Tag Archives: progress

1968?

As Americans have increasingly taken to the streets, not just to protest George Floyd’s murder, but also to protest overreach by the current, lawless administration, I’ve seen several articles comparing those demonstrations with the civil unrest that characterized the 1960s.

The consensus, I am happy to report, seems to be that we aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.

The Brookings Institution examined public opinion on race, and concluded–as the title of that report put it–“When it comes to opinions on race, it isn’t 1968 anymore.”

For one thing, there is very little disagreement about public reaction to the horrific video showing Floyd’s murder. According to survey research, only 2% of Americans believe that the use of force against him was justified, and 81% consider it unjustified. Fifty-seven percent believe it reflects a greater willingness on the part of police to use excessive force against Black people.

Furthermore,

76% of Americans now say that discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities in the United States is a “big problem,” including 57% of conservatives, 71% of whites, and 69% of whites without college degrees.  In addition, Americans have turned more pessimistic about progress toward racial equality. In 2014, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, 79% of Americans saw gains in the fight to end racial discrimination, compared to just 56% today.

Attitudes about protests have similarly evolved. Americans overwhelmingly say that peaceful protests are a justifiable response to police misconduct, and they also believe that police have over-reacted and used excessive and unjustifiable force against peaceful protesters. A whopping two-thirds blame “other people”– not the protesters themselves– for the outbreaks of violence, which they do condemn.

The bottom line: it’s not 1968 anymore. A large share of white Americans now endorse views on race relations once confined largely to African Americans. While Americans of all parties and races continue to oppose violent protests, appeals to “law and order” not balanced with the recognition of deep injustice lack the resonance of half a century ago. This helps explain why barely one-third of Americans support President Trump’s handling of race relations—and why 53% of Americans say that relations have gotten worse on his watch.

In June, Todd Gitlin took a slightly different approach in a column for the Washington Post, comparing today’s protests to 1969 rather than 1968. Gitlin acknowledged that “When windows are smashed, shops go up in flames, looters ransack and police open fire, the collective psyche automatically clicks over to 1968 ,” but he went on to argue that the current anger has more in common with the (far more effective) anti-war demonstrations of 1969.

The issue was different from today’s, but the ecumenical spirit, the resolve and the conviction about the need for a new political start were similar. Then as now, the rallies expressed both solidarity and self-interest. In 1969, with the draft in force, many in the Moratorium crowds had a huge personal stake, though many did not. Today, black protesters have the most obvious stakes, but whites in the far-flung crowds, under a broad range of leaders, are also moved selflessly and morally.

I remember the upheaval of the 60s, and I especially remember the attitudes of my own middle-class, White, “proper” cohort–attitudes that were definitely not sympathetic to the “rabble” that was disturbing their complacency. But looking back, it’s hard to deny that both the riots and the anti-war protests changed America.

Historians tell us that the upheaval of the 1960s integrated universities, spurred the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, put black faces on TV shows other than sports, and provided a blueprint that would be followed by women, LGBTQ Americans and other oppressed groups.

America is a much fairer country as a result of that upheaval.

Of course, making additional places at the civic table continues to upset people who experience equality for others as a diminution of their own status. A columnist for CNN repeated a story that continues to be both explanatory and relevant:

As Hodding Carter put it to historian Arthur Schlesinger, when Schlesinger asked why Southern white men hated Bill Clinton so much, “They look back with longing at the good old days — the days when abortion was in the back alley, gays were in the closet, women were in the kitchen, blacks were in the back of the bus, and condoms were under the counter.”

Progress doesn’t come without disruption–and not everyone applauds when it comes.

An Interesting Analogy

Heather Cox Richardson is an American historian and Professor of History at Boston College who writes a daily Letter addressing many of the subjects covered in this blog. Given her background, it isn’t surprising that she sees historical parallels; in one recent Letter, she analogized the current political situation to the latter part of  the Hoover Administration.

After describing aspects of Trump’s disastrous non-response to the Coronavirus, she wrote

In all of this, the administration sounds much like that of President Herbert Hoover who, when faced with the calamity of the Great Depression, largely rejected calls for government aid to starving and displaced families, and instead trusted businessmen to restart the economy. To the extent relief was necessary, he wanted states and towns to cover it. Anything else would destroy American individualism, he insisted.

But by 1932, the same Americans who had supported Hoover in 1928 in a landslide recognized that his ideology had led the nation to catastrophe and then offered no way out. They rallied around Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who worked together with Congress to create an entirely new form of national government, one that had been unthinkable just four years before.

Ironically, Trump’s disastrous administration and the Republican fecklessness that has enabled it, may have created an opening that Biden, with his deep knowledge of the Senate and his non-polarizing persona–is especially well-situated to use.

Biden has previously been considered moderate, rather than “left” or progressive, but he clearly understands that the times call for significant change.

News and Guts has reported that Biden worked with Bernie Sanders on a recently unveiled plan that would both create jobs and combat climate change, and that the plan was far more ambitious  than anything he had discussed during the primary.

Biden’s campaign has characterized his overall economic proposal as the “largest mobilization of public investments in procurement, infrastructure, and R&D since World War II.” It calls for desperately-needed investment in infrastructure and R&D, incentives to revive trade unionism, higher wages, and higher taxes on corporations. It makes environmentalism a high priority, and includes a public option for health insurance that would be a huge step toward universal access. It would  also reverse Trump’s horrific approach to immigration.

The New York Times, characterized the plan, in its typically understated fashion.

But the ideas put forth on Wednesday are also indications that progressives succeeded in pushing some proposals leftward, influencing Mr. Biden’s policy platform as he prepares to accept his party’s nomination for president next month.

Richardson notes that the document is strong politically, “undercutting both Trump’s “America First” language and promising concrete policies for voters suffering in the Republican economy.” She also points to an underlying philosophical shift–  “a return to a vision of a government that stops privileging an elite few, and instead works to level the economic playing field among all Americans.”

That philosophical shift is reflected in Bernie Sanders’ approving remarks about the campaign’s economic plan; it is also reflected in the decision of the progressive organization MoveOn.org to endorse Biden and the overwhelming vote of its members to do so. (Biden won 82.4% of votes cast by MoveOn members.)

Too many Americans think progress requires revolutionary leadership–that it is the product of extraordinary people who have spent their lives on the ideological barricades. But social change (like so much else) is a  complicated process; often, it is the result of a fortuitous combination of factors: when emerging imperatives of a particular time produce leaders who recognize the degree of change required, and possess the personal and institutional skills to make change happen. 

Before his election, FDR didn’t look like a revolutionary, but he met the imperatives of his time. Whether Joe Biden can meet the imperatives of ours remains to be seen–but the prospect shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

The signs are encouraging.

Looking For Omens

As regular readers of this blog know, my daily posts tend to focus on the multiple problems/challenges Americans face today, especially–but not exclusively– the mounting deficiencies of our governing institutions.

Although I almost never “weigh in” on the conversations conducted by those who comment here, I am well aware (and really, quite flattered) that there are a number of very bright, knowledgable people among those who post those comments.( I also know that I have some equally thoughtful readers who rarely or never comment.)

This is a request to all of you–“lurkers” and commenters alike.

I am looking for evidence of a coming “paradigm shift”–signs that America’s culture is on the cusp of significant change for the better. Those signs, those omens, are there–even if they are less prominent, less noted, than a casual reading of the daily news might suggest. Think, for example, of the explosion in civic engagement in the wake of Trump’s election. Think of the sea change in attitudes about the LGBTQ community. Think about the growing numbers of women refusing to remain personally or politically submissive.

Think about what survey research tells us about the attitudes of the younger generation. I often say that I would turn the country over to my students in a heartbeat–they are inclusive, they care about their communities and they care about fundamental social fairness.

I’m currently working on a book, and I am looking for harbingers of positive change, for signs that we may be about to turn yet another social corner and create a better version of ourselves. If we can take our eyes off the train wreck in Washington, the economic threat posed by automation, the alternate realities facilitated by a constantly morphing and fragmenting media environment– if we can tear ourselves away from obsessing over these and other immediate social and political problems (not to mention the multiple, overwhelming threats posed by climate change) and make ourselves take the long view, I am convinced that there are many signs of human progress.

I want to know what you, my readers, see as promising indicators for the future. What are the data points that should give us some comfort and hope?

Reason–for Hope

After yesterday’s post went up on Facebook, a colleague sent me a link to an absolutely fascinating dialogue between the author of Plato at the Googleplex, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and her husband, Steven Pinker. It was originally a Ted Talk, and it has been rendered as a very clever cartoon.

I rarely watch videos that are longer than a few minutes, and this one is 15 minutes, but it is a brilliant defense of reason–something we in this unreasonable age need rather badly–and the role reason has played in civilizing and improving human society.

Watch it!