campaign as pure whimsy. When he declared his candidacy, Hayden barely registered in the polls. However, his constant attacks upon his opponent, John Tunney, began to pay off. A distant, wealthy, indolent Senator, Tunney was a perfect target for a New Politics insurgency that may have been far too economically collectivist for the average American, but still fed growing paranoia/contempt for the weather beaten Washington set. Thus, by May 1976, Hayden had pulled to within 17% of Tunney, more than doubling his support in two months. By the end of May Tunney led Hayden by 50-37% and by the beginning of June the lead had narrowed dramatically to just 48-41%, turning the race in to a ‘cliff-hanger’. The polls proved wrong and Tunney won the primary with 59% to Hayden’s 38%. This was partly due to a reversal of strategy by Tunney’s campaign. Initially he had tried to starve Hayden of publicity by ignoring him and refusing to debate. But when he eventually did, it placed Hayden in the spotlight, allowing Tunney to portray him as a radical, something his brusque, priggish performance seemed to confirm.
Hayden’s radical conservative ticket should not be dismissed as a historical footnote. It illustrated how the ’68 generation tried to apply their philosophy to mundane, mainstream politics. At this, Hayden did surprisingly well. He came from well behind to pull in nearly 40% of the vote and to panic the liberal establishment. Moreover, the results demonstrated that the integration of the ’68 generation into the Democratic coalition had created new philosophical fault lines that continue to run through the party today. Tunney won a clear majority among union members; Hayden narrowly carried the non-unionised vote. Hayden nearly pulled even among Mexican-Americans and Tunney enjoyed a much larger lead among blacks. The vote was predominantly generational and ideological. Hayden took the votes of those under 30 by a margin of 2-1. Tunney won the votes of those over 50 by an identical margin. The two were evenly matched among the middle aged. Hayden was thus hurt by a poor turn out among the young. Hayden won a clear majority of voters describing themselves as ‘liberal’, while Tunney swept moderates and conservatives. Hayden won the support of those voting ‘yes’ on an unsuccessful referendum calling for a halt on the construction of nuclear power plants. He also polled most strongly among those supporting a reduction in defence expenditure. Neither region nor class defined the voting. These are patterns of voting that still appear in Democratic primaries today; liberal candidates often talking to very different constituencies in very different language and with very different priorities.
The children of ’68 were radical conservatives. Clearly, they included within their ranks many who were not, but if their philosophy were distilled then anger at government and its Military-Industrial complex would be all that was left. On this basis it is somewhat hard to place them into a European context. The students of Prague had a clear program of humanised socialism. The revolutionaries of Paris blended Maoism with an older, Marxist tradition of class solidarity. Even the anarchistic terrorists of Germany and Italy in the early 1970s spoke in transformative terms about the utopia that would emerge from the smouldering ashes of the barracks, Spanish embassies and department stores that they bombed. The American New Politics movement did not wish to transform the free market or bind people together in clumsily constructed dictatorships of one class or another. Rather they wanted to remove the barriers to the realisation of the American dream of independence, freedom and personal liberation. They belonged every bit as much to the American story as the minutemen, the abolitionists and the suffragists. Their opposition to monopoly, be it financial or bureaucratic, made them radicals in the truest sense – they desired a retreat back into the folk memory of autonomous communities of proudly free individuals. Jerry Rubin and Thomas Jefferson would probably have gotten on famously.
The New Politics bore many similarities to its opponents in the counter-revolutionary right. Barry Goldwater, the scion of conservative Republicans, shared their libertarian distaste for big government. As much as he did not want the federal glutton to take the people’s hard earned tax dollars and spend them on welfare programs and government contracts that distorted the free market, so too he defended the right of women to control their reproductive cycle. It is true that Goldwater fanatically supported the Vietnam War, but that reflected the anti-communist instincts of his generation. Several decades later, Congressman Ron Paul picked up the Goldwater mantle by entering the Republican primaries. As part of his platform he called for the withdrawal of all troops from the middle east, the abolition of the CIA, scrapping the patriot act and allowing issues of moral conscience (abortion and sexual mores) to be decided at a state level. It was a platform that the New Politics could identify with and many libertarians, anti-Iraq activists, anarchists and even Democratic liberals flocked to his ticket. His base of support, galvanised by the internet, was to be found in the campuses and academic suburbs – the very demographic that had formed the ranks of the New Politics.
A comparison could even be made with that most phlegmatic of conservative movements, the neo-cons. This is true both among its political and its academic cadre. Neo-conservatism was initially found amongst liberals like New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan or the hawkish Senator from Washington Henry Scoop Jackson. Although they became typecast as staunch anti-communists and promoters of America’s sovereign right to interfere in the sovereign rights of other countries, the movement initially gained attention through its critique of the Great Society. Moynihan was the politician first labelled a ‘neo-conservative’, by socialist activist Michael Harrington. Moynihan argued for the deconstruction of the welfare state and its replacement with either a negative income tax or a guaranteed income grant (a proposal that McGovern touted in 1972). Harrington, who loathed the New Left, frequently pointed out the similarities not only in substance between the neo-conservative and New Politics approaches to poverty, but in points of principle too. Moynihan believed that welfare created structures that did not relieve poverty but institutionalised it. The growing army of bureaucrats, the power of social workers and the humiliation of dependence upon government sapped the human spirit, ingrained deprivation and disturbed the natural rhythms of the free market.
Much like the New Left, Moynihan saw welfare as an extension of pork barrel politics. But he was also concerned, like many neo-conservative philosophers, with the growth of materialism and consumerism that it reflected and engendered. Shachtman, Strauss and Trilling argued that religion and superstition promoted public morality and offered an alternative to the gross, consumption driven culture of high capitalism. Many New Politics activists agreed. George McGovern made much of his Methodist upbringing in his 1972 campaign and regularly quoted scripture to bring a hard, Protestant edge to his moral outrage at Vietnam. McCarthy, a former seminarian, persisted in boring supporters at rallies by delivering (often inappropriate and incomprehensible) lectures on Aquinas and Augustine. When he was tear-gassed in Lincoln Park, Ginsburg was in the middle of leading a Hindu prayer session. Once again, conservatives and New Politics activists shared similar ideas, but directed them towards very different audiences. While the neo-conservatives found salvation in orthodox Judeo-Christian tradition, the New Politics turned to India and Asia, or else the far-out dictums of liberation theology. Interestingly, the first ever Roman Catholic priest to serve in congress was an anti-Vietnam, pro-choice radical – Fr. Robert Drinan.
Naturally, it would be crude to lump in all these very different philosophical traditions. Their differences far outweighed their similarities, but the points of comparison are interesting for they suggest three things. First, they hint that New Politics was the product of a particular time. Like its conservative counterparts, it was a response to the economic, political and military exhaustion of the American empire in the middle of the last century. This reaction gestated throughout the consumer hungry 1950s, but required a war to properly galvanise the anger of middle class puritans against greed. Both left and right wanted to rid the American temple of money lenders in the late 1960s. But while the right saw the greatest manifestation of the sin of public gluttony in the Great Society, the left found it in the excesses of Vietnam. Both left and right wanted to trim the fat off government and to return power to the people, be it in the form of either community action or tax rebates.
Second, the synchronicity of ideas suggests that the New Politics was also the product of place. It dealt with themes that are peculiarly American – a profound dislike of authority on any terms and a refusal to compromise with any kind of established power (even if it is basically benign). In the sense that the children of ’68 were defined by time and place, the lessons that can be taken from their experience by future generations are necessarily limited. However liberals, progressives and radicals would do well to learn from the methodology of the New Politics. The New Politics was not the failure that many historians of both left and right deride it for. It dictated the terms of the political debate of the 1970s (even if it lost it), seized control of the Democratic Party (even if it seriously reduced its popularity) and transformed the social mores of an entire generation (even if divorce, drug abuse and sexual disease somewhat spoiled its party). Its success lay in a style of politics that could be easily applied to almost any party or ideology. The ingredients of the New Politics’ revolutionary mix were anti-establishment rhetoric, non-partisanship (implying high principle), the effective use of television (appreciating that images are far more powerful that words), the bundling of a variety of ideals and concerns into a single goal (an end to the Vietnam War) and finally the uniting behind a maverick political figure who makes a point of breaking from his party and scorning convention. Independence smacks of integrity. McCarthy, Kennedy and even McGovern were High Noon figures who, at their best, stirred the soul of an America that still believed one, right minded individual could a difference among a confederacy of dunces.
Finally, if mainstream liberalism is searching for a narrative it might do well to borrow that of the New Politics. Paradoxically, the Republican Party of George Bush shares much of the outlook and many of the problems of Lyndon Johnson’s Democratic Party. Both drastically expanded the size and authority of the federal government. Both poured tax dollars into apparently ineffectual welfare/educational programs. Both mired their country in a pointless, bitter conflict with a third-rate third world power. Against the backdrop of mounting body bags and escalating debt, the Democratic Party could take up the radical conservative mantle of small government once again. It could pledge to end that war, reduce that deficit and return to the American people some of the power and liberty that their constitution once loaned them. It might find not only a coalition of voters exhausted by the activism of their state, but also rediscover some of the remarkable passion that ran like electricity through the Democratic Convention of 1968.