September 22, 2010
Competing for history

I argue that the last 30 years of American politics have been largely driven by a competition among forces, typically but not necessarily summarized with the labels “liberal” and “conservative,” that seek to control our collective memory about the 1960s. We are seeing another version of this long struggle with the rise of the tea party movement.

For “conservatives,” before the United States entered the turbulent 1960s it was a basically decent place. Families could be raised on one income, the Pledge of Allegiance could be said in school (with the “under God” part only recently added), crime was low and Americans recognized both the importance of the meaning of America and the need for Americans to defend its values in both war and politics. Most conservatives will admit that there were problems and tensions before the 60s—they are not blind to the realities of segregation, or the discrimination of women, or the ill-treatment of ethnic and religious minorities. But they do believe that, in time, the natural processes of American democratic politics and the natural cultural instincts of the American people would have overcome these abuses.

Then the 1960s happened. We went from Martin Luther King, Jr., to the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground. From the Free Speech Movement to hippies, drugs, and bra burnings. From stable families to high divorce rates. From God to “spirituality,” From teaching “America is great” to teaching “Americans are racist imperialists.” From the “content of their characters” to affirmative action quotas. Whatever the impetus for such changes were, most conservatives think they just went too far.

Accordingly, the history of conservatism for the last 30 years has been one of victimization. “Our” America has been stolen by radicals and liberals and socialists. We have to restore America to save America. Things may not have been perfect in the 1950s, but they were better than they are now. “We” need to take “our” country back.

For liberals, this narrative is entirely wrong. It is false memory articulated through the rosy perspective of white, Protestant, middle class males who did not have to suffer the vicious realities of racism, and sexism, and poverty, and ethnic and religious bias. It ignores the domestic terror of the McCarthyite Red Scare and the nation’s long history of abusive treatment of workers and laborers. It put blinders on American eyes, making it impossible for the American people to see just how short of the Framers’ ideals the nation had fallen.

Accordingly, for liberals the traumas of the 1960s were both inevitable and necessary. Americans would simply not otherwise have owned up to their failure to live up to their ideals. Affirmative action, civil rights, women’s rights, the breaking up of the so-called “nuclear” family, and much, much more was entirely required to move the United States closer to its promise. There were, undoubtedly, excesses—the Weather Underground’s domestic terrorism is an easy example, as is the abuse of drugs and the abuse of returning soldiers coming home from Vietnam. But, in general, however painful these changes were, they were worth it in the end.

The narrative liberals have spun for the last 30 years, then, is one of loss of progress, of the threat of a “return” to the dark old days. Conservatives’ desire to “take back” America is thus a threat to return to back alley abortions and segregated lunch counters. To women not being able to press charges for domestic abuse and workers not having 40 hour work weeks with paid vacations. To the exclusion of non-Protestant, particularly evangelical, Christians from the public sphere. To ethnocentrism and nationalist jingoism.

The tea party movement is a further expression of this long-standing argument. Liberals, leftists, and socialists who are somehow fascists who prefer Islam to Christianity have decided to break the American spirit with social programs and massive deficits. Glenn Beck’s “Restore America” rally fits this narrative neatly, especially in his call for everyone to get right with God, whoever you think God is. It is another phase of a long fight.

So perhaps we shouldn’t ask, “are you liberal or conservative?,” or “are you a Republican or a Democrat?” Perhaps we should ask: the 1960s. Yes, or No?