"I think 2016 will be our generation's 1964." — Matt Lewis, the Daily Caller, on ABC's "This Week."
That got me thinking. The popular perception of GOP nominee Barry Goldwater as a right-wing extremist who would drop nukes in Vietnam and undo the hard-fought gains of civil rights. LBJ, the ruthless political hack with every kind of insider connection, including big money, running as "the experienced moderate" who talks diplomacy but has a record favoring military incursion.
Trump, the internationally dangerous xenophobe who threatens to use nukes and courts violence at his rallies. Hillary, the ruthless political hack with every kind of insider connection including big money, running as "the experienced moderate" who talks diplomacy but has a record favoring military incursion.
Then as now, TV was crucial in defining image despite facts. Then: a little girl counting daisy petals as she plucked them from a flower, juxtaposed with a nuclear launch countdown, flash, mushroom cloud, and the little girl's face turned photographic negative. Now: over two billion dollars' worth of free airtime for Donald Trump that cleared the field of other Republicans.
America elected Lyndon Johnson to reject the scary vision and get a moderate approach.
And under LBJ, the civil rights movement made great gains in the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, the Federal Fair Housing Act, and more.
To be sure, much of that was unpopular with the majority of whites. Which earns Southerner LBJ immortality for courageous leadership. Genuine leadership, rather than the modern bastardization of taking the temperature of public opinion then getting out in front of it.
Of course, that's hardly the whole story of what happened, and how the course of history was set, because America rejected "extremist" Goldwater and elected "moderate" LBJ in a landslide in 1964.
They told me if I voted for Goldwater in 1964 that there would be racial violence in the streets and a major war in Southeast Asia. And you know what? I did, and they were right!
Just a few years ago, I had a heated discussion with a Reagan-loving Jewish Republican. Which seemed such an incongruity that it's what started our conversation. But it was what he said about how he came to be a Republican that's stuck with me. He said, emphatically: "They told me if I voted for Goldwater in 1964 that there would be racial violence in the streets and a major war in Southeast Asia. And you know what? I did, and they were right!"
I probably didn't have much of a comeback at the time. Indeed, by the election of 1964, Johnson had held the office for a full year after he tragically attained it. All anyone at the time had to do was pay attention: the "moderate" clearly had a demonstrated penchant for militaristic solutions.
There have been plenty of books on how Johnson "endured anguish" over getting sucked down the drain in Vietnam. (Hopefully, employing those quotation marks will avoid getting hate mail from those who endured life-changing anguish of their own from Vietnam.)
And every aspect of popular culture of the time bears indelible marks of shattered hopes of JFK's lost "New Frontier." From Timothy Leary's "Turn-on, tune-in, drop out," to rock stars and hippies dying of overdoses, to unending violence — seemingly everything became a swirl of increasing despair and disillusionment after 1964 — on through the final fall of South Vietnam, eleven years later.
All that is bits of history pondered because Matt Lewis made that remark about 2016 being the 1964 of our time. It doesn't take much to find it haunting.
Yes, we have the obvious parallel:
- one Republican "extremist" candidate, in Donald Trump, whose threats to civil rights are blatant and odious.
- versus oneof Democratic "moderate," in Hillary Clinton, who says the right things publicly (most of the time), but whose record seems not to quite match. Making things seem not so credible and not very authentic. Far more than LBJ ever had an authenticity problem.
We have blustering, sabre-rattling bravado-spewing Trump, whose SNL-sketchlike clownishness and reality tv firings seem to insulate people from being terrified. Or being chilled to the bone like they were with the perception of Goldwater as straight off the screen from "Dr. Strangelove," "Seven Days in May," "On the Beach," and "Fail Safe."
The difference in perceiving extremists in 1964 and 2016 is reduced to that: the variably comic shades of SNL, vs. the stark, brooding black-and-white image of early '60s nuclear apocalypse button-pushers familiar to voters then.
As it was, America got a fully-empowered, elected-in-his-own-right LBJ in 1964 because it rejected "an extremist" and elected "a moderate." Then, by the next election cycle in 1968, America was shattered; families were divided; loyalties and flags of fathers were ripped to pieces; youthfully beautiful bodies — and those of others too long oppresed — were beaten by nightsticks, blasted by fire hoses, mauled by police dogs, and sent home from half a world away with lost innocence, lost idealism, lost limbs, lost minds, or lost lives.
By that very next election cycle, political party nominating conventions could not be held without massive protests. Nationally and globally televised protests that, in Chicago, turned into a spectacle like the storming of the Bastille. After it was met with what the subsequent Justice Department investigation would deem "a police riot."
It's shades of Ferguson, by our measure.
But in 1968 — that next election cycle following rejection of "a GOP extremist" — the military-industrial complex had won primacy, seized ownership of the lion's share of the US economy, and caused American society to implode. And the landslide president of the previous election couldn't even run again.
In 1964, that malevolent root factor — the military-industrial complex — hadn't even been identified as an entity for four full years. The phrase wasn't known by everyone because it just wasn't discussed and, after all, had so recently been invented. But invented by a retiring president who was a military general — THE military general of the 20th century — the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe who had freed a continent and defeated the Nazi empire that had murderously conquered it. And most American voters in 1964 had a positive view of their military, which had done all that and defeated Imperial Japan, continuously symbolized by John Wayne and Audie Murphy and Jimmy Stewart on the big and small screens.
But it was an America that still read newspapers and believed itself informed and serious about choosing a president.
So it was the "moderate" Democratic president who jumped with both feet into military solutions to all of America's global challenges. Build-up NATO. Build-up US bases in the Philippines and Japan. Build more and bigger missiles tipped with higher-yield nuclear warheads in silos beneath America's heartland and submarines hidden beneath the seas. Oh, and bombers. You have to have bombers. Must have enough to go around and comprise a proper nuclear triad. MAD you say? Mutually Assured Destruction? Let's call our Nuclear Deterrent. That sounds better. Less extremist. More moderate.
And incongruously, we'll inspire humanity by metaphorically reaching for the stars, and literally going to the Moon. Using rockets developed only for that, with no secrecy, and no military applications.
For all the election of 1964 did, don't look for a philosophical rudder. There wasn't one, and maybe there still isn't. In simply rejecting a "dangerous GOP extremist," and choosing a rather unlikeable Democrat whose manipulations of politicians and the levers of power were infamous? That election of a flawed "moderate" over an "extremist" inevitably wrought rancorous turmoil and utter confusion.
Probably not in the mind of the president elected in that landslide against the Republican right-wing extremist. Not after getting an electoral mandate.
Not until the next election when that sitting president was such a pariah that a reelection bid was impossible.
And that's where the 1964-1968 example meets 2016, and beyond to set-up what happens in 2020. Except we won't have a visionary diversion for the next four years, like going to the Moon.
We'll have the parsing, equivocating agony of "progress" that insufficiently slows, rather than stops, climate change. We'll have the politics of diversion, distraction, obstruction, and righteous indignation that nothing "harmful" gets done.
We'll have the contradiction of continued fracking as we hear voiced outrage over all the other poisoned water that's not from fracking — like Flint.
We'll hear that repeated apology for voting to invade Iraq, even as military "deployments" are never-ending incursions and occupations, and there are massive multibillion dollar "nuclear renewals" and compounded red-white-and-blue budget-busters. Not because any of those things end murderous oppression by ISIL or the Taliban. But because the campaign-funding machine is hard-wired to that military-industrial complex we were warned about less than four years before the first time it took over. Under a "moderate" Democrat elected to stop an "extremist" Republican. Let's keep calling it "Homeland Security." It came from a Republican. And it sounds better.
And if military buildups devour all the money? We'll moan about potholes and insufficient money for infrastructure renewal. That could be convenient. Funding free college would mean more educated citizens qualified to ask embarrassing questions and pursue inconvenient truths. So it's not a good idea to have money for something like that anyway, is it?
But don't expect a dialog that's even that inclusive. It makes things too awkward for the central narrative.
There's no question why Donald Trump as the GOP nominee is compared to the electoral debacle the party experienced in 1964. That part's easy.
We need questions asked and answered about Hillary Clinton compared to 1964. Including whether her policies would bring the same kind of military disasters the nation experienced last time a GOP "extremist" was defeated in favor of a "moderate" Democrat with a demonstrated penchant for militaristic "solutions."
Those questions — and plenty more — must be asked while there is still time to nominate and elect Bernie Sanders.
Before the shockingly unexpected dialog that no one could have anticipated becomes all about which third party candidates might be a better choice.
In 1968, George Wallace and his American Independent Party likely put Richard Nixon in the White House. In 2000, Ralph Nader took votes from both Al Gore and George W. Bush, and had a real, but arguable, effect on the outcome. Now, progressives contemplate Green Party candidate Jill Stein if Bernie Sanders is not on the November ballot, and conservatives and some independents are looking at Libertarian Party candidate and former GOP governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson.
For now, it's 1964 that looms largest. The election when philosophic directions were set by both major parties choice of candidates. When rejection of military "extremism" Republican brought a consumately-connected "moderate" Democrat who allowed military-industrial complex dominance and unprecedented participation in foreign military projections and presence.
Those questions have both immediacy and historical context. The latter helps us understand how we got here and should help us focus.
During Barry Goldwater's later years, Democrats enjoyed entertaining themselves saying how far he had come to the left.
During Barry Goldwater's later years, Democrats enjoyed entertaining themselves saying how far he had come to the left. So far left that he'd have been a moderate member of their party were he entering politics three decades after his GOP "extremist" days.
No one ever looked at how far the Democratic Party had been dragged to the right during the same period.
Those were the years when Bill Clinton devised the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) to be "the moderate force" that would enable a Democratic candidate — namely himself — to win in Southern states. Which were, and are, conservative states. Only during and after his presidency did scholars recognize how much he moved the goalposts. To the right.
Despite the economic miracle of paying-down the impossible Reagan-Bush 41 debt and leaving Bush 43 a surplus, Bill Clinton took the Democratic Party farther to the right than any time since before Woodrow Wilson.
The DLC's rise and Bill Clinton's win were set up by Ted Kennedy's liberal challenge to moderate Jimmy Carter. That's always given as the last nail in the Carter presidency, making it impossible to stop the reactionary Reagan Revolution.
Thereafter, it became "who can argue with a challenge when it proves successful?" DLC conservative Clinton was successful.
Al Gore's candidacy, despite his own DLC connection, centered on him being an environmental visionary willing to lead the world to save itself from itself. Which was just too much for the Supreme Court. John Kerry's candidacy was caught-up and lost in matters of Middle East wars, security fears, and Karl Rove's masterfully fraudulent accusations. Barack Obama's win? More about America always rejecting the party that has crashed the economy than about him being the first African-American nominee.
So it's waited all these years for a genuine liberal to fight for the soul of the Democratic Party. And that's Bernie Sanders, who, remaining an independent all those years that he caucused with congressional Democrats, avoided the party's purge of office holders who were not sufficiently supportive of military occupations and presences.
Along the way, Bernie Sanders has inspired and mobilized young people like Jack Kennedy did in 1960, and like Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy did, ever so briefly, in 1968. Before things got even worse. Much worse.
Bernie Sanders can beat Donald Trump far more reliably than could Hillary Clinton. If she can beat Trump at all. All the polls show that. But it comes to that fight for the soul of the Democratic Party.
Otherwise, we're looking at 1964. Which could set up four predictably hard years until we decide if we're in some analog of 1968. When the sitting president is too failed and too unpopular to run for reelection. But if all these '60s analogies apply, it's certainly without the Moon shot. Or the good music. Just the bad parts are déjà vu all over again. When a lot of Americans went to Canada.