Did Our Current Polarization Begin 50 Years Ago in 1968?

June 4, 2018

 

Much speculation has been offered on the source(s) of the antipathy that characterizes today’s social and political affairs in America.  Current events obviously result from former events upstream, and it is clear that we did not wake up one day recently and find ourselves at each others' throats without some buildup of tensions that brought us to this point.

 

But how far back must we look to trace the antecedents to our current polarization?  How deep do the roots go, and if we are to try to pull this growing weed from its source, how far back in American history do we need to dig?

 

There are those who will point to the 2016 election and its lead up.  Clearly conflict intensified during this time, but it would be myopic to ignore the mounting tension that set the stage for Trump v. Hillary.  Some will finger the Obama administration and its fomenting of identity politics, but that would be to deny the disillusion and stratification that carried the “Hope and Change” mantra to the White House.  The W. years were fraught with vitriol – the nation almost united for a minute against the foreign threat that brought down the Twin Towers,  but the fear and animosity that gripped us proved to be less uniting than one might have hoped.

 

In his groundbreaking work The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt is primarily interested in the history and development of moral psychology in societies, but he does devote a few pages to the social and political events  in recent American history that paved our way to here.  He refers briefly to a paradigm shift in the 1990’s when “new rules and new behaviors in Congress” led to a less amicable environment in which “friendships and social contacts across party lines were discouraged,” and “candidates began to spend more time and money on ‘oppo’ (opposition research), in which staff members or paid consultants dig up dirt on opponents (sometimes illegally) and then shovel it to the media.”

 

A recent article by Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal doubles down on Haidt’s timeline and traces the roots back not 25 years to the early 90’s, but rather 50 years to the fateful year of 1968.  In “The Year Politics Collapsed” Henninger takes us on a whirlwind tour of the social and political upheaval that characterized those action-packed 12 months.  From the Tet offensive that changed the course of the Vietnam War, to the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy,  the election of Nixon and the invasion of Czekoslovakia by the USSR, it was a time of acute domestic and international sociopolitical tension. 

 

On the cultural front, Henninger provides a playlist of the music that served as the soundtrack for the time: Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and others.  “The music, mayhem and merriment were inseparable,” Henninger writes  “It was a year in which the idea of inhibition died. It hasn’t returned and likely never will.”

 

In terms of the year’s relevance to our current divide, Henninger asserts that “Nineteen sixty-eight marked the start of political polarization. …  The late 1960s saw the beginning of left-liberal moral triumphalism.” In other words, where there had heretofore been a general state of collaboration, healthy competition, and productive checks and balances, there now arose a sense of tribalism and moral antagonism in which we were no longer coworkers with differing perspectives, but opponents with deeply conflicting sensibilities. 

 

“The opposition was no longer just wrong,” Henninger explains,  “It was morally suspect.”  We were suddenly not satisfied to challenge each others’ ideas and strategies, but we now came to question the others' motives and ethics.  “A kind of political religiosity infused matters of sex, race and even foreign policy, and pushed the parties apart.”

 

Henninger quotes a document from that year entitled the “Kerner Commission Report” which investigated the urban riots of the preceding years and concluded that the country was “moving toward two societies.”There was no sense of prognosis in the report, no time line on how quickly this cancer would spread, but it has clearly been metastasizing for the past five decades and manifests in ugly tumors that riddle our body politic today. 

 

While Henninger’s article provides more of a case history than a prescription, we might intuit a course of treatment that includes a healthy dose of intellectual humility.  If our course began to deviate in 1968 with the devaluation of conflicting perspectives, then we may be able to correct it by building our tolerance for viewpoint diversity. 

 

We might also glean a glimmer of hope from Henninger’s analysis in that we have survived this long, and perhaps we have proven more resilient than one might have predicted back in those troubled times.  It is helpful to know that we have had problems for a long time, and despite many panicked warnings to the contrary, the sky is not falling and we are stronger and more capable of dealing with conflict than we may have believed. 

 

2018 may seem like the brink to many of us, but Henninger’s history lesson alerts us not only to some of the causes of our current conundrum, but also reminds us that we have experienced more dire straits, and though he doesn’t say so, may suggest that if we were able to survive 1968, we are capable of abiding 2018 as well. 

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