Straight From the Sixties: What Conservatives Owe the Decade They Hate

The politics of the Gingrich revolution of the nineties are locked in a strange obsession with the politics they purport to repeal—the politics of the late sixties. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Republican of Texas, forthrightly set out the conventional loathing: "To me all the problems began in the sixties." But the troops of the New Right are far more nourished by the sixties than they appreciate. The sixties provide the right both an evil to extirpate and a libertarian ethic to emulate.

In the words of Speaker Newt Gingrich, Ph.D., American history breaks in half in the sixties. During the years 1607 through 1965, Gingrich said not long after assuming the leadership of the House, "There is a core pattern to American history. Here's how we did it until the Great Society messed everything up: don't work, don't eat; your salvation is spiritual; the government by definition can't save you; governments are into maintenance and all good reforms are into transformation." Then came the deluge, Gingrich continued: "From 1965 to 1994, we did strange and weird things as a country. Now we're done with that and we have to recover. The counterculture is a momentary aberration in American history that will be looked back upon as a quaint period of Bohemianism brought to the national elite"—the notorious "counterculture McGoverniks," an elite who "taught self-indulgent, aristocratic values without realizing that if an entire society engaged in the indulgences of an elite few, you could tear the society to shreds."

How odd it is that the mythic sixties remain a subject for active love and loathing may be illustrated by contrast. In the sixties, no one was pressed to take a position on the thirties. Few ran for office either vindicating the thirties or proposing to repeal them. Unforgiving Roosevelt-haters were quaint, not powerful. (In the fifties, some of the McCarthyite right did of course campaign against the communist strand of the thirties, but even they did not reject the New Deal tout court.) When, in 1964, Barry Goldwater so much as intimated that Social Security might be expendable, his campaign exploded. During that sinful decade, not even Marilyn Quayle, who properly reminded the 1992 Republican Convention that "not everyone [in the sixties] demonstrated, dropped out, took drugs, joined in the sexual revolution or dodged the draft" was boogying to the music of the thirties, fashioning thirties costumes for thirties parties, or (excepting Pearl Harbor, just over the edge) commemorating the great or terrible moments of that faded sepia decade.

Yet in the not very gay nineties, a president identified with those years, like it or not, has had to devote considerable energy to wriggle away from the reputation, while his nemeses vilify the sixties as the onset of the decline of civilization. The only comparable period of obsessive contentiousness in American history is the 1860s, which for decades was said to have been the time of either the Civil War or the War between the States, depending on who asked the question and where.


In the society of instant gratification there are many mansions. And the rebellion industry, thanks to free markets, occupies more than a few. The marketing of transgression is a tribute to a society devoted to sales and surfaces as much as it is to the particular forms of transgression popularized in the sixties. Soi-disant conservatives, denouncing semipornography and gangsta rap as if the corporations they love to deregulate had nothing to do with the images they loathe, are—like the rest of American culture and politics—beholden to the culture of celebrity that is one of the most enduring and least fruitful residues of the sixties.

Restorationist critics—like the self-proclaimed victims they mock mercilessly—exaggerate the enemy's conquests. After more than a quarter century of Republican ascendancy and an unprecedented rollback in the authority of the federal government, they are indefatigable when it comes to claiming past defeats and blaming them on liberals and the liberal state. The libertine thrust of American culture frightens and ignites them. Multiculturalism taps time-honored insecurity about whether the national cement shall long endure. The government, school prayers or no, is largely helpless to roll back the cultural zeitgeist, but there is plenty of political capital in demonizing "the government"—forgetting that multinational corporations also screw up, spawn private regulations galore, and exercise irresponsible power not because of the reforms of the sixties but despite them.

The truth is that everyone today, the right as much as the left, stands on the ground of the sixties. The mainstream as much as the countercurrents presuppose the cultural changes that have been lumped together as "the counterculture." Today, ponytailed ranchers rail against government regulation; anti-abortionists claim the mantle of Martin Luther King, Jr.; antifeminists leave their children at home to travel the country giving speeches or blocking abortion clinics. People pick and choose their particular sixties to savage or defend, but in either event are fatally marked by the sixties. The savagers are the sixties' shadow, the negative double of that decade, energized by its hideous memory, dependent upon it for self-definition.

Those who love to hate the sixties have run off with the unbridled individualism that was one of that decade's principal styles—and indeed the one they boast of despising. Gingrich and his supporters are obsessed with "self-indulgent values" and the culture of entitlement—but feel entitled to take any money from anyone. Their love of entrepreneurship shares American roots with the counterculture's libertarian strain. A laptop in every lap is Gingrich's version of instant gratification. Restorationist ideas of family obligation diverge, of course, from hippie ideas, but the two, unacknowledged, do share an extravagant idea of the power of human will.

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Moreover, Gingrich's legions share the late sixties' sense of extremity. The restorationists presuppose the breakdown of value consensus. They relish polarization and wildness. Gingrich's go-for-broke thundering, his absolute self-righteousness, his bombast, his refusal to honor limits, recall the double-or-nothing spirit of the wackiest part of the sixties, the part that brought us slogans like "By Any Means Necessary." Gingrich's generation of Republican first-termers, like Ronald Reagan's ideologues before them, toss the word "revolution" around rather lightly. The collapse of communism hardly left them complacent, but rather pumped up their sense that America trembles on the edge of a chasm. Thus Irving Kristol in 1993: "There is no 'after the Cold War' for me. So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. . . . Now that the other 'Cold War' is over, the real cold war has begun. We are far less prepared for this cold war, far more vulnerable to our enemy, than was the case with our victorious war against a global Communist threat." The will to counterpower takes no prisoners.

Today's millenarian right, like yesterday's left, is also high on the potent drug of American exceptionalism. Yesterday, America was utterly evil; today, America has the capacity to be exceptionally good (as soon as it is liberated from the forces of evil). On both scores, America is self-evidently held free "to begin the world over again." Today it is the right that fails to recognize the sweep of social forces across modern societies. For example, it is fashionable to blame feminist overkill for family instability in America. But parochial critics fail to recognize that, from the sixties onward, divorce and unmarried cohabitation soared and families crumbled in societies where the feminist movement was weak, France and Italy for example, as well as those where feminism was strong, like the United States and Scandinavia. (Between 1970 and 1991, the divorce rate rose from 15 to 23 per 1,000 married women in the United States, from 8 to 11 in Denmark, and from 7 to 12 in Sweden. It tripled, from 3 to 9, in France, and doubled, from 1 to 2, in Italy.)

Absolutism in the defense of passions respects no political monopoly. Apocalyptic intemperateness, paranoia, a loathing of compromise, a demonization of the enemy—on the right today, as on the left a generation ago, these are more than articles of faith. The style of extremity, reptilianism, intolerance of ambiguity is an operating principle, widespread and entrenched, agitating the larger number of pragmatists in the respectable political party.

Today's Christian Coalition deplores the decline of civilization as fervently as the most apocalyptic environmentalist or hippie antimaterialist of the late sixties. Right-wing activists despise Bill Clinton ("COWARD, LIAR, SOCIALIST," in the words of one bumper sticker) with a venom reminiscent of the left's fear and loathing of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon—except that the damage imputed to Clinton is mainly moral and symbolic, not corporeal, except perhaps for a few murders imputed to him and his wife. Jesse Helms's comment that Clinton "better have a bodyguard" if he visited North Carolina brings to mind the sixties button, "Where is Lee Harvey Oswald now that we really need him?"—except that those who wore such buttons did not chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

If anything, the countercultural spirit spawned a reaction at least as intense and consequential as the original. Not even during George McGovern's doomed candidacy did the left have the influence on Democratic policy that the right has on the Republicans. No leftist with crackpot views comparable to Pat Robertson's or Pat Buchanan's on the international (wink, wink) banking conspiracy commanded a key bloc of Democrats during the campaigns of 1968 or 1972. The resurrection of the Dixiecrats, complete with a refurbished rhetoric of states' rights—now known as block grants—has been accomplished by Republicans running against the sixties. As in the late sixties and early seventies, the major party's realists have to watch out lest their fervent far wing frighten the moderate center.

During the sixties, many of the terrible simplifiers were on the left or dwelt, like Charles Reich of the virtually forgotten Greening of America, in those countercultural zones where wish- and willfulness passed for insight. Today, virtually all the terrible simplifiers are on the right. Only a few desperate, unreconciled souls today embrace what is called "the sixties" wholeheartedly, sharing with the party of repeal the belief that the ensemble of movements, tactics, images, tones, and styles were indissoluble and have to be (in a slogan of those days) loved or left. The hard core has softened. The absolutist passions of the late sixties inevitably relented in the press of practical exigency, in the flush of semi-success, or the afterglow of defeat. Despite the furies of extremity, few feminists or sexual liberationists today retain the confidence that they are cooking up a new social order from scratch. The liberationist impulse that these movements expressed when they were fresh and extravagant is beleaguered—by the rise of the right, by AIDS, by the feminization of poverty, by internal conflicts and self-doubts.


It is also worth pausing to remember that the currents and movements of a generation ago did not dovetail. Although partisans and antagonists alike speak of a single "spirit of the sixties," there were crosscurrents and zones of confluence, tensions and interference patterns. One strand—to oversimplify—was individualist and libertarian. The Beat, the hippie, the libertine were antinomian. The maximum of personal freedom was both means and end. Expression and transgression were the name of the game. The emphasis was on private life, even if the project was to display private life in public. ("Why don't we do it in the road?") Those who placed the emphasis on the quest for personal freedom wished to gratify desire. They wanted sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll; pleasure, rhythm, emotion—and they wanted them, as the saying goes, now. The enemy was repression and control, whether internally by the superego or externally by the police. The self-sufficient individual was the beginning and the end—the law. This spirit survives today as entrepreneurship. The slogan of the Whole Earth Catalog was: "We are as gods and might as well get good at it." Today's god is equipped with PC, modem, and scanner. His drug of choice is electronic.

But freedom was far from the only objective that animated the sixties. The other was an amalgam of equality and fraternity—in particular, solidarity with the poor and the low caste. The civil rights movement was the seedbed, the War on Poverty a continuation, and a host of other projects from the Peace Corps to the revolutionism of the Third World, whatever their obvious differences, rang variations on the same theme. Throughout the variations, the hope was to universalize political rights; to move the grass roots closer to power; to animate public-mindedness; to reduce inequality of both class and caste; to oppose illegitimate authority in the name of a public that was the proper source of sovereignty. Individualism was suspect, value placed on cooperativeness, collective projects, and at the maximum, "the beloved community." The heroes were variously Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Che Guevara, or anonymous Viet Cong cadres—or more soberly, Bobby Kennedy and Cesar Chavez—but not Alan Watts or Timothy Leary. Self-realization was to come through sacrifice, not the gratification of desire.

Between the libertarian and the solidarity strains, there were plenty of collisions and "contradictions," though also room for overlap. "NOT WITH MY LIFE YOU DON'T," a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) antidraft slogan of 1967, could be applied with equal force to the Pentagon, a strip-mining company, or a battering husband. Many a sixties radical gambled that the two strands could be woven together. Frequently, at least for a while, they did make a home in the same breast. Anarchism nestled into the civil rights movement. Civil rights workers sang "Do What the Spirit Say Do" along with "We Shall Not Be Moved." The faith was that love would be the solvent of contradiction. "Make Love, Not War" was an attempt to finesse the differences. But they could never be erased. "We Shall Overcome" was not "I Shall Be Released." One pole usually overwhelmed the other, and individuals like Abbie Hoffman migrated from solidarity to libertarianism. The celebrity culture encouraged that sort of giddy, incoherent migration and a rich society rewarded it.

Even among the forces of solidarity, there were tensions over the question: Solidarity with whom? The crucial distinction was between universalist and particularist strands. Within the student movement, there was tension from the beginning between the spirit of politics for others (civil rights, for example) and the spirit of politics for selves (student power, for example). Berkeley's Free Speech Movement tried to extrapolate from one to the other. Anger at white supremacists spilled over into anger at the authoritarian paternalism of University of California administrators, so that an activist could believe that self-liberation was tantamount to, or inexorably coupled with, solidarity with oppressed blacks. But in the end, the universalist strand proved far weaker than black-consciousness movements.

True, even the particularist currents of Black Power and its sequels carried elements of universalism. The emphasis on African American cultural difference began largely as a revolt against the inferior condition forced upon the lower caste by a system of white supremacy. Cultural separatism was fueled by longtime discriminations. If America wanted a single standard, why should it look like straightened hair and thin noses? If history was a unified story, why were the heroes of song and story so disproportionately white? But the left's racial resegregation following the civil rights movement took the solidarity motif and specialized it. Much of the black movement went off into centrifugal motion partly because they reveled in powers freshly achieved, partly because the establishment resisted further reform. Late-coming reforms are the breweries of excess.

The question that now emerged in many quarters was, To whom did one owe solidarity? Was one obligated to the whole people (or the whole world)? To the oppressed caste? To one's own group, however defined? To one's higher (or lower) self? Once civil rights had been achieved in principle, with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was there to be solidarity with all the poor, as the organizers of Students for a Democratic Society believed, trying to instigate community organizations that would federate into an "interracial movement of the poor"? Or black Americans? The whole "Third World"? One's own ethnic group? In the latter-day sixties, as the cry of Black Power was generalized, the choice was increasingly that of one's tribe, one's own people—Chicanos, American Indians, Jews, Italians, Asians, women (or at least feminists), gays. . . . The solidarity strand of the sixties left splintered into distinct identity-based communities.

The solidarities of Black Power and subsequent identity-based movements had a force and energy that the War on Poverty lacked. Identity was a motive for social commitment and action when, by contrast, economic equality had no constituency, and cross-class, cross-race, and cross-sex alignments seemed abstract. The ideal of participatory democracy, with its decentralizing, anti-authoritarian thrust, failed to get generalized very far outside the precincts of the academy. SDS's small community organizing projects of the mid-sixties were slow to overcome the despair and divisions of the poor, and before they could get very far, were derailed by the imperative to organize against the Vietnam War. In the nature of the case, student movements are not well primed to focus on campaigns for such universalist goals as health care, affordable housing, or living wages. They have little interest in the economy at all. Meanwhile, the unions were fatally compromised by their support of the Vietnam War.

A final sixties schism is worth recalling—the sixties' love/hate relationship with government. The reformers of the sixties who looked toward solidarity and equality viewed government as a necessary instrument of redress, if ambivalently. They were often angry at its bureaucratic habits, its alliance with machine politics, its capture by elites. But in the end, there was no other engine of redistribution, no other machinery to enforce rights. Again and again, a grassroots movement representing out-groups looked to government. So did Nader-style consumer movements and stockholder reform campaigns looking toward democratic control over corporations. Yet, in an era when government meant the Vietnam War, J. Edgar Hoover, the betrayal of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the Daley machine, sixties radicals never entirely trusted government. Government meant authority in an anti-authoritarian decade—draft boards and phone taps and snoopy caseworkers. Government meant legislative compromise in a decade of absolutes.

Here is where the right astutely ran off with the libertarian strain of the sixties. The crippling irony is that one of the strongest legacies of sixties movements is distrust of the very government, however "reinvented," that used to be liberalism's preferred vehicle for reform. Gingrich's legions give no credit to the New Left critique of centralized power when they claim it for Republicanism. When Republicans claim they want the poor to make their own decisions rather than suffer the whims of Washington bureaucrats—never mind that these are precisely the bureaucrats who would have to enforce any serious campaign against discrimination in housing, jobs, and lending—this is exactly the program of the New Left in the sixties, which believed that "people should make the decisions that affect their lives," in the words of that organization of premature counterculture McGoverniks, Students for a Democratic Society. ("Maximum feasible participation of the poor" was the Great Society version enshrined in the Economic Opportunity Act.) The antibureaucrats and libertarians of the sixties did not want to be folded, stapled, or mutilated. They, too, wanted to live free or die.

At its best, the New Left of the sixties thought it was possible to merge liberty and equality. But the appeal of equality wore thin along with faith in government as a means. Libertarianism had both cultural resonance and economic staying power.

Today, the reduction of economic inequality is the issue that dares not speak its name. Indeed, one measure of the degraded quality of American political language is the virtual disappearance of the word "equality." In an anti-utopian time, when the ceiling of possibility is set low, chances seem slight to mobilize a potent coalition across race and class lines to recognize a common stake in ending poverty—raising the minimum wage, establishing jobs, child care, affordable housing, and universal medical coverage. The prevailing sense of scarcity is a major obstacle to a resumption of the egalitarian spirit. So is the segmentation of solidarities, which furthers the traditional American preoccupation with opportunity. Instead of a massive outcry against the steepness and slipperiness of the pole of success, we get recriminations about whether rewards at the top are distributed equitably with respect to race and gender. Instead of serious debate about the causes and cures of astounding degrees of inequality in wealth, health, and other social goods, we are regaled on every hand with denunciations of the other E-word— "elitism."

Segmented solidarity on the left, fraudulent libertarianism on the right—absent a missing synthesis, each curdles. (Unhappy is a country that must turn to Pat Buchanan for speeches on the plight of working people.) The heart of the missing progressive synthesis would be simple: more equality in material conditions and more democracy in matters of economic power. The sixties' project of reconciling liberty and equality was noble, difficult, and deserving of renewal. That project, after all, dates from the American Revolution. Where the sixties went wrong in the end was in the extravagance of its libertarian strain. The next liberalism will have to get the proportions right.

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