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Tea Party’s 1960s flashback

Guest Blogger

The 1960s vanished a half century ago but the political images live on – and show little sign of abandoning our collective consciousness anytime soon. In the past 25 years in particular, political leaders have drawn on 1960s memories to define their ideological positions and sway voters. In “Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush,” published by University of Massachusetts Press, Bernard von Bothmer explores how the White House has advanced its political agenda by shaping the way the public thinks of the 1960s. Von Bothmer teaches American history at the University of San Francisco and at Dominican University of California. Here, he examines the persistence of that fertile decade and reflects on echos of the era in the Tea Party movement today.

By Bernard von Bothmer

Those darn '60s just won't go away and die, will they?

A May letters section in the New York Times, entitled, "Fighting About the ‘60s All Over Again," expressed a variety of opinions about the controversy over the squeeky-clean Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's past statements regarding his service during the Vietnam War. Former South Dakota Republican Senator Larry Pressler had given his own two-cents to the debate the day before in a controversial Times opinion piece, "The Technicality Generation." It's no wonder that Blumenthal's Republican challenger, Linda McMahon, is currently focusing on this issue from the '60s to try to slam Blumenthal to the mat.

The recent flap over Blumenthal is yet another example of how we still have not fully come to terms with the '60s. Just look at the many ways that the 1960s continue to define our politics, and the many ways that we reflexively turn to the era to try to understand America today.

Take the Tea Party. Many commentators and historians see comparisons between the Tea Party and the rise of the Right in the 1960s. The New York Times had a fascinating piece that finds the root of the Tea party in '60s-era conservatives. "The Tea Party supporters recycle their language from the conservative movements of the early 1960s in response to the Kennedy presidency," the story argues, noting later that one can find in the Tea Party "echoes of the early 1960s."

The Tea Party reminds the Washington Post's Colbert King of anger found in the 1960s, specifically the anger of those who opposed the civil rights movement. The Tea Party, he argues, can be traced back to the likes of George Wallace and the KKK.

Yet to New York Times columnist David Brooks, the Tea Party movement, "The Wal-Mart Hippies," reminds him of the 1960s. Personally, I did not see the link, nor did many readers, including, on the left, Todd Gitlin, and on the right, former Texas Congressman and current Tea Party activist Dick Armey.

Even Obama's pick of Elena Kagan as his nominee to the Supreme Court has been viewed through the prism of the 1960s, in this case through the right's successful backlash against the '60s. "But much like every other Democratic nominee since the 1960s, she does not fit the profile sought by the left, which hungers for a full-throated counterweight to the court's conservative leader, Justice Antonin Scalia,” wrote Peter Baker in The New York Times, arguing that since the 1960s, "conservatives have largely succeeded in framing the debate, putting liberals on the defensive."

This, of course, is not a recent phenomenon. We’ve been arguing about the '60s ever since Ronald Reagan invented something called '60s back in the 1960s themselves.

It is no secret that the upheavals of the 1960s opened fissures within American society that have continued to affect the nation’s politics and to intensify its so-called culture wars. Yet is remarkable to observe the extent to which political leaders, left and right, consciously exploited those divisions by framing the memory of that turbulent decade to serve their own partisan interests.

"Despite a forty-year remove, the tumult of the sixties and the subsequent backlash continues to drive our political discourse," wrote Barack Obama in 2006 in “The Audacity of Hope.” When he announced announce his presidential run in January 2007, Obama expressed his desire to have America’s leaders move beyond the preoccupations of the baby boomers.

My reaction when I read his speech? "Good luck, Senator. It’s not going to happen."

Eventually we will get over the 1960s, just as we got over the 1860s, the 1890s, and the 1930s. When every voice heard here has fallen silent, we will be done talking about the 1960s—but only then.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  July 6, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: political images of 1960s; persistence of 1960s; 1960s political culture  
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I celebrated Independence Day like a true American patriot, SARCASM and fireworks. Concerned Citizens of America will NOT allow the Conservative Labyrinth to destroy all that is GOOD about the United States of America…

Something has GOT to be done about George W. Bush’s Supreme Court appointments Roberts and Alito. Can you say legislating from the bench? These two men with their fellow Conservative Justices are trying to hand over the USA to foreign corporate interests. Then we must push Obama/Biden to get rid of the Bush/Cheney Justice Dept/Judiciary before anymore Don Siegelman type prosecutions occur.

The American PEOPLE must ORGANIZE… NOW, to get rid of the Corporate Conservative propagandists before they work the rightwing nutcases into a murderous, Civil War type frenzy. Limbaugh, Beck, Krystol, Hannity, Palin, etc must be stopped because there’s too many stupid, uneducated weak-minded Americans who fall for their crazy BS!

And don’t give me that line about Conservative deserve the rights or freedoms to spread their vile propaganda. THEY’RE DESTROYING THE NATION! The rich guys who own the news media might as well give national broadcast air time to Al Qaeda… I mean for all the BAD Republicans have done for the last 3 decades+.

Waste, fraud, abuse, scandal, sexual deviancy, corruption, lies, incompetence, job outsourcing, off-shore tax evasion, reckless economics, welfare for the rich, deregulation, war profiteering, Constitutional violations AND a Corporate Crime Wave of epic proportions…. The WORST looting of a nation’s wealth and resources in the history of MANKIND!

Where was the Tea Party anger THEN? #*~/ ignorant hypocrites.

But you want Democrats/Progressives to believe if only Conservatism had one more chance it can work? The very definition of insanity, isn’t IT? Over and over AGAIN! Just separate yourselves from Bush/Cheney… bull$#!~ MISINFORMED people into believing they’re part of a NEW Conservative Movement.

In OTHER WORDS Republican Party talking points are based on the ignorance of their constituents. They revise history and LIE because they CAN… because morons who vote for Republicans DON’T KNOW THEIR OWN HISTORY! This ain’t NO Tea Party… this is a CLASS WAR!
Do I miss George W. Bush? #*~/ NO!

WE’VE GOT TO STOP THE MADNESS! Let me tell you a brief story about revolutionaries getting the job done. The Republicans/Conservatives of 2010 can be compared to the Loyalists of the 1760’s-1770’s. Loyalists were the Joe Barton’s of their time. Nothing but apologists and flunkies for the British Crown or for British Petroleum. The Loyalists were like the Tea Baggers, sticking up for a bunch of corrupt wealthy aristocrats

The Loyalists did all they could to impede the PROGRESS of our Founding Fathers to form this great nation. They obstructed and spoke out against any talk of CHANGE or an American Revolution.

Posted by: SPO1 | July 6, 2010 6:14 AM | Report abuse

The Tea Party movement reminds me of the Ross Perot camgaign (and I am old enoough to have actively followed that effort while I was a child in the sixties). Like the TP, Perot expressed frustration with the two party system and their perceived unwillingness to fix financial matters. Perot mostly focused on fiscal issues and was conservative. Perot supporters tended to be conservative and middle class. Perot didn't advance big ideas for many of the nation's problems; he wanted to stop the "bad,' but didn't define how to do "good" for solving problems (other than fiscal). Perot arose during recession, and he quickly faded. I predict the TP will also fade rather quickly, though they will affect this election just as Perot did in 1992.

Posted by: outragex | July 6, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Take a deep breath there, SPO1.

I agree with you that Alito and Roberts are unrelenting conservative judicial activists, and terrible additions to the Supreme Court. You may even be correct that they are destroying the country, or at least contributing to its destruction (but I hope not!). But while I disagree strongly with their misguided judicial philosophy, I really don't think that they are "trying to hand over the USA to foreign corporate interests," as you say. As strongly as I disagree with them, I'm sure that they are trying to do what they believe is best for America.

Think about it. Why else would they serve on the highest court in the country? There are many more direct -- and profitable -- ways that they could sabotage America, if that was truly their goal. You're letting your emotions cloud your perspective. People who are wrong don't necessarily have insidious motives.

Convincing others of the wrongheadedness of their ideology can be difficult enough when you argue rationally. But you've already lost the battle when you come off sounding crazy.

Posted by: tomguy1 | July 6, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Well, some of us "from the '60's" recall the YIPPIES donning revolutionary war costumes and mock guns for HUAC hearings-- an anti-democratic federal arrogance which they successfully defeated. Might not the ancestors of today's Tea Partiers be the YIPPIES? True, the Tea Partiers are more affluent & don better costumes and real guns; also, it appears, they ingest more sophisticated drugs judging by their their capacity for the poisons of anger, greed and ignorance.

Posted by: rpreilly | July 7, 2010 11:27 PM | Report abuse

Ross Perot must be appalled at the current crop of Republicans and the Tea Party. He was a man who carely deeply about the troops, thier lack of medical care and certain other issues. It is difficult, if not impossible, to recognize the Republican party of yore with competent statesmen like George H.W. Bush for one and the competent appointees they named and the legislators who were not completely owned by the lobbyiest. Today's Republican congress - pathetic. You cannot compare. The values and competency levels have changed too much.

Posted by: withersb | July 8, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

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