Red and blue, black vs. white, rich against poor, America is a divided country and has been for the past 50 years. Our politics reflect that and politicians, both conservative and liberal have used this to their advantage in seeking support from voters.
I am a child of the 1960s. I have lived my life during a period of turbulence and decay. I have spent time on both sides of the ideological divide. Something has always seemed “off,” even though like other American schoolchildren, I was peppered with the same public school indoctrination into American exceptionalism, being taught that we live in a “land of opportunity,” and that equal access to the “American Dream” is our birthright.
The first presidential campaign that I vaguely remember was the one taking place in 1968. I was six years old and just beginning school. The Republican nominee that year was Richard Nixon. He had been vice president under Dwight D. Eisenhower. He had also been the Republican nominee in 1960, losing to Kennedy. Pundits considered Nixon, “one and done.”
In 1964, the GOP was hijacked by the right-wing political fringe, nominating Barry Goldwater. Conservatives saw Johnson’s Great Society and acquiescence on civil rights as volleys in a war, an engagement for the survival of civilization. Johnson and liberals were their enemies.
This was still a period when most Americans didn’t take well to the far-right, cynical vision offered by Goldwater and Republicans. The dominant narrative then was moderation, which was the antithesis of what the GOP was selling. Goldwater was trounced by Lyndon Johnson in the biggest election landslide since FDR’s in 1936.
When Johnson won in 1964, he was universally liked (except by conservatives). Democrats were in control of the House and Senate, and Johnson saw this as an opportunity to pass legislation that hadn’t been possible since the New Deal—like federal funding for education. Next came Medicare. In 1965 was the Voting Rights Act of 1964, following on the heels of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
[Note: Make sure you get out and see Selma while it’s playing in a movie house near you. Not only is it a likely favorite for movie of the year, it’s also an important period piece that ties in well to Johnson’s initial success as president, civil rights, and then, the rise of Nixon in 1968.-jb]
A radical shift occurred in America between 1964 and Johnson’s landslide—which seemed to herald a permanent liberal consensus in the United States, and 1968, when a “new” Nixon was elected as America’s 37th president.
Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, is an epic kind of book. He makes the case that Nixon’s election in 1968, and re-election in 1972, was part of what he calls “a second civil war” that took place over those 9 years between 1965, when Watts, Newark, Detroit, and other cities went up in flames. This was a key contributor in ushering in a dramatic cultural shift. Also, the nature of American politics changed, introducing the era that we are still living through.
A new and improved Nixon—a candidate left for dead in 1960—was unveiled to voters in 1968, and they liked what they saw.
Back to civil rights for a moment because this is important in understanding Nixon’s reinvention. By drawing public attention to the plight of African Americans in the South, civil rights activists forced the Democratic Party to choose between its southern white and northern African American constituencies. With nightly newscasts during the period featuring peaceful civil rights protesters being hauled off, rounded up, and otherwise brutalized by racist southern lawmen (like in Selma), support for civil rights grew among whites outside the South.
This and the increasing numbers of African American voters, eventually led the Democratic Party to cast its lot with African Americans and their northern allies. It also alienated those who had been traditionally loyal to the party—white southerners.
With Democrats in disarray about Vietnam, and Johnson opting not to run for re-election, a host of contenders slugged it out on their way to Chicago. Nixon was able to exploit and stoke white backlash successfully, and ride it to victory in 1968. This was a key strategy for him, as he would need the South in order to win the election.
Nixon deftly walked a tightrope—managing to maintain distance from candidates like George Wallace, while exploiting the fears, anxieties, and even the anger that southern whites felt in being betrayed by Democrats.
Because of Nixon, the Democratic South is now overwhelmingly Republican. Nixon was able to parlay a socially conservative and racially coded message into a political realignment, which others besides Perlstein have written about, most notably, Kevin Phillips, a Nixon strategist in 1968, who wrote a book about this, The Emerging Republican Majority.
Perlstein offers up a Nixon vastly different than the caricatured figure we’re now left with some 40 years later, forced to depart the White House, disgraced by Watergate. His meticulous research and an eminently readable narrative (albeit, a long one, clocking in at close to 900 pages, notes, bibliography, and all) offers serious readers of history a key to understanding our current polarized politics of left and right.
Much like George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, another book I detailed with some depth here on the blog, Perlstein’s book offers the kind of context and foundation that is most often lacking in the fulminations of Tea Party types, and even sycophantic liberal Obama apologists. If the devil’s in the details, then Americans have a phobia about ole’ Satan, because their explanation for almost anything—economics, education, politics, culture—is sadly lacking. Better, it’s infused with “truthiness,” as Stephen Colbert would characterize it—knowing that something is true because you know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right”—to hell with evidence, logic, or facts.
History is an ongoing story, and today’s Tea Party is the spawn of the John Birch Society conspiracy types of the 1960s who flocked to Goldwater. Nothing’s new, it’s all just recycled, and we have Dick Nixon to thank for much of the mess we’re going through today. However, Perlstein never bashes Nixon and at times, his treatment borders on the sympathetic.
Perlstein writes about the two American identities, unable to find common territory, instead, “staring at each other from behind a common divide,” both convinced of their inherent “righteousness.” They also consider the other, “less American.”
That legacy of Nixon is still very much present today. Nixonland lives on!
Millennials as a group get criticized with regularity. The demographic that was born sometime between 1980 and 2000, depending on who is cutting the demographic pie, gets blamed for being a “me, me, me” generation, “entitled,’ and they themselves think that others, like Baby Boomers, have dumped all the world’s problems in their lap to deal with.
From a White House report, we know that Millennials are the largest, most diverse generation in the U.S. It’s a given that they are enamored with technology—they grew up with the Internet and computers in school. There are a host of other things that I could say and factually represent about Millennials, but that’s not what I want to do with the rest of my time devoted to today’s bifurcated blog post.
While I was scouting for books about politics during the late 1960s and early 1970, which led me to Perlstein’s, just as 2014 rolled into 2015, I happened upon a short little book co-written by Anthony Gierzynski and Kathryn Eddy. The book, Harry Potter and the Millennials: Research Methods and the Politics of the Muggle Generation, is one of those “bonus” books I often discover due to regularly trawling for new reading material.
The basic premise of Gierzynski’s and Eddy’s book is that many Millennials have been shaped in a powerful way by the Harry Potter series of books authored by J.K. Rowling. Millions of them grew up reading the books, along with embracing the entire culture surrounding Harry Potter—things like dressing up in costume for midnight release parties, playing Quidditch, and watching all the Potter movies.
Interestingly, while the generation that grew up voting for Nixon (and Johnson) is enamored with authority and craves law and order, Millennials that are fans of Harry Potter are less authoritarian. Why is this?
The authors gathered their research from a broad cross-section of college students. Those sampled were from the Northeast, South, Midwest, and West. The schools included a community college, an elite southern school, an elite New England university, and large state schools.
What was fascinating reading this book, which took me most of one Saturday, is that Potter fans are readers, by and large, because of the series. This is important, due to what reading helps facilitate in learning and socialization.
Reading had been on the decline in America. Fiction, poetry, and even nonfiction was being read at significantly lower rates, declining since 1978.
As the authors detail, reading for pleasure promotes higher grades in school, as well as higher reading-comprehension and writing scores. Readers also have an enhanced cognitive capacity, allowing them to deal with greater complexity. Readers also will be less likely to develop a predisposition toward authoritarianism.
The Harry Potter books have had a profound influence on the reading habits of Millennials. The authors make the point that due to data on reading, book sales, and general talk about the series, they are convinced that many more Millennials are readers because of Rowling’s books.
Summarizing the book, we learn that evidence gathered demonstrates that Harry Potter fans are more open to diversity and are more politically tolerant than nonfans. They are also less likely to support the use of deadly force and torture. They also happen to be more engaged and politically active.
There are values inherent in Rowling’s narrative. While the authors don’t believe this was intentional on the part of the best-selling to influence readers towards a certain worldview, it’s obvious that they are there.
For instance, the lesson of accepting those different than ourselves is present throughout. Tolerance and equality are also emphasized, along with others.
Perhaps Millennials, and in particular, those influenced by Harry Potter, will be the ones who make the changes that America so desperately needs. Their more liberal tendencies and openness also put them at crossroads with older, Traditionals, hence the backlash directed towards them.
While the book doesn’t purport to offer an end all be all analysis of everyone of our national issues, it offers an interesting portrait that moves away from the usual demonizing of and even caricaturing of younger Americans, a group transitioning into roles where they can might be agents of change. Hopefully they won’t be just another generation perpetuating the status quo.