Eric Rauchway is angry with Tom Brokaw. Rauchway, a historian at the University of California, Davis, believes that Brokaw’s History Channel documentary on “1968” completely misinterprets why that year – halfway between Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in 1968 and George McGovern’s in 1972 – was a watershed in American political history.
The “secret subtitle” of Brokaw’s show, according to Rauchway, should be, “How Hippies Ruined America.” “My working-class dad, a longtime FDR Democrat who was opposed to the war in Vietnam,” Brokaw narrates, “was enraged by what he had seen on television [at the Democrats’ 1968 Chicago convention], enraged by the behavior of the antiwar demonstrators, the way they had flown the Vietcong flag, and taunted the police. I knew then, the Democratic Party was in real trouble.”
Brokaw is so committed to this simple, one-cause-one-effect explanation for Democrats’ descent that he misses a much bigger, more important explanation, according to Rauchway: “[It] is a moral certainty that race, and not the hippies, broke up the New Deal coalition. And not old, Jim Crow racism like keeping blacks from whites in public and private places alike, segregating buses, and banning interracial marriages – but new racial attitudes, like blaming African Americans for the growth of government and for the increase of lawlessness in America’s streets. On best estimates, a bit over thirty percent of the wealth transferred to poverty-struck Americans in the 1960s went to blacks – a sum that, if poor and middling whites kept it, might have increased their disposable income by under half of one percent. But the numbers didn’t matter – the symbols did, and the nonwhite poor were a startlingly effective target of white resentment.”
From a historian accusing a journalist of over-simplifying, this alternative underwhelms thoroughly. Why should we reject Brokaw’s reductionist explanation for the end of the New Deal coalition in favor of Rauchway’s reductionist explanation? Brokaw’s argument puts the blame on people who returned to and stayed inside the Democratic tent over the past 40 years, while Rauchway’s blames people who left and stayed outside. The exiles from the Democratic party weren’t racists, exactly, says Rauchway, but their resentment did target the nonwhite poor, blaming them for crime and high taxes despite all evidence to the contrary.
We need a more comprehensive explanation. “Middle America’s” disaffection from the Democrats is not an either-or question of hippies or bigotry. Rather, Americans in the middle felt besieged from below and above: by an underclass that made welfare dependency and criminality a way of life, and an overclass that excused or even celebrated it. For example, New Yorkers who had ample reason to fear walking the streets in 1975 received this helpful and sympathetic response from the sociologist Andrew Hacker in a report by the Twentieth Century Fund: “[The] upsurge in crime expresses a new sense of freedom on the part of classes which were once kept sternly in their place. . . . The city should count itself fortunate that so small a part of its population has taken to theft. That so many individuals remain honest while being treated so stingily by society should be a source of both amazement and confidence.” The report did not address the question of whether the city should count itself fortunate that so small a part of its population had taken to rape and murder, or whether being treated less stingily by society would steer the poor, whose new sense of freedom manifested itself in these possibly regrettable ways, in less problematic directions.
According to Jonathan Reider, the author of Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism, intellectuals who assured citizens that they should celebrate not being mugged more often by people who had every reason to do so provided the real reason for the collapse of the New Deal: “the perception by the middle-income classes of a growing chasm between themselves and the regnant version of liberalism.” Reider explains how those voters understood the Democrats’ ideology: “Liberalism meant taking the side of blacks, no matter what; dismissing middle-class plaints as racism; handcuffing the police; transferring resources and sympathy from a vulnerable middle class to minorities; rationalizing rioting and dependency and other moral afflictions as ‘caused’ by the environment or as justifiable response to oppression. Liberalism appeared to them as a force inimical to the working and lower-middle classes, assaulting their communities, their sense of fairness, their livelihood, their children, their physical safety, their values.”
Rauchway’s argument against Brokaw is more about 2008 and beyond than 1968 and since. If the Democratic party declined because of its noble refusal to pander to bigots, then Democrats have nothing to apologize for and much to be proud of. Rauchway’s interpretation of the past, which extrapolates and justifies Hacker’s argument, ascribes all the unhappiness over crime, welfare, riots and busing to bigotry, thereby delegitimating it. At a time when Republicans have few reasons for cheer, this evidence that the other party would rather repeat than learn from its mistakes is a cause for optimism.