A year ago in these pages, I argued that many of the maladies, political and cultural, troubling America today first took hold 50 years earlier, in the tumultuous year of 1968. Many valuable, if not always concurring, responses and rebuttals followed.
The new year brings another momentous half-century anniversary. It was in 1969 that many of the seeds planted by the cultural upheaval of the 1960s began to bear bitter fruit — including a realignment of American politics that in due course has led us to today’s painful paralysis.
In fact, 1969 brought forth many important beginnings of our world today.
The first computer microprocessor was designed that year. The first ATM was installed. The first communication over what was to become the internet linked a lab at Stanford with one at Berkeley.
The Boeing 747 “jumbo jet” flew for the first time, enhancing air transport for both passengers and cargo. International standards for oceangoing ship containers were published by the International Maritime Organization, allowing for more efficient loading and unloading of goods in ports throughout the world. The intermodal shipping container put economic globalization and world trade on steroids.
Walmart was incorporated.
America’s 1969 landing of Neil Armstrong on the moon could stand as the pinnacle of national achievement.
I was not living in Minnesota in 1969. I was in South Vietnam with the CORDS counterinsurgency program. Of the 1967 Harvard College class of 1,200 young American men, I was one of about only 10 who served our country in that war.
Looking back over 50 years, the importance of 1969 seems clear — but not in a happy way for our nation.
The 1960s, and especially the preceding year of 1968, had opened a Pandora’s box of tribulations for our country. November 1968 had brought the election of Richard Nixon as president. Opposition to Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey from the “New Left,” supplemented by the intransigence of fellow Minnesotan Eugene McCarthy and dramatized by the violence upsetting the Democrats’ national convention in Chicago, gave the close election to Nixon. His rise to power in 1969 saw our political unity start to crack in ways that led slowly but inevitably to the 2016 election of Donald Trump.
As a resentful outsider from Orange County, Calif., Nixon saw the status quo of American politics as vulnerable to rearrangement — much as outsider Trump would half a century later. Like Trump, Nixon exploited class and cultural tensions that were invisible to an entrenched and self-satisfied elite.
Nixon’s strategy brilliantly upset American politics by detaching white Southerners from their historical allegiance to the Democratic Party, from which they felt estranged once Democrats turned strongly against segregation. Bringing the South into reach for the Republican Party, he made possible the first stable Republican majority since the New Deal.
Much as commentator/strategist Kevin Philips advised Nixon to woo Southern whites, later commentator/strategist Steve Bannon guided Trump to validate the fears and resentment of working class voters who felt left behind economically and culturally by the Democratic Party’s embrace of globalization, free trade and multiculturalism.
Nixon saw trends turning American politics toward tribalism and accelerated the turn, tapping distrust of others and various degrees of anger and self-pity. Nixon’s new Republican Party defended the old “Protestant ethic” against all those who disparaged its claim to universal virtue.
Over time, Western states with cultures derived from Southern sensibilities joined the new Republican movement to defend Americanism against the left. The later elections of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Donald Trump could not have happened without the GOP South and West that Nixon pioneered.
From its birth in the early 19th century, the Democratic Party had rallied those excluded from Yankee Protestant rectitude with its notable ethic of personal responsibility and success in life through hard work. Thomas Jefferson mobilized whites in Southern slave states against the Northern Federalists. In 1828, Andrew Jackson made Democrats out of the backcountry yeomen and their families living on the far side of the Alleghanies. In the coastal cities, immigrant Irish Catholics later joined the Democrats and created successful political machines that non-Protestant immigrants — especially Italians, Poles, and Jews — soon joined.
But having become the party of slavery and, after 1865, of segregation, the Democrats drifted somewhat in the decades after the Civil War. When the Depression discredited the Protestant ethic and freewheeling capitalism, the Democrats under Franklin Roosevelt gained a decisive national majority and created a welfare state, offsetting the power of big business and finance with the political force of labor and the middle class.
Humphrey’s failure to win the presidency in 1968 marked the end of that New Deal majority coalition.
But by successfully pulling Southern whites away from their ancestral loyalty to the Democrats, Nixon liberated Democrats from dependence on white Southern votes, and from the need to restrain their more liberal instincts. Starting in 1969, Democrats shifted their views to the left. Northern and many Midwestern states, once fully loyal to the GOP, the historic party of Lincoln, were transformed into Democratic strongholds.
With the defeat of Humphrey, candidate of the old Democratic establishment, liberals moved to take party power away from old-time bosses and big city machines and give it instead to activists aligned with the left’s way of thinking. Sen. George McGovern and Minnesota’s Rep. Don Fraser led a 1969 effort to reform the party’s power structure with open procedures and affirmative action guidelines.
The new Democratic vision of America was the intellectual antithesis of the Protestant ethic. Instead of an individualistic theology, it sought a humanistic ideal to glue together a psychosocial community — the General Will philosophy of French thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau.
The left took its stand on promoting entitlements for those it judged marginalized by American society — women, African-Americans, Hispanics, LGBT voters and their families. The new Democratic coalition would come to be funded by those in emerging new technology industries and cultural centers — Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood — that, together with reverence for nature, seemed capable of replacing religion as a source of worldly meaning and human satisfaction.
But in the process, the Democrats lost working-class Catholics to the Republicans, largely over abortion. As McGovern later said, “I opened up the doors of the Democratic Party, and 20 million people walked out.”
Suffice it to say that the party realignment begun under Nixon, along lines of class and religion, has continued to polarize America more and more ever since.
It was clear enough, back in ’69, that under the surface of old social conventions, all was not well with Americans. The Cuyahoga River burning and an oil spill off California launched activists to demand care for our air and water, starting the environmental movement. A sign of evil inconsistent with American self-satisfaction came in August 1969, with the Charles Manson cult murders.
Chappaquiddick stripped the Kennedys of their iconic Camelot charisma. News of the My Lai murders in South Vietnam showed American soldiers in a far less flattering light than that presented in movies about the greatest generation fighting World War II. Riots in Chicago protesting the trial of the Chicago Eight who had disrupted the 1968 Democratic Convention, murders of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark and other killings spoke to cultural tensions and perceived injustices.
Most divisive of all was the Vietnam War. Opposition to the war split the country.
Yet Nixon successfully mobilized what he called the “Silent Majority” behind his program of seeking “peace with honor” by slowly withdrawing American forces as the South Vietnamese took over the risks and sacrifices of defending their country against Communist aggression. Meanwhile, to marginalize antiwar protesters, Nixon ended the draft of young men into military service.
This broke once and for all the core identity of male Americans as those who would serve their country in times of trouble and be respected for that commitment.
Ending the draft slyly affirmed the previous policy of draft boards, which had allowed sons of the elite to avoid the dangers of fighting in Vietnam. That policy itself was a step down the road toward a class estrangement between the educated elite and the “deplorable” rest that helped cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election.
Clinton’s husband, Bill, in 1969, was able to avoid service in Vietnam with help in high places. In 1969, no longer able to get a deferment for attending college, Donald Trump instead got a doctor’s letter affirming that he had bone spurs and so qualified for a medical exemption. George W. Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard.
Eager to avoid a faraway war not clearly being waged for national survival, Clinton, Trump and Bush (like many, many others) unwittingly surrendered their claim to be respected for living up to ancient ideals of masculine honor.
But if most American men no longer had to fight their country’s wars, what was to be their new cultural status?
In 1969, the modern gay rights movement, which demanded an end to homophobia, got its start. The Stonewall Riot in New York City’s Greenwich Village is seen now as the first significant public demand by the gay community for equal dignity as persons.
Clearly, the way was now clear for a more intense articulation of a new understanding of gender roles and masculinity: the seminal works of American feminism, “The Female Eunuch” by Germaine Greer and “Sexual Politics” by Kate Millett, appeared in 1970.
In 1969 youth culture also turned against traditional values with the Woodstock concert, where Jimi Hendrix played the Star-Spangled Banner in a whole new vibe. Later the free concert at Altamont with the Rolling Stones, Santana and the Jefferson Airplane turned violent and people died.
The Beatles played their final iconic rooftop concert before breaking up in 1969, ending the “see no evil,” feeling-fine musicality of the 1960s.
After many decades, the weekly/bi-weekly Saturday Evening Post, with its reassuring Americanism symbolized in iconic Norman Rockwell covers, ceased publication in February 1969. It no longer was in touch with the times.
Sic transit Gloria mundi.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an organization dedicated to promoting ethical capitalism.