by Ted Morgan, author of What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past”—William Faulkner
It’s been a long fifty years since the end of the 1960s. Yet, as current events involving racism and the police remind us, the past is still with us. In many ways, the long 1960s era—from about 1954 to 1975—remains a benchmark for protest movements, political turmoil, and youthful activism of various kinds.
On May 4, 2020, we witnessed the fiftieth anniversary of the shootings at Kent State, an iconic 1960s event. What is perhaps most notable about Kent State is how deeply divided the public was over the killing of protesting students at Kent and Jackson State. That polarization reflected the mediated events of the 1960s, and it is still very much with us.
This year’s protests against police violence erupted after millions saw the truly horrifying video of George Floyd being killed by Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin. These protests, heavily populated by the young, spread like wildfire across the country and much of the rest of the world. Floyd’s desperate words, “I can’t breathe,” have graced sign after sign all across the globe.
The spread of protest, itself something of a media-assisted phenomenon, became a magnet for media attention, generating multiple references to the urban uprisings of the 1960s. As they were in the 1960s, the televisual media in particular became preoccupied with outbreaks of violence against property, including, at the margins of organized protests, the looting of stores. Also echoing the 1960s, mainstream media commentary ranged from right-wing denunciations of the protests—notably President Trump’s malicious calls for crushing protesters with military force—to liberal commentators clearly sympathetic to the protesters’ anguish but who were quick to denounce any form of violence as counterproductive.
The effect of mainstream media coverage, then as now, is to steer the public discourse inside the boundaries of the two-party system, thus leaving outside those who call for more structural reforms of the American political economy. One important difference today is, of course, the prevalence of the internet and social media providing a place where people can find compatible voices, express their views, and share images.
What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy documents the way media coverage helped to spread protest while also generating increasing militancy and alienation among the many protest groups of that era. The book demonstrates how the same mass media continue to fail American democracy. Most fundamentally, the book explains how we got from an era of promising democratic reform to our current world of shocking inequality, endless wars, and a planet on the brink of ecodisaster.
The images broadcast in the 1960s gave right-wing commentators fodder for fueling a backlash to 1960s social movements and the liberal Kennedy-Johnson years. It began with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 effort to link the “riot” in Harlem to the “lawlessness” of the Southern civil rights movement—thus becoming the first Republican to win four states of the Old South. The backlash continued through Ronald Reagan’s 1966 rise as governor of California and Richard Nixon’s successful “law and order” presidential campaign of 1968.
Typically, the backlash seized on the most extreme behaviors that’s visible in the media, equating the “lawlessness” with the allegedly destructive intentions of the protest movements themselves. Highly inflammatory protest actions, like the Viet Cong flags that began showing up at antiwar protests, aided the cause of backlash commentators. Politicians cynically played on the fears, antipathies, and feelings of being “left out” of 1960s era reforms on the part of rural Americans, white southerners, the white working class, and religious conservatives.
The other backlash story revolves around corporate America’s anxiety over declining economic profitability in the 1970s. As the corporatist Trilateral Commission put it, the rise of “previously passive or unorganized groups” (notably racial minorities, women, and students) in the 1960s era produced what they termed an “excess of democracy.” Their response became a blueprint for the neoliberal America that emerged under Ronald Reagan—deregulate the economy, cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy, privatize everything public, and greatly expand defense spending.
Which brings us to Donald Trump—quite probably the most narcissistic, corrupt, and polarizing president in our history. Trump very effectively plays off the post-1960s themes, voicing sentiments, however crudely, that those who’ve long felt marginalized find emotionally satisfying. At the same time, he backs policies that enrich the rich, militarize our police, and endanger the future habitability of the planet—further marginalizing the public at large.
There are, however, lessons from the 1960s era that can help point the way toward a more democratic, just, and sustainable future. These, too, are considered in the concluding chapter of What Really Happened to the 1960s.
Ted (Edward P.) Morgan is emeritus professor of political science at Lehigh University. In addition to What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy, he published an earlier interpretive history of the 1960s entitled The Sixties Experience: Hard Lessons About Modern America.