The 1960s and Today’s Crises

by Ted Morgan, author of What Really Happened to the 1960s; How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past”—William Faulkner

It’s been a long fifty years since the end of the 1960s. Yet, as current events involving racism and the police remind us, the past is still with us. In many ways, the long 1960s era—from about 1954 to 1975—remains a benchmark for protest movements, political turmoil, and youthful activism of various kinds.

On May 4, 2020, we witnessed the fiftieth anniversary of the shootings at Kent State, an iconic 1960s event. What is perhaps most notable about Kent State is how deeply divided the public was over the killing of protesting students at Kent and Jackson State. That polarization reflected the mediated events of the 1960s, and it is still very much with us.

This year’s protests against police violence erupted after millions saw the truly horrifying video of George Floyd being killed by Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin. These protests, heavily populated by the young, spread like wildfire across the country and much of the rest of the world. Floyd’s desperate words, “I can’t breathe,” have graced sign after sign all across the globe.

The spread of protest, itself something of a media-assisted phenomenon, became a magnet for media attention, generating multiple references to the urban uprisings of the 1960s. As they were in the 1960s, the televisual media in particular became preoccupied with outbreaks of violence against property, including, at the margins of organized protests, the looting of stores. Also echoing the 1960s, mainstream media commentary ranged from right-wing denunciations of the protests—notably President Trump’s malicious calls for crushing protesters with military force—to liberal commentators clearly sympathetic to the protesters’ anguish but who were quick to denounce any form of violence as counterproductive.

The effect of mainstream media coverage, then as now, is to steer the public discourse inside the boundaries of the two-party system, thus leaving outside those who call for more structural reforms of the American political economy. One important difference today is, of course, the prevalence of the internet and social media providing a place where people can find compatible voices, express their views, and share images.

What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy documents the way media coverage helped to spread protest while also generating increasing militancy and alienation among the many protest groups of that era. The book demonstrates how the same mass media continue to fail American democracy. Most fundamentally, the book explains how we got from an era of promising democratic reform to our current world of shocking inequality, endless wars, and a planet on the brink of ecodisaster.

The images broadcast in the 1960s gave right-wing commentators fodder for fueling a backlash to 1960s social movements and the liberal Kennedy-Johnson years. It began with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 effort to link the “riot” in Harlem to the “lawlessness” of the Southern civil rights movement—thus becoming the first Republican to win four states of the Old South. The backlash continued through Ronald Reagan’s 1966 rise as governor of California and Richard Nixon’s successful “law and order” presidential campaign of 1968.

Typically, the backlash seized on the most extreme behaviors that’s visible in the media, equating the “lawlessness” with the allegedly destructive intentions of the protest movements themselves. Highly inflammatory protest actions, like the Viet Cong flags that began showing up at antiwar protests, aided the cause of backlash commentators. Politicians cynically played on the fears, antipathies, and feelings of being “left out” of 1960s era reforms on the part of rural Americans, white southerners, the white working class, and religious conservatives.

The other backlash story revolves around corporate America’s anxiety over declining economic profitability in the 1970s. As the corporatist Trilateral Commission put it, the rise of “previously passive or unorganized groups” (notably racial minorities, women, and students) in the 1960s era produced what they termed an “excess of democracy.” Their response became a blueprint for the neoliberal America that emerged under Ronald Reagan—deregulate the economy, cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy, privatize everything public, and greatly expand defense spending.

Which brings us to Donald Trump—quite probably the most narcissistic, corrupt, and polarizing president in our history. Trump very effectively plays off the post-1960s themes, voicing sentiments, however crudely, that those who’ve long felt marginalized find emotionally satisfying. At the same time, he backs policies that enrich the rich, militarize our police, and endanger the future habitability of the planet—further marginalizing the public at large.

There are, however, lessons from the 1960s era that can help point the way toward a more democratic, just, and sustainable future. These, too, are considered in the concluding chapter of What Really Happened to the 1960s.

 

Ted (Edward P.) Morgan is emeritus professor of political science at Lehigh University. In addition to What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy, he published an earlier interpretive history of the 1960s entitled The Sixties Experience: Hard Lessons About Modern America.

The Trump Spectacle

9780700622856By Bruce Miroff, author of Presidents on Political Ground: Leaders in Action and What They Face

As the inauguration of Donald Trump approaches, his future course as president is as hard to predict as the man himself. One prediction, however, seems safe to make: Trump’s presidency will be a continual spectacle in the media.

I depict the presidential spectacle in the first chapter of my recently published book with the University Press of Kansas: Presidents on Political Ground: Leaders in Action and What They Face. It is through spectacles mounted in the media that presidents establish a political identity (and critics contest it with their own media efforts). The idea of the presidential spectacle contains three elements:  the presentation of the president as a larger-than-life character, the supporting role of the president’s team, and the ensemble of White House gestures whose principal aim is to dramatize the president’s virtues rather than to promote policy accomplishments. Since the coming of the television age in the administration of John F. Kennedy, every president has had to cope with the imperative of producing a winning spectacle.

During his extraordinary run for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama seemed to possess all the ingredients of a historic spectacle. Once in office, however, Obama concentrated heavily on the details of policymaking, slighting, by his own admission, the “symbols and gestures” through which a president communicates with the public. Immersed in rational deliberation, Obama lost much of his campaign luster, and the press began to complain that he was too cerebral, too cool, too aloof—in short, “professorial.” Obama regained some of his spectacle mojo in his second term, especially with African Americans and millennials, but his presidency remained committed at its core to good policy as the core of good government.

Evincing little interest in the substance of public policy, Donald Trump is likely to epitomize the opposite of Obama: the presidency as pure spectacle. Trump’s campaign for the White House was all “symbols and gestures,” with grandiose themes backed by scanty details. The signature spectacle of the Trump campaign was his rallies. These were participatory events for rally attendees, vicarious participation for his millions of followers watching on television.

Trump rallies were unlike any others in presidential campaigning. They were spectacles of fervor and fury. In some respects they resembled rock concerts: the star performer in the spotlight, the audience garbed in fan T-shirts and hats, the crowds chanting their favorite lines. “Build the wall” and “lock her up” allowed the crowds to echo Trump’s own contempt for immigrants and for his opponent, simultaneously signaling menace to the protestors and journalists in the hall who Trump pointed out in anger.

The rally attendees and the fans watching around the nation were predominantly the white working-class base that was the key to Trump’s election as president. His rallies were not the first occasions when he had found this base and made it his own. Recall Donald Trump’s stint with professional wrestling: he will be the first president who has previously been welcomed into the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Hall of Fame. Recall Trump’s role as impresario of the Miss Universe pageant.  Trump staged profitable spectacles of beauties and beasts—of slim young women in bathing suits and huge men in trunks. These were not spectacles that appealed to the educated classes, especially to those that Trump delighted in denouncing as “politically correct.” But through these spectacles the billionaire connected to a working-class base that no other candidate in 2016 could reach. One cannot imagine a Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, a Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz, as the host of wrestling matches or beauty contests.

Since his election, Trump has not let go of spectacle for a minute. His auditions for cabinet positions have been a near-daily TV drama as he holds court in his iconic Manhattan tower. He has even reenacted his campaign rallies in “thank-you” appearances–a golden-oldies tour that keeps the fans aroused. His inauguration is likely to be over-the-top in gold and glitz. But the day after, he will have to govern, and then the Trump spectacle will meet its real test.

At least two major risks for the Trump spectacle can be foreseen. One is that Trump’s non-stop spectacle will grow tiresome, as an increasing share of the public audience feels that they have seen his antics too many times. Franklin D. Roosevelt is an instructive guide here. FDR’s fireside chats were an electronic marvel of simulated intimacy between a president and his people. Yet the fireside chats were broadcast on average only 2.5 times per year. When a supporter urged FDR to take to the air more often to promote his agenda, the president demurred, arguing that over-exposure would take away the freshness—and the effectiveness—of his radio appearances.

An even larger risk to the Trump spectacle is the intrusion of reality. It is far easier to make promises on the campaign trail than to deliver on them in the White House, especially when the promises, like Trump’s, are grandiose and may run contrary to long-established trends. The capacity of stark realities to subvert crowd-pleasing spectacles is illustrated by a notorious event during the presidency of George W. Bush. When Bush staged his “Mission Accomplished” spectacle on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to celebrate his apparent triumph in Iraq, the press treated it as a new peak in the production of spectacle. However, after the conflict in Iraq resumed with appalling brutality, “Mission Accomplished” became a mockery for Bush. Presidents may score points for an appealing spectacle, but they are judged in the end by how well they perform in enacting successful policies.

Donald Trump has built a remarkably successful career through his talent at spectacle. It has been his one true qualification for the office of president. But will it be enough to carry him through a successful administration? In business, and now in politics, he has lived by spectacle. In the White House, that may be a fatal flaw.