Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Day The ’60's Died (PBS, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The PBS programs last night were two “theme” shows dealing with the Viet Nam war on the upcoming (today, actually) 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the ignominious end of the first war in its history the United States clearly and unambiguously lost. The first was called The Day the ’60’s Died (note the numerical title — if you search the PBS Web site for “The Day the Sixties Died” you won’t find it), about the May 5,1970 massacre of four unarmed student demonstrators by a detachment of riot-squad equipped National Guardsmen who pulled rifles and deliberately fired into the crowd. It’s important to remember that that’s what happened because the mainstream media carefully avoided portraying the Guard’s actions correctly until a photo surfaced two months after the massacre showing the Guardsmen in formation deliberately and calmly firing into the crowd. Unfortunately, a majority of Americans saw it differently; they agreed with President Richard Nixon’s assessment of the student demonstrators as “bums” and not only supported the Guard’s firing on the crowd, at least some people chillingly told interviewers at the time (in film included here as documentary footage) that they wished the Guardsmen had killed more demonstrators. The filmmakers regard May 5, 1970 as “the day the Sixties died” because the massacres at Kent State and Jackson State University six days later scared enough people out of the protest movement that the Nixon administration really didn’t have to worry much about them even though popular opinion was also turning against the war itself. In at least one sense the Sixties had died a year and a half earlier, when Nixon had won the 1968 Presidential election by using his and Strom Thurmond’s “Southern strategy” to cleave apart the Democrats’ New Deal coalition that had dominated Presidential politics from 1932 to 1964 (in which the Presidency had been won by four Democrats and a moderate Republican who continued and in some cases even expanded the New Deal programs) and construct the Right-wing coalition that has more or less dominated American politics ever since. As I’ve pointed out in these pages before, between them Richard Nixon and George Wallace got 57 percent of the Presidential vote in 1968 to Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent, and those percentages remained pretty much unchanged until the second Clinton election in 1996, in which Bill Clinton parlayed the advantages of incumbency and a moderate image (signing the bill to end “welfare as we know it,” proclaiming “the era of big government is over,” repealing most of what remained of government regulation of Wall Street after the successive assaults of Carter, Reagan and Bush I; as I’ve argued here before, Bill Clinton was to Ronald Reagan what Dwight Eisenhower was to FDR — the opposing party President who recognized and cemented the finality of the political sea change his predecessor had wrought) and pulled virtually even with the Republicans.

Even in 1992 the combined vote for George H. W. Bush and H. Ross Perot was 57 percent to Clinton’s 43 percent — and the only reason Clinton won whereas Humphrey had lost with a similar percentage of the popular vote was Perot’s support wasn’t regionally based, as Wallace’s had been; Perot got no electoral votes but won enough votes in key swing states to “spoil” the election for Bush and the Republicans by swinging them, and the election, to Clinton. The Day the ’60’s Died is a fascinating program that for me, who was in high school when the college campuses were exploding into dissent and openly and ardently sympathized with the New Left (and felt disappointing that I was graduating from high school just as the New Left was fragmenting and self-destructing, so I wouldn’t and didn’t get to be a direct part of it), had a lot of historical weight attached to it: the extraordinary expressions of Left-wing idealism, both their hopefulness and their naïveté; the bizarre and almost insane insistence from Nixon and his officials that they would not be swayed by anti-war protests; and the way the issues were reframed by the Right so they could do what they’d been doing since the McCarthy era and are still doing: argue that there’s a class war in America, all right, but not between the 1 percent and everyone else economically. Rather, the Right’s version of the class war is between the “producers” — the entrepreneurs who create great companies and the workers who build things through them — and the “takers,” the welfare recipients and overprivileged students and the intellectual academics who rule over them and justify their sucking off the work of people who are really creating wealth. One of the odder clips from this film, especially in terms of current debates, is one of the Right-wing “hard hat” demonstrators giving a speech and sounding uncannily like Elizabeth Warren today in saying, “You didn’t build that” — only he means that he and his fellow white working people built the American infrastructure, including the colleges the students were so energetically trashing, and the class enemies he saw were not the rich people he had worked for but the intellectuals who were teaching those students, training them to hate America, and using the population as guinea pigs in their search for a new social order that sounded suspiciously like the one the Communists were pushing.

The main representative of the Nixon administration on the program was Pat Buchanan, and as offensive as he got in his smarmy self-righteousness, he was absolutely correct when he said that there was a revolution that started in the 1960’s — and the Right clearly, overwhelmingly and unambiguously won. We’re seeing the fruits of that division in the U.S. today — the white working class (especially its male members) definitively part of the Republican voting bloc and the bedrock behind not only the Republican Party but the extreme Right-wing of it (the people who have made Rush Limbaugh and the other Right-wing talk-radio hosts stars because they not only say what these audiences feel, they say it the way they would if they were on the air — one of the great tragedies of the 1970’s and since is how relentlessly academic the Left has become in the U.S., to the point where we have literally forgotten how to talk to working people). The real winners of the 1960’s were the Young Americans for Freedom and the shock troops of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential campaign — in previous entries I’ve said that Goldwater was to the Right-wing majority what Al Smith and his 1928 Presidential campaign was to the New Deal: the campaign that, though it didn’t win, set the themes for the future campaigns that would win elections for its ideology and its programs. We are still living in the post-Sixties Right-wing America, the one wherein the Republican Party was able to make itself the majority by appealing to white voters with racial and cultural hatreds — and though the Right hasn’t won all the battles since, either electoral or cultural, they’ve won enough of them that they’ve been able to take over the House, the Senate and the Supreme Court, and are just one Presidential election away from full-spectrum dominance of American politics and the end of the Progressive era and the New Deal once and for all.