Bernard von Bothmer teaches history at the University of San Francisco and Dominican University of California. He is the author of Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.
In my history classes I point out, as often as possible, connections between the present and the past. In fact, it is the basic teaching strategy that underlies all the courses I teach. Not only are they interesting, but mentioning comparisons are a useful way of engaging young people, demonstrating how history is alive, how history helps us to understand the present, and how the past is never dead.
There has been a great deal of talk in recent years–or, for that matter, in recent days, with very thoughtful pieces by Todd Gitlin in The New York Times and Rick Perlstein in The Atlantic–comparing the current political climate to the 1960s, especially the late sixties. It is understandable, as we confront many of the same issues from both the left and right: racial tensions, a polarized and divided country, passionate political sentiments. As but one example, Time Magazine’s May 11, 2015’s cover showed a black and white photo of an African-American protester running away from an approaching sea of policemen in full riot gear. On the cover were the words “America, 1968,” with the “1968” date crossed out; above it was written “2015.” It was hard to discern which year the photo was taken, 1968 or 2015.
These recent references to the 1960s are nothing new. In fact, we have been doing this ever since the end of the 1960s.
Richard Nixon attacked George McGovern in 1972 as the candidate of “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion.” Part of Carter’s appeal in 1976 to some was that you could not possibly imagine him being sympathetic to the Summer of Love or to Woodstock. Ronald Reagan as president referenced JFK more than any of his predecessors. Bill Clinton, our first baby boomer candidate, in 1992 brought memories of the 1960s to the forefront: he told voters he was just like JFK, whereas his opponents caricatured him as emblematic of the counterculture, a womanizing draft dodger. The 1960s were there in 1996 when Dole tried to tarnish Clinton as a symbol of all that was wrong with the baby boomers who came of age in the sixties, versus all that was good about his World War Two era’s Greatest Generation. The 1960s were front and center in 2000, with both candidates children of, albeit very different, 1960s experiences. References to the 1960s only increased in 2004 due to John Kerry’s Vietnam experiences. They were there again in 2008 in John McCain’s attacks on Barack Obama’s supposed ties to 1960s terrorist Bill Ayers, and again in 2012, as we had Mitt Romney as a symbol of 1950s America (versus the 1960s), and, they appear again here in 2016, as Donald Trump channels Nixon’s cry for “Law and Order.” I am sure that we will see even more references to the 1960s in the campaign to come, perhaps with an effort by Hillary Clinton to evoke the idealistic spirit of the 1960s and with a Republican attempt to tarnish her with the stain of the 1960s.
Here we are in 2016, with everyone vaguely commenting how much the current political climate “reminds them of the 1960s.” The 1960s will not go away.
But just because these comparisons are ever-present does not make them always valid. I think it is important to remember how this is not the hot summer of 1968, though, in some ways, parts of the Republican and Democratic coalitions wish it still were.
We had back then the emergence of the hippies, the youth gap, and the enormous tensions between the younger generation and their elders. Kids in the 1960s were running away from their parents. Today? Many parents seem to call their children their “best friends.” Many college students probably call their parents every single day. A recent media story spoke of how parents have to be asked to kindly please leave campus on move-in day as they drop their children off at college. Back then we had draft dodging, an increasingly unpopular war that was killing hundreds of Americans (and even more Vietnamese) each week, and riots on the streets of Chicago. Of course, we have had protests at this summer’s conventions. But nothing, absolutely nothing, like we had in 1968.
Unlike today, with near record numbers of foreign-born Americans (12.9%; our high was 14.8%, in 1890), in the late 1960s we had the lowest recorded percentage of Americans who were foreign born, 4.7%. Immigration was simply not a political issue in 1968. Nor, for that matter, was globalization. These two are, arguably, the primary reason for Trump’s nomination. Unlike in the 1960s, violent crime has steadily declined in recent years.
In 1968, a sitting president was so unpopular that he chose not to run again. Today, we have a relatively popular incumbent president (51% approval). Not only that, this president, who was handily re-elected and who has a very good chance to do what has only been done twice since World War Two, namely to give his party a third consecutive presidency, is African American. That idea would have seemed unimaginable to the vast, vast majority of Americans in 1968.
The 1968 primaries saw much more uncertainty than this last go around, as this time, both candidates steadily held their substantial leads in the polls. Trump has led every poll since July 2015, often by very wide margins; he has always been the clear front-runner, save for early November 2015, when he was tied with a surging Ben Carson, who promptly plummeted. Likewise, Hillary Clinton widely led her field in every polling average since she announced her candidacy. The races were really never close, no matter how much the press, who above all loves a horserace, tried to make the contests seem more competitive.
The 1960s were very politically unstable—we had three presidents in eight years. In contrast, the past 24 years have seen three straight eight-year terms, something not seen since the period between 1800 and 1824 (though then all three terms were of the same party). Most of all, nothing in today’s politics matched the shock, disillusionment, and deep sadness that marked the assassinations in the 1960s of JFK, MLK, and RFK.
Today, economic anxieties, along with terrorism, are the voters’ main concerns. But the 1960s were a time of steady economic growth; I would wager that most Americans, on average, were better off in 1968 than they had been 10 years earlier, just as most Americans in 1958 were better off than they had been in 1948, and just as most Americans were better off in 1948 than they had been in 1938. Economic insecurity is the key issue of our time. It was not the key issue in 1968.
Instead of speaking about the 1960s, I wish there would be a lot more ink spilled about echoes of the 1890s and the turn of the century under the Progressive Movement. These comparisons might be more useful than to those of the 1960s.
Politics today, as in the 1890s, is animated by issues regarding income inequality, the environment, and immigration. We also have an anxious electorate, anger at politicians, anger at immigrants, anger at foreigners, anger at the top 1%, anger at so-called “elites” and “the establishment,” fear of “the angry mob” of “average Americans,” nostalgia for the past, fear of the future, and even an open socialist running for president. Most of all, the 1890s saw the emergence of the Populist Party, which set the path for the Progressives Era between 1901 and 1917. Many times at their National Convention in Philadelphia the Democrats seemed to be channeling Teddy Roosevelt.
It is tempting to try to draw parallels between the past and the present. It works in the classroom. Oftentimes, there are real similarities. But they can be stretched too far. Sure, there were very slight echoes of the 1960s this summer in Cleveland and Philadelphia. But why today is there constant talk about the 1960s? The decade was fifty years ago.
One reason for this preoccupation with the 1960s, of course, is because so many of our recent political actors came of age in that era: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump are all between the ages of 68 and 70. John Kerry, at 72 and Dick Cheney, at 75, also came of age during the turbulent decade.
But does one think that in the 1960s commentators were endlessly harping on events from the 1910s? Or were asked to write about the echoes of the 1920s in the current campaigns? Sure, maybe with the issue of Kennedy’s Catholicism as it relates to Al Smith’s 1928 campaign, but other than that, I rather doubt it.
But we still cannot resist making comparisons when it comes to the 1960s. Maybe it is time to move on.