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No Left Turns

Hippies or Bigots? What Did Unravel the New Deal Coalition in 1968?

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.

Discussions - 6 Comments

Outstanding post, Mr. Voegeli. I've long been skeptical of the idea that the American electorate made a "right turn" in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The fact is that liberals, flush with victory on civil rights, began pushing farther than most Americans were willing to go.

their resentment did target the nonwhite poor, blaming them for crime and high taxes despite all evidence to the contrary.

Whatever about taxes, there is no question but that the "nonwhite poor" were responsible for an explosion in crime. As was liberalism itself, which consistently saw crime as some sort of rightful revolutionary act.

But while the "nonwhite poor" have taken some steps towards correcting their mistakes, liberalism remains unrepentant. Liberalism here being the American term for leftism.

Outstanding post by Bill Voegeli. The failure of many liberals to understand the first (and more consequential) social-conservative revolt -- that of the 1960s -- is a foul compound of blindness and callousness. To call these early social conservatives "racists" amounts to the dehumanization of opponents, a specialty of the authoritarian left.

As is typical Mr. Voegeli, a great post. For an addictively readable account of how the combination of black-power-era civil rights politics w/ elitist liberal vacillation/double-standards alienated non-rich urban whites, not to mentioned how it essentially destroyed Detroit, read Tamar Jacoby's Someone Else's House.

My take is that 60s situation for the Dems cannot be understood without discerning the double-wave radicalization of American liberalism that occurred. The first wave was a "technocratic takeover" of the FDR coalition and its (reasonably anti-communist) Schlesinger vangaurd by the architects of the strangely TOP-DOWN, i.e., expert-initiated, reform campaign that came into its own under LBJ as the Great Society. The second wave was the New Left/counter-culture, i.e., the hippies. I get some of the terms here from a seminal essay by (one-time brain-truster for FDR's administration) Samuel Beer, entitled, "In Search of a New Public Philosophy," but also from two extremely helpful ones by Hugh Heclo, "The Sixties' False Dawn" and "Sixties' Civics," the latter of which comes from the super-fine collection The Great Society and the High Tide of Liberalism

One can see the brewing fight between the technocratic expert liberals and New Left ones on the steps of Sproul Hall, as captured in that worthwhile "Berekley in the 60s" documentary, as well as the fact that their rancorous split would have occurred regardless of New Left's early embrace of "anti-anti-communism" and thus protest against Vietnam. For the impossibly-strange-but-true story of the collective insanity that overtook the New Left and led to 1968, Todd Gitlin's The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage is the best first-hand account to consult. What Gitlin cannot convey, however, given the blinders he had on at the time, is the fact that the spasmodically-apolitical counter-culture was more important than the New Left it was linked at the hip to. One has to supplement one's politics-heavy studies w/ Gitlin w/ lots of beatnik and Lowell-inspired poetry, plenty of rock albums, Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-aid Acid Test and book VIII of the Republic to really gather what was going on and why it still matters. (Oh, and the Percy novels of the time!)

The two waves radicalized the FDR-style and heavily coalition-based liberalism, but logically followed, I would hold, from the liberal political philosophy espoused by John Dewey, and arguably, from Herbert Croly as well. The second-wave radicals saw themselves as categorically different from the first-wave, since they were the "romantic reaction," as Beers puts it, to the technocratic style and agenda of the first. But in terms of actual policy that changed the American landscape, it is unquestionably the first wave that had the larger effect. The 1st wave technocrats passed the positive laws, the 2nd wave counter-culturalists planted the deeper "laws of the heart" and "new musical modes," whereas 2nd wave politicos just had days of rage, although you can see that that's also become a habit of the heart. Both waves of course signed onto the slowly advancing judicial imposition of strict separation, privacy-rights, and equal dignity under the 14th amendment, as did the lion's share of the old-time FDR liberals.

I guess the most relevant connection of this ramble to Voegeli's post is that Brokaw does not adequately understand, as Beers has some sense of, that the hippies were the logical intellectual offspring of Greatest Generation liberalism. That is, some of the original conservative critiques of of that audaciously-hoping liberalism were absolutely right that it was, in and of itself, destined to morph into the twinned radicalisms of the scientistic experts and of the romantic rabble-rousers. From a Beers-type perspective, albeit rearticulated through my conservative one, 1930s liberalism had to be tied to a coalition and mixed with older elements of the American political tradition lest it realize its poisonous purity.

Lots of loose ends in the above, but I do think it points to a question useful to moderate-minded and/or Obama-loving liberals of today who are seeking to get past certain baby-boomer habits of thought: Why did the more ideologically and electorally sustainable, as well as reasonably anti-communist and America-celebrating, liberalism of the 30s/40s/50s, give way so quickly and so precipitously to the Great Society/counter-culture/anti-Americanist/feminism-welcoming/Roe v. Wade/etc. liberalism that has reigned since about 1972? Yeah, a lot of crazy shit went down in the 1960s. It was hard. Too much confusion, yes. But still, Why didn't the intellectual resources to rise to the occasion, to make a principled defense of the necessary moderate positions that FDR liberalism defended exist?

Your question, Carl Scott:

Why did the more ideologically and electorally sustainable, as well as reasonably anti-communist and America-celebrating, liberalism of the 30s/40s/50s, give way so quickly and so precipitously to the Great Society / counter-culture / anti-Americanist / feminism-welcoming / Roe v. Wade / etc. liberalism that has reigned since about 1972?

Because white people (to this day) have no clue how to have a reasonable, color-coded, national discussion without white guilt or white supremacy bastardizing the discussion. This is very true in left-wing America and I suspect roughly true in Europe, too.

Mind you, this isn't a criticism of white folks, per se. A similar question could be asked of black folks worldwide and the response (from my vantage point) would be because black people (to this day) have no clue how to have a reasonable, color-coded, national discussion without black guilt or black inferiority bastardizing the discussion.

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