What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy

The following is an excerpt from What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy by Edward P. Morgan (University Press of Kansas).

The Past as Prologue: Distorted History— Declining Democracy

History always constitutes the relation between a present and a past. Consequently fear of the present leads to a mystification of the past....If we “saw” the...past, we would situate ourselves in history. When we are prevented from seeing it, we are being deprived of the history which belongs to us. —John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1977

With the destruction of history, contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning. For every imbecility presented by the spectacle, there are only the media’s professionals to give an answer. —Guy De Bord, Comments on the Society of Spectacle, 1988

The democratic ideal...is that the people are capable of and ought to be making their own history....The reason that democracy persists as an ideal at all is that people at times have transcended their everyday lives in order to make history. —Richard Flacks, Making History, 1988

Forty years after the tumultuous year of 1968 ushered in an era of political backlash and market liberalization, Americans turned out in record numbers and elected Barack Obama as the first African American president. At the precise moment the national networks could officially declare Obama the winner, NBC anchor Brian Williams observed, “We have news. There will be young children in the White House for the first time since the Kennedy generation. An African American has broken the barrier as old as the republic; an astonishing candidate, an astonishing campaign. A seismic shift in American politics.” As Williams continued, viewers watched campaign supporters’ jubilant celebration in, of all places, Chicago’s Grant Park, where forty years earlier a phalanx of Chicago policemen, with billy clubs flailing, charged into a crowd of antiwar protesters in one of the sixties era’s pivotal events.

While the multiracial and multigenerational Obama crowd celebrated, tears streaming down the faces of young African American women, NBC asked for the thoughts of Congressman John Lewis, a former civil rights activist. Lewis’s words were poignant: “Well, I must tell you, this is unreal, it’s unbelievable. But I tell you, the struggle, the suffering, the pain and everything that we tried to do to create a more perfect union, it was worth it.” Recalling that Martin Luther King Jr. “had tears coming down his face” when President Lyndon Johnson concluded his historic introduction of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with the movement’s credo, “We shall overcome,” Lewis continued, “I think about Robert Kennedy and the countless individuals that stood in those unmovable lines in Selma. I think about those three young civil rights workers in Mississippi, two whites from New York and an African American from Mississippi who was beaten, shot and killed. So some people gave their very life and some of us gave a little blood to make tonight possible. It is a night of gratitude. I tell you, I feel more than lucky, but I feel very blessed to live to see this day.”

Greeting his supporters a short while later, President-elect Obama used words that recalled King’s final public address the night before he was killed in April 1968: “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year, or even in one term. But America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there.”

For millions of viewers it was powerful television that resonated with the struggles of the 1960s era, to say nothing of the nation’s tragic racial history. Indeed, ever since Obama was considered a potential candidate, the mass media speculated about how resonances from the 1960s era might influence the 2008 race. From February 2007 to election day, 1,790 articles from LexisNexis’s major U.S. and world news publications discussed Obama and the 1960s.

From the beginning, media commentary speculated about the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy and whether or not the United States was ready to elect a black president, hearkening back to the 1960 candidacy of John Kennedy, the first Catholic to be elected president. Obama’s eloquence and charismatic personality, his youthful appeal to younger voters, and his rhetoric calling for change from the jaded politics of the past all contributed to the Kennedy comparisons.

While candidate Obama may have welcomed this particular media fixation, his effort to speak in a “new voice” meant he had to distinguish his campaign from much of the political discourse that had dominated presidential elections in the decades since the brief Kennedy years. For Obama, this meant, as he declared on September 15, 2007, “I come from a new generation of Americans. I don’t want to fight the battles of the 1960s.” Even this declaration echoed John Kennedy’s inaugural reference to the torch passing to “a new generation of Americans.”

Why did candidate Obama feel compelled to make such a statement? What did he mean by it? Clearly, at a time when public opinion reflected alarm over the nation’s economic nosedive and opposition to the nation’s war in Iraq, it made sense to frame one’s candidacy around the theme of change. But what have “the battles of the 1960s” come to represent in American political discourse? What do the media mean by “the sixties”? Further, what would a “seismic shift in American politics,” as Brian Williams put it, look like? How much difference does a “new generation” make in American politics, anyway?

These are questions left unexamined in the media. Much of mass media discourse on the sixties is about ghosts, accusations, and smoke and mirrors, and much of it is meant to play on audience emotions and, where these are available, potent memories of long ago days. Aside from indisputably powerful imagery, rhetoric, and symbolism, it is hard to locate much political substance in this media discourse. The same could be said about mass media’s political discourse in general. More often than not revolving around symbolic appeals to emotion, manipulation of images, attack and counterattack, and at times breathtaking distortion, the media spectacle largely distracts the public from the kind of public conversation through which democratic citizens gain an understanding of their common interests and concerns.

The media culture’s “Sixties,” however, played a crucial historical role in producing this contemporary media discourse. The mass media have been the major vehicle used by the Right and the corporate center in fanning the flames of ideological backlash against sixties-era social movements. They have also been the principal vehicle for the commercial exploitation of sixties-era impulses. In combination, I argue, these responses have produced conditions that simultaneously demand and discourage collective action on the part of the public.

'The Sixties' in Mass Media Discourse

Presidential campaigns have for more than forty years exploited symbols, images, and personalities from the 1960s era as a means of mobilizing political support for their candidates and political agendas. For the most part, these campaigns have come from the right side of the political spectrum. Over time, they have blamed “the Sixties” for just about everything they see as wrong with America. Beginning as far back as Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, political forces on the Right have used sixties-era media images to tap into the fears and resentments that the spectacle has spawned and thus to buttress their political agendas aimed largely at what they like to call “Big Government.” During the 1960s, these attacks began to pull significant populations—most notably the white South and portions of the Catholic working class—out of the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition into the Republican camp.

With the economy floundering in the early to mid-1970s, capitalism’s elites sought to redress what they saw as the “excess of democracy” or “democratic distemper” of the sixties era in order to move public policy to the right. Rightist and corporate agendas converged with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, a turning point that not only produced the neoliberal (or what is misleadingly called a “free market”) regime that dominated American politics for at least the next twenty-eight years, but succeeded in transforming American political discourse in the process. The Reagan agenda implemented earlier corporate calls for a sharp reduction in liberal government, a major shift toward privatization and free-market policies, and a new surge in military spending coupled with a more aggressive U.S. foreign policy—a reversal of the so-called “Vietnam syndrome.”

Despite policies geared to the interests of corporations and the wealthy, neoliberalism enjoyed wide electoral success because it was ushered in by rhetoric that effectively played off public images of the sixties—threatening black militants, rebellious students, Viet Cong flag–waving antiwar protesters, self-indulgent and stoned hippies, and “man-hating” or “family-hating” women—that had alienated significant portions of the population. Via a process I call “visual thinking” or visual association, the conservative “Machiavellians,” as Tom Hayden has accurately labeled them, produced a populist spin for policies that favored economic elites by blaming the images on an “Eastern liberal elite.” The folksy, avuncular Reagan persona became a kind of nostalgic commercial for traditional verities and “family values” that allegedly flourished in a visually mythologized past before the era of “riots, assassinations, and domestic strife over the Vietnam war,” as Reagan described the 1960s. All things “liberal”—permissive parenting, indulgent campus authorities, domestic government programs, and the media—were blamed for the generational unrest of the past.

Curiously, this longstanding campaign against the “bad sixties” succeeded with considerable help from the very “liberal media” the campaign persistently attacked. Like the ideological backlash, the commercialization of the sixties began during the sixties era as news media and advertisers began to zero in on images of what they saw as new and increasingly provocative behaviors of a large baby boom population. News media coverage of sixties-era protests began to frame public understanding of protest around the most common visual denominator, a seemingly “rebellious generation,” around mid-decade—roughly the same time that protests began targeting national policies and institutions, and the same time that the national backlash began. Commercial interests responded by adopting the language of youthful alienation and a stance of “cool” skepticism as they began to transform the “youth culture” into a “hip” youth market.

Over the same time period, entertainment television and popular movies began to air themes popular with sixties youth. By 1971 CBS had introduced Norman Lear’s sitcom All in the Family, which juxtaposed two sides of the popularized sixties divide—young liberals versus their working-class parents, presented in the familiar generational frame. Twelve years later, NBC’s Family Ties, a sitcom that President Reagan claimed as his favorite TV show, played off another generational clash, this one between the young Reaganite Alex P. Keaton and his liberal sixties-generation parents. With musical scores and themes that evoked baby boomer nostalgia, films like the Reagan era’s The Big Chill (1983) and the 1994 blockbuster Forrest Gump provided audiences with representations of the sixties era that confirmed everything the Right claimed. Advertisers appealed to hip consumers by using rebellious sixties songs to sell everything from sneakers to raisins to accounting firms. More generally, as documented by Thomas Frank, advertisers and the business world widely appropriated the values of countercultural rebellion for their own commercial purposes.

The interaction between ideological attack and commercial exploitation provides crucial insight into the deterioration of American political discourse during and since the 1960s. On the one hand, the commercially driven, highly imagistic stuff of mass media acts as a kind of advertisement for an increasingly expressive America “liberated” from past restraints. On the other hand, ideological rhetoric, much of it propaganda, plays on fears and resentments aroused by imagery to offer a return to the “good old days.” Yet the neoliberal policies actually implemented by successive administrations further erode the public’s ability to shape its common destiny, providing fuel for more of the same dynamic.

At the same time, the political polarization and social fragmentation that occurred during the sixties has been greatly exacerbated by the two media culture responses. The ideological backlash has unleashed a warlike political discourse in which political adversaries are treated as enemies worthy only of attack. The market response to our fragmentation is to play to our different tastes, from cable TV channels geared to target audiences to the Internet’s personalized pitch to individual consumers. The market offers us what Lawrence Grossberg has called individual “affective empowerment" instead of the real thing—thereby introducing what I call a “market dialectic” that erodes and supplants a more democratic dialectic.

As the Obama election coverage suggests, the mass media not only provide profoundly evocative moments that resonate with historic 1960s events and personalities, they fill the airwaves and print media with snapshot reminders of sixties pop culture, iconic personalities, and banal references to the baby boom generation—the latter so tiresome that advertisers appeal to millions of younger, “hipper” Americans by ridiculing “Boomers” and the sixties.

The media culture’s sixties fixation has evolved over time. The initial generational explanation, dominant during the Reagan–Big Chill years, meant the sixties ended when the baby boomer generation grew into their careerist and acquisitive adult years—a frame that was somewhat paralleled by the early “declensionist” histories of the sixties. A second generational explanation evolved as media fixations with the sixties persisted despite the political entrenchment of neoliberalism and the maturation of baby boomers. Attention to right-wing baby boomers (e.g., George W. Bush) and allegedly “left-wing” baby boomers (e.g., Bill Clinton) in positions of power, the spreading “culture wars” of the 1990s, and histories that reread the sixties as a civil war between Right and Left -- all helped to configure the sixties as a metaphor for a divided America.

In light of this persistent media attention, is it surprising that the mass media have also been obsessed with the question of whether we were “over” the sixties—as if the sixties were a stage in growing up—since, well, the late sixties themselves? Beyond their rhetorical flourish, the media are asking a political question: when will the political issues and social divides of the sixties era no longer be salient in American politics? But they are also obeying economic and political imperatives linked to the size of the baby boom population bulge. In the media’s reflexive generational frame, the two considerations converge seamlessly: the social divides of the sixties dominate the culture because they are generational. Thus, for example, in December 2007, Andrew Sullivan argued that candidate Obama, “unlike any of the other candidates,” was positioned to “take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us.” Representations like these illustrate shortcomings in popular discourse about the sixties today. Indeed, much of what passes for history in conventional thinking is actually the public memory preserved for us by the mass media.

I would suggest three fundamental problems with the typical media fare related to the sixties: (1) it fundamentally distorts history by, among other things, removing serious consideration of the conditions that generated hopeful, democratic activism and by reducing potent social movements involving millions of people to a few iconic leaders or images; (2) it is part of a general media discourse that undermines the possibility of democracy; and (3) it fails to address the 800-pound gorilla in the room that no one mentions—namely, systemic characteristics of capitalism that contribute in fundamental ways to the social ills with which Americans and the rest of the world struggle.

First, the sixties era has been so thoroughly reconstructed in mass media discourse that, despite being extensively documented in historical scholarship, one of its defining qualities has largely disappeared from public memory: namely, the surge in democratic empowerment in which large numbers of Americans of all ages organized themselves to confront and transform a range of injustices rooted in American institutions. Instead, the mass media frame the sixties as the product of an unusually restless and rebellious generation, a distortion that essentially makes this past politically irrelevant. In the first place, the implication that the change agents in the sixties were all young or that most of the baby boom generation was activist is simply wrong. Furthermore, this public memory largely denies us collective awareness of the contexts, experiences, and beliefs that were catalysts to the dramatic actions of the past, thereby obscuring important connections between this past and the troubles of today’s world. Finally, and most profoundly, the broader meaning of citizen assertiveness in the sixties—that it represented the inspiring potential for a more vital, accountable, and humane democracy—has largely vanished from public discourse—except for symbolically suggestive, visceral moments like election night 2008.

Second, as noted above, this generational frame has long been part of a diversionary and counter-democratic public discourse that substitutes simplistic visual association for thought. However alienating or entertaining the political spectacle may be, it is fundamentally depoliticizing because it distances us from substantive politics that confront and deal with the problems of the day. At the same time, it has seemingly politicized everything through its manipulation of affect. It produces a fragmented polity characterized by what I call an enclave mentality and a warlike discourse.

This counter-democratic discourse has come to define the public side of politics to such a degree that it permeates the nation’s legislative and policy-making arenas as well as the nation’s elections. Television news audiences, in particular, are bombarded with abbreviated and self-contained political dramas and human interest stories that draw attention away from the ways that American institutions shape the world. Increasingly over time, the spectator public is left with less and less understanding but with more and more feeling-based judgments aroused for or against one or another side in the nation’s political conflicts. Indeed, feelings have become the currency of not only advertising but of media politics, as well.

Like the media’s “Sixties,” this counter-democratic discourse has evolved over the decades. During the Reagan years, the president’s rhetoric often appealed to conservatives’ sense that the nation’s culture was in decline, that the pursuit of individual self-indulgence was out of control, that society’s traditions—and traditional values—were threatened. These were and are legitimate and important political concerns, yet they, too, have been turned into divisive and diversionary politics. Rightist rhetoric has juxtaposed behaviors and images from the sixties era against an idealized era before the sixties, suggesting by spurious association that various manifestations of liberalism were to blame for the excesses that fed many Americans’ perceptions that they were in danger of losing a way of life they valued. The Right’s political rhetoric has also continually railed about hot-button, emotionally arousing issues—prayer in schools, court-ordered school desegregation, the changing sexual mores of youth, flag burning, gun control, and, of course, abortion—that in various ways project back into the sixties era.

Along with the world of consumerism and entertainment, these efforts have, on the one hand, depoliticized the polity, diminishing the public’s ability to influence government policy, much less make history. Activist courts—both the oft-targeted, liberal Supreme Court of the long sixties era and the contemporary conservative Court—supplant legislative arenas while imbuing presidential elections with potent partisan politics heavy with symbolic meaning. And, with both Republicans and Democrats on board, the neoliberal regime has turned more and more of the political realm over to the marketplace—an ironic result since the market accelerates the very forces that cause “conservative” constituencies (of all political stripes) to feel that their world is increasingly beyond their control. Not only do neoliberal policies and the Right’s attacks sustain unending frustration for American conservatives, they diminish the realm of democratic politics within which popular concerns of all kinds can be aired and acted upon.

On the other hand, the backlash that has generated neoliberalism continually feeds on the fears and resentments of people who are disturbed by the sixties they witnessed or remember with the help of media imagery. Propaganda attacks against sixties stereotypes have over the years greatly inflamed public discourse, feeding an angry sense of victimhood on the part of both the targets of these attacks and those whose resentments can never be resolved by this highly symbolic media discourse.

The third fundamental problem with this media discourse is what it leaves out, or what it diverts our attention from: namely, a serious discussion of capitalism and the ways that it aggravates the very conditions that generate a great deal of agitation all across the political spectrum. Particularly in the United States, but increasingly throughout the globally capitalist world, the mass media are capitalist institutions that not only produce our diversionary media culture but help to keep serious discussion of capitalism outside the common ground of mainstream discourse and therefore off the political agenda. In these respects, then, we live in what I call a “market democracy”—or a democracy that is compatible with what C. B. Macpherson called a “market society”—that is, narrowed in meaning to a “system of government rather than a kind of society” and one that is made safe for and pervasively infiltrated by the imperatives of capitalism. Through the market dialectic they spread, capitalism’s media have a profoundly corrosive effect on democratic culture and, thus far at least, have effectively restricted the range of public debate.

Yet the policies of the neoliberal regime have also produced a world that, I suggest, desperately needs both a democratic civic culture and a full range of public debate. Turning the world over to the market has produced an accelerating erosion of the ecosphere and an ever-widening gap of inequality in American and global society, to say nothing of the persistence of destructive and arguably counterproductive American wars as well as great potential for future resource wars. Understanding the fundamental ways that capitalism contradicts democracy is an important first step in finding a way out of the discourse that has captured our politics and, far too often, captivated us. It also provides, I submit, an important framework for understanding how we got here—what happened to the 1960s, where the “sixties divide” comes from, and the central role the media have played in the transformation from the regime of New Deal liberalism to our current neoliberalism.

This understanding can also help us think about how to regain a sense of popular empowerment, well beyond the highly symbolic promises of an Obama administration. In contrast to the classic media fare, the history of sixties social movements provides important insights in this regard. As Robert Putnam observed in the year 2000, “Never in our history had the future of civic life looked brighter than it did at the end of the 1960s.” Certainly the sixties era produced a wide array of legislative reforms, ranging from the historic Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 to the highly symbolic War Powers Resolution of 1973. It also produced substantial social and cultural change, most notably the entry of women and racial minorities into the broad mainstream of American life. Perhaps nothing resonates more powerfully from the experiences of activists in the sixties era, particularly in the earlier years, than their sense that they were part of a social movement that was making history, bringing America to a full reckoning with its tragic racial past and forging a future more compatible with the nation’s democratic ideals.

Yet, at the same time that America’s democratic promise was being heralded, the media culture of the time conveyed the clear impression that the nation was coming apart. The American public was deeply divided over the war in Vietnam, racial polarization was inflamed, and media consumers had been buffeted by a long sequence of violent shocks: political assassinations, racial insurrection, police brutality, a nightmarish war, militant protest, an alienated youthful counterculture, and a political discourse charged with the strident rhetoric of backlash. In contrast to social movements’ sense of making history, a 1968 statement adopted by the Columbia University chapter of Students for a Democratic Society asserted, “We felt helpless in the history of our times” -- a feeling many Americans continue to experience. Despite the awakenings of important new social movements focusing on the liberation of women, gay and lesbian rights, ecology, and neighborhood preservation, the end of the decade stood in stark contrast to the idealistic and hopeful zeitgeist of the early sixties—or, at least, so it seemed in the political spectacle recorded by the mass media.

Between a sense of hopeful empowerment and a sense of feeling helpless in the history of the times, ideological backlash against and commercial exploitation of sixties’ social movements were becoming more pronounced. The political structure was becoming increasingly resistant and repressive while capitalism’s media culture offered what was increasingly a feeling of empowerment as at least a partial compensation for the real thing. In order to understand what has happened to the 1960s, we must understand what happened in the 1960s.

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