Coincidentally, I just ran across an excerpt from an interesting new book by Rick Perlstein: Nixonland - The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. This book seems to review familiar territory that still resonates today: it is the story of how the Democractic party lost the support of white blue collar ("hard working") Americans because the Republicans successfully blamed them for the social and racial unrest of the 1960's.
The excerpt I read examines the chaotic 1972 democractic convention in Miami. Perlstein's account focuses on the usual offensive and threatening behaviors that were broadcast in primetime:
[D]uring the vice-presidential roll call, ...two men wearing purple shirts reading gay power kissed in an aisle. Television cameramen have an eye for the peculiar. Though the vast majority of conventioneers looked utterly conventional, they dwelled on the likes of Beth Ann Labson, an eighteen-year-old California delegate, walking around without shoes. (“By 1976,” wrote Abbie and Jerry, “the convention will be held in a meadow.”) Larry O’Brien delivered a speech at the podium while, twenty feet below, Allen Ginsberg sat cross-legged, chanting mantras. Denim and tie-dyed T-shirts and peasant dresses; men carrying babies in papoose boards—and, the Post recorded in its article on the abortion floor debate, “girls in patched jeans and no bras.” A black man and a white woman kissing on camera. Interracial marriage had been illegal in some southern states until a Supreme Court decision only five years earlier.
Obviously this collection of free spirits would not sit well with the "Silent Majority" who wanted stability and order, and "Peace with Honor." Perlstein recalls the reaction of Gus Tyler, a socialist union leader who watched the proceedings on TV:
He wondered what this all must look like to the farmer in Iowa, a housewife in Bensonhurst, “somebody out there,” he later reflected to an interviewer, “in Peoria.”
All of these people had given the Democrats a landslide in 1964. They had trusted the Democratic Party.
In the interim, they had seen America plunged into chaos.
And then they looked at this convention and thought, “Here are the people who are responsible for this chaos.”
I know the birth of the culture wars, and the rise of conservatism, has been analyzed to death. But given the anniversary today, it raises a question that I think often gets overlooked - Is there a connection between the desire for law and order, and the Nixonian violation of the basic constitutional rights of his political opponents? I know the quote that is often referenced "If the President does it, then it is not illegal..." seems an almost quaint version of what the current President has done in the name of defending America.
But have our politics moved beyond the stakes of Watergate? While the vast majority of Americans seem fatigued by the current President and his unending war, they do not seem as troubled by the massive violations of the Constitution. Whether this is the by product of what some have called "9/11 Fever" is hard to say - it may in fact reflect a more permanent change in the electorate. People do not view themselves anymore as citizens but consumers, choosing candidates is comparable to choosing a brand, etc, etc... I am not certain.
What strikes me however is that the Republicans continue to run campaigns against the folks from the 1972 Democratic National Convention. Until recently this has worked nicely for them. The mainstream media have done a good job of promoting this stratagy in their recent saturation coverage of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Can he really hate America that much? How could he be Senator Obama's pastor? Blah, Blah, Blah. Whether this election will be about something else (the war, the economy, the environmental crisis) is hard to say - but I am certain it will also be about the 1960's, Black Power, the Weather Underground, and all of those dam Hippies who are now in charge of the Democratic Party. As my grandfather used to say, God Bless America.