We were the ones who responded to Allard Lowenstein’s call to”Dump Johnson” by drafting an anti-war candidate, because, as he told us, “you can’t beat somebody with nobody.” We signed on to help to bring down President Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam War with the only person willing to run, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. And yeah, that’s me with that same Senator Eugene McCarthy. In 1968, in the middle of the night, in New Hampshire, when we kind of won* the New Hampshire primary.
Now observers of the movements behind both Senator Bernie Sanders and the Donald Trump/Ben Carson Republicans, have compared those campaigns to our efforts, and to some extent, to the rest of the 1960’s anti-war movement. So. What do we think?
In 1968: We were desperate and felt we were losing our country – or at least its soul and moral place in the world. We were doing it in someone else’s country and with cruel tools like napalm and cluster bombs.
2016: These campaigners, too, are desperate, and whether from right or left, feel they are losing their country. Consider Sanders’ outrage and economic populism, calling out an economy he views as not only unjust but un-American; consider the huge response.
Consider the fevered reaction to Trump’s pledges to “Make America Great Again”, not only through his business acumen (and some horrifying immigration changes and racial provocation) but also through economic ideas that even Paul Krugman reluctantly acknowledges aren’t dumb.
1968: Vietnam was a life and death issue; the draft brought it home to every American, especially the young — and their parents and teachers and, gradually, much of the rest of America.
It’s always the old to lead us to the war
It’s always the young to fall
Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all — Phil Ochs, I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore
2016: Today, the life and death issue is the disintegration of the great American middle class that has long built and sustained this country (to say nothing of enabling a consumer economy that sustained growth for decades.) It’s a brutal blow to what Americans see the their birthright. We all know the symptoms – underemployment, disappearing job security and benefits, and this, from a 2014 Pew report:
But after adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power as it did in 1979, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. In fact, in real terms the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 has the same purchasing power as $22.41 would today.
1968: We had very little faith in institutions (“the Establishment,”) from the government to the police to political parties, gigantic, impersonal universities, media that covered us with cruel disdain, and of course, the military. With limited experience, we didn’t really understand the complicated issues that faced each of these entities – and our country – and exacerbated both its problems and every tragic mistake. And though we were right about much of what we believed, we were pretty cavalier in the belief we knew how to fix things.
Although I was immunized by my steel town history, shared with kids who would never see a college or a white-collar job, many of my peers saw my classmates and neighbors simply as “hard hats” – lesser beings who needed us to instruct them. Many didn’t consider the gap between our privileged lives and their own.
We also were enormously suspicious of a military governed by law, tradition and accountability to a commander-in-chief influenced not only by the legendary “best and the brightest” but also by a legacy including Soviet power, the “loss” of China to Communism and the fear that it might be replicated – and a political and personal story that was rapidly becoming obsolete. That perceived rigidity and “Dr. Strangelove” stereotypes governed us.
2016: That same distrust of the Establishment informs the Tea Party but it has also touched also many, many other Republicans/Conservatives. As one commentator observed: “They deeply believe that President Obama has ruined America.” Beyond their rage at him come the usual suspects: politicians who care only whether they lost their own jobs, hopelessness, inability to pay for their children’s education, a cynical, uncaring media, the disappearance of decent, well-paying jobs, an emerging multicultural America where it’s hard to find one’s place and a chaotic present from Ferguson to Syria to the Hungarian border.
The Sanders people share a good deal of that distrust, beginning with the economic inequality, frozen wages and dead-end jobs at the heart of his message, but not ending there. Add suspicion of the mainstream media (MSM), the police, college costs and crippling student loans, racism, sexism, union-busting and all the rest.
So yes, there’s plenty of common ground between that turbulent year and today. And it’s hard to underestimate how far we might have gone back then if we’d had the Internet.
Even so, I can’t vote YES on this one. The initial 60’s activists believed in so much more. So many moments have been declared the day “America lost its innocence” and certainly they chipped away at it: Vietnam, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the Chicago Democratic convention, Watergate, Irangate, the Clinton scandals, Oklahoma City, Challenger, the 1980 election and, of course, 9/11. Those who have chosen action since those shattering events are almost a different species – at least those 40 and younger.
These losses also inform Trump and Tea Party voters, I think, as they try to turn back the clock and reconstitute an American that is no more.
As for the left, after years during which unions were decimated, blue-collar wages eviscerated, voting rights emasculated, women’s rights torn away and racial and religious tensions breaking every heart… well, it sounds familiar but it’s so much tougher because what’s happening now has moved our country backward and the left is fighting to hang onto or reclaim lost rights, not win new ones.
It really doesn’t matter anyway. Things look bad right now, and optimism, belief in the possibility of positive change… do you see it anywhere?
*Actually we only got 42% of the vote but that was so high against such a powerful politician and Democratic machine that it really was a “win” and caused him, a month or so later, to declare he would not “seek nor will I accept” the nomination to run for a second term.