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Tue, 09 May 2023 07:01
The 1960s were a period of economic prosperity. But according to historian Michael Kazin, that economic growth had a side effect, setting in motion today's culture wars.
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From wondering, I'm Lindsey Graham and this is American Scandal. Today we wrap up our series on the Chicago 7, a story involving one of the most explosive trials of the 20th century. From the beginning, the case was hotly contested. In the summer of 1968, thousands of protesters had converged on Chicago for that year's Democratic National Convention. The demonstration was billed as an attempt to pressure Democrats into dropping their support for the Vietnam War, but after clashes broke out with police, a group of activists was charged with federal crimes, including conspiring to inciter riot. The defendants claimed the charges were politically motivated, and in the trial that followed they engaged in courtroom theatrics and openly sparred with the judge, claiming he was doing the bidding of the prosecution. Outside the courtroom, the Chicago 7 prompted a national debate about a number of contentious political issues, including free speech and the balance between civil liberties and law and order. These are issues that, according to my guest historian Michael Kason, have not only remained unresolved, but are now central pillars in the culture war still dividing America. Kason is a professor of history at Georgetown University. He's the author of multiple books about American politics, including American dreamers, how the left changed a nation, and what it took to win a history of the Democratic Party. In our conversation, we'll discuss why the 1960s was such an unusual period in American history, and how the fights and social movements that emerged from that decade are still shaping our world today. Our conversation is next. American scandal is sponsored by sleep number. Eat, work, sleep. There are times when that's all I seem to do. Could that be because they're so important? 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Michael Kason, thanks for joining me on American scandal today. Happy to be here. So Americans it seems are increasingly divided not over political policy, but ideals and values. You've argued that much of what we now call the culture wars had their genesis in the 1960s. So let's start this conversation by setting the scene a bit. What happened in America during the 60s that might make fertile ground for conflict? Well, one of the things that made the 1960s unusual, I think, in American history, though every decade in some ways unusual, but or new, is that a lot of the sort of varieties, cultural varieties that most Americans had believed in one way or another have been relatively unchallenged until the 60s all seem to be challenged at the same time. The idea that the races were unequal was challenged. The idea that there were certain roles for women and certain roles for men and of those roles were natural and should be obeyed, should be observed traditionally. The idea that you should only get high with alcohol and not with drugs. The idea that people should dress a certain way, especially young people, where their hair is a certain way, the idea that sex was only legitimate between the opposite sex. The idea also that America, which was more powerful in the 1960s than it had arguably ever been in its history, economically and militarily, the idea that that power was always used for good, almost always used for good. That was also thrown up too by the controversy over the war in Vietnam and earlier some degree by controversies over how the United States opposed the Cuban Revolution. All this was happening at the same time. Surprisingly, as the two of the cultural conflicts generally in history, took a long time to resolve those conflicts. In many ways, those conflicts have not been resolved even now as we look at conflicts about affirmative action, conflicts about abortion, which really began to come to a head in the 1960s and early 1970s. What about the 60s in particular that made it the decade in which the cultural orthodoxy is really beginning to be questioned? One of the things I think people don't pay attention to, actually, is the 60s was one of the most economically prosperous times in American history and time when when that prosperity is more widely shared there before in American history. Unemployment averaged about 3% throughout the decade, the growth rate, average about 5%. The United States obviously was in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, but the US economically was a great success story. For the first time in the 60s, most Americans consumed themselves to be middle class, even if they were still working at hard working class jobs, but they felt like middle class consumers and that was really important. Now, that great compression, as economists call it, that is a compression of class differences, economic differences between different groups in the population. I think made it possible for people, especially young people, but not just young people, to start really protesting about the problems they felt in the quality of life, not just in the quantity of goods and services that they were able to enjoy. The problem of the economy was really not solved. A lot of people still poor in America, but only minority rapport as opposed to the 1930s when majority of Americans by most definitions were poor. The 60s was a time when this more widely shared prosperity I think gave rise to discontent about how the prosperity was being used, discontent about how Americans military might was being used, discontent about the conformity, cultural conformity that was expected of a lot of Americans, Americans expected to keep that economic going by working hard eight, ten hours a day, then going home to a house with a mortgage and just keeping the nose to the grindstone as the cliche has it. I was looking for more and more consumer goods, more services, more time off from jobs that many Americans did not really enjoy. It was I think the gap between the celebration economically of the economy and a lot of things in the quality of life that seemed to be lacking. Some of those things, of course, were the inequalities which still existed in America, inequalities of race, inequalities of gender, inequalities of sexual preference, which was a pretty new issue on a mass basis anyway in America at the time. That's interesting because you would imagine that moments of great social upheaval would coincide in moments of great economic calamity, but you're suggesting the opposite that this great compression of economic status may have given the American populist room to consider what's next. I think that's right. I think we talked about upheaval. What happened in the 60s was for most part a cultural upheaval. Now, of course, there were social political aspects to it as it was our, but really it was the values, the ideas that Americans held and disagreed about that produced what I've called my friend, Mara Sissiman, the Civil War of the 1960s. The kind of things people disagreed about were not whether the economy was in good shape or not was not primarily who was benefiting from the economy, who was not benefiting from the economy, though those issues were still there. It was really what America should stand for and who was being celebrated in American life and whose rights, whose identities, if you will, were being pushed under the rug, so to speak. And, you know, it's similar period was another period of prosperity in 1920s. 1920s is a period when there's a lot of cultural upheaval about prohibition, which was the law of the land, but was becoming more and more popular about whether the theory of evolution should be taught in public schools, the famous Scope Stral course, that in the middle of the 1920s, this was a period like the 60s of when the macroeconomy was doing quite well, even though there was more poverty than there wasn't the 1960s, but unemployment was very low in the 20s as it was in the 1960s. So 20s in some ways is comparable, the kind of culture war of the 20s was repeated with different issues for the most part in the 1960s. I think also we have to remind ourselves about the context of the 1960s. That was only 30 years away from the large scale government intervention of the New Deal. I mean, if we think about what 30 years ago from today is, that was the end of the Reagan revolution. So this is a moment in time in which large scale politics have shifted in recent memory. Yes, in the 60s was the end of what a lot of historians call the New Deal order, not just the New Deal, but the order that was really put into place by the New Deal, where Americans expected, for the first time in American history, really, that the government would take care of them through Medicare, through Social Security, through the National Liberations Act, the Wagon Act, which for the first time had government supervising labor relations in a serious way. And also, of course, with the Cold War, which is preceded, of course, by World War II, where Americans felt like the US needed a large military establishment in order to protect American liberties and American interests around the world. So this period came to an end in the 60s, but it was responsible for the rise of America to be the most powerful country in the world, and also the most economically successful country in the world. So the 60s was also really the end of this period of when liberal ideas were in power, much more conservative ones, at least in terms of domestic politics. Now, we've had domestic disagreements since the beginning, fighting over labor, race, gender, economics, other divisive issues. But what about the 60s became a culture war? Well, the fact I think that there was a lot of disagreement about these issues. People who naively look at the 60s think, oh, it was all about the counterculture of the new left, flower power, you know, woodstock, this kind of thing. And of course, all that was part of the 60s, and all that generated a lot of headlines and a lot of controversy. But as many people disagreed with the new left, the counterculture, probably more, in fact, then agreed with it, even though all that got a lot of headlines and a lot of film, a lot of airtime. And so many ways, the divisions we see now, I think, didn't have their origins in the 60s necessarily. They go way back in many ways, but they did become furious in the 60s, and they have not ceased being furious since then. And Kruger, we know the minute a tomato is picked, the fresh timer starts. The sooner we get our produce to you, the fresher it is. That's why we've shortened the time from harvest to home for our tasty tomatoes, strawberries, and salads. So no matter how you shop, you have more time with your fresh produce. Kruger, fresh for everyone. And now shop what you love and save two dollars on each participating item when you buy three or more with your card. Kruger, fresh for everyone. What kind of podcasts are you in the mood for? Award winning? What about edge of your seat thrillers? Interested in a thought provoking mystery? Or perhaps something that'll teach you more about the world around us? Either way, Wendry Plus has you covered with ad-free episodes of your favorite podcasts and number one hits. Join Wendry Plus in the Wendry app or on Apple Podcasts. While speaking of making a lot of headlines, we just finished our series on the Chicago 7, which was clearly a circus act in the culture wars. If this period of the late 60s marked the beginning of the modern culture wars, which you've kind of just described the throughline, let's trace the path forward. How did these so-called wars evolve over the coming decades? Well, both sides, I think, organized in ways they had not since the 60s. You've got, on the right, you've got the more majority and you've got various groups not just on the religious right, but on the secular right as well, like the Kato Foundation and others who push a certain side in those wars for the most part. Not entirely the differences between people on the right, but certainly they have tried in the federal society, of course, very well organized group on the right in law schools and vetting the Seratives in law schools for judgeships. People on the right really organized to try to make sure their side in the culture wars would win. On the left, groups like Planned Parenthood, groups like Legal Defense Fund of the end of the LACP, the Human Rights Campaign for Gay Lesbian Rights, various environmental groups have also pushed their side. So in many ways, you've got two clashing armies, if you will, peacefully, most of the most part, clashing, but nevertheless well organized, pretty well funded groups which are committed to combat on these issues. And of course, that also means that they are going to put a lot of pressure on and give money to politicians who cyber them or they want to cyber them on these issues. So we've got a whole infrastructure which didn't exist really in the 1960s but has been built up quite cleverly, I think, by both sides ever since then. And once you have this kind of structure that's been in place, people sort of learn to live with it and learn to live by it, in many ways, for better or worse. So I think that's one of the reasons why we have the kind of fierce partnership we do because it's not just the politicians themselves, it's those who care very duplicated these issues, who push the politicians to take one side of the other. Your book, American Dreamers, makes arguments about who might have won and lost battles in the culture wars. What have you found? Well, this book is a history of the American Left. And the American Left, most historians would argue, has been pretty much a failure by the Left, I mean radical Left. I mean, people called themselves Socialists, or sometimes Communists, anarchists, left-left liberals, radicals is a more general term because obviously there's been no social party or Communist party or even a Labour party that's had any strength for any period of time in this country. But my argument is that by engaging in debates about cultural values, debates about what the American Dream should mean for people, how to extend it to most Americans. That a lot of leftists, especially American artists, American writers, movie makers, sometimes politicians, speakers, have had a lot of impact on what you can call the common sense of society. I mean, the very idea that, for example, the idea of same-sex marriage, now the law of the land, I mean, that was totally out of question, radical idea up until really a 21st century, but radicals were talking about this as well as 1950s and early 1960s. Same for issues, as I mentioned before, how American history should be taught. I'm a historian and when I was in high school in the early 1960s, mid 1960s, American history looked completely different. The American history that most historians teach and write about, completely different than it does now. But now, people teach American history, teach about black history, workers history, women's history, queer history, environmental history, a critical history of the country, not entirely critical, but very critical in many ways, which was completely different from the history taught before then. Many other examples as well. So I think that leftists in part because a lot of them are intellectuals and have gone into journalism, have gone into academia, have gone into the law, to a certain degree, as well, have had an impact on American cultural thinking, on how American see themselves, I think, today, way beyond the kind of strength that American leftists have had in politics, or for that matter in economic life. Now, throughout your study for the Balkan, your career, you've been paying attention to these fights in American culture. But as you just indicated, they are decades, if not centuries, in the making and have yet to find a resolution, what is it about some of these social issues that progress is so slow or that others might find quick resolution? That's a great question. We really have to almost talk about all of American history through its quieter, I think. We got 28 minutes. Yes, I understand. One of the things about the US, which of course, sweet sometimes, we take for granted too much, is what a diverse country we are. I mean, diverse in every way, regionally diverse, religiously diverse, wacely diverse, ethnically diverse, how I'm paying famously said in his famous pamphlet, 7076, common sense, America should be an asylum for mankind. But we didn't mean a mental asylum. He meant a place of refuge for people who believe in freedom from all over the world. And whether or not that was really true or not, I think Americans have felt free to express themselves. And of course, we have a first amendment, which helps them do that, you know, without for the most part getting quit and jail or censored for doing it. And so that means that there's very few filters, historically, on American saying what they think and fighting about what they think. But because we're such a diverse country, inevitably, what Americans think about these issues that matter very much to them is going to be quite different. And one of the things, and again, people often don't take seriously enough what a religiously diverse country we've always been and of course are still today. Unlike most countries in the world, we've never had a state religion, even though the unofficial state religion in America up until the 20th century is certainly Protestant Christianity. But there was no bar towards Jews, Eastern Orthodox people, Catholics, even Muslims, are running for office, getting elected, and no legal bar anyway. And so a lot of the issues that people thought about were many ways religious issues. You know, I mean, you had, you had, for example, before the Civil War, you had evangelical Protestants who were very devout believers that slavery was a moral evil and called on Americans to leave churches, which supported slavery. And then in the other head, you had a lot of evangelical Protestants, not just in the South, who believed that slavery was something that was codified in the Bible. And therefore slavery was not an evil thing at all. And so in many ways, the Civil War, in many ways, was a battle between Christians who believe that slavery was an evil, a moral evil. And Christians who believe that slavery was something which is ordained by the Bible and could be the basis for a good society in the South. So really, it's a combination of diversity of all kinds and for expression of that diversity of all kinds, and really major issues which can't be pushed into the rug. You just mentioned America's, you know, great diversity, diversity of all kinds. But our curious political system gives a Germany to just two primary parties. How have these two parties, how have they tried to mirror such a diverse cultural makeup of America? Well, actually, my most recent book, if I don't mind me pushing it, is called What It Took to Win and History of the Democratic Party. And the point I'm making that book is that successful parties always brought coalitions because we're a very broad diverse country. And if you want to win a majority of voters, either majority of the electoral college or majority in very states, majority in Congress, you've got to put together groups that disagree about some things. I'm often very important things, but agree about enough that they can stay together. But what that means often is that you have the kind of diversity culturally in these parties, which makes it very difficult, I think, to one party to take one clear stand on an issue. For example, when the Democrats were the majority party in this country, from 1930s up through the 1960s, they were very broad coalition, included Southern Democrats who thought this civil rights movement was evil and led by Northern agitators who wanted to do away with the lurches of the Southern way of life. And you had radicals or very radical liberals, you might say, who believed that the key issue in the country was civil rights. But they stayed together because they agreed that the government should be the guardian of a healthy economy, that they all agreed pretty much the labor unions were a good thing. So sometimes cultural diversity can coexist as long as there's agreement on certain policies. And now the Republican party went it was a majority party in the Civil War period and in the early 20th century, as well, was also a very diverse party, included very conservative figures who were headed labor unions, who were, if they ever prohibition, for example. And you had more progressive figures who really wanted to make a deal between business and labor and also who were welcoming to immigrants who were hostile to prohibition, for example. But again, they agreed on having high tariffs on important goods to build up American industry. They agreed that the Democratic Party, from their point of view, was a party of corruption in the cities with all these Irish Catholic machines, like Tammany Hall, running things for the Democrats in the cities. And so they agreed on, you might say, sort of shared resentments against the Democrats. And some, of course, those are Republican, the early 20th century, who still supported the rights of Black people in the South, resented to other Democrats, because of course, some of the Democrats were disenfranchising Black voters in that region. Now, some of the more cynical observers might say that the culture wars themselves are manufactured, that these are all wedge issues, propped up by politicians looking to win voters. How real do you think our divisions are? I think they're very real. I think that's a very cynical view about Americans. That view assumes that what Americans say they care about, they don't really care about. And politicians, you can say a lot of things about politicians. Most Americans don't say a lot of good things about politicians, perhaps unfortunately. But politicians in a Democratic country, like ours, do try to respond to what the voters want. They have to win those voters come election time after all and keep them on their side if they want to pass policies that they favor. So if those issues didn't really matter, then politicians wouldn't talk about them. They matter because people care about them. And they matter, as I said before, because not just voters in general, but activists among those voters have organized to try to win, to have their side of the cultural war be victorious on those issues, like abortion, like affirmative action, like gay rights, environmental protection, or the lack of same. And so clearly it's the activists in each party who in many ways do drive the agenda of that party. And the voters didn't want their politicians to talk about these issues. They would probably vote for the party that they talked about them less. Problem is neither talks about them very little. And the reason we have public opinion polls is because that's one way of gauging what most Americans do care about. But what Americans say in polls is not necessarily how they vote, of course, either. So, like most Americans now say their independence, but they don't vote like independence. They vote as Democrats or Republicans. Let's return to 1968 and the epicenter of the events in this series, the Chicago National Convention. You are actually there. Please describe your experience. Well, I was a 20-year-old, taken away from college, of course. It was still a summer. And I was a member of Group Close Students for Democratic Society, which was the leading white new left organization. I was a white radical in the 1960s. And I went to Chicago to try to give other young people like myself to give up on the Democratic Party. Democratic Party, we thought, was the war party. It was the party that had escalated the war under President of Johnson from 17,000 advisors when John Kennedy was assassinated to 540,000 American troops by the Democratic Convention in 1968. But I went there as a radical to try to make trouble for the Democrats and also to within my capabilities to try to convince young liberal Democrats to give up on the Democratic Party and to become radicals and to join groups like SDS, protesting the whole system as opposed to just protesting the war itself. And then when I was there, violence broke out. I was not actually involved directly in the violence because I was in jail during the worst of it. I was in jail because I was walking along the Lincoln Park where demonstrators wanted to sleep out, but we're not allowed by the Chicago police to sleep out. I was wearing an SDS button on my sweater or jacket, whereas wearing I forget exactly. I was walking along with a young woman I just met. And we were accosted by the police who arrested us and took us to jail, of course, separate parts of the jail. And I was there for two days when I got out is when the famous what was called a police riot by a commission that studied it, took place outside of Hill and Hotel, outside Grand Park in downtown Chicago. How did those experiences shape your ideas about the basic right to protest and the effectiveness of it? Well, I thought before I think now that that the right to process is absolutely essential to what it means to be to live in a democracy. And of course, I believe that then I believe that now. But I do have taken over the 55 years since then a more so review about what I did at the time and what people on the new left were doing at the time. Not because I think we were wrong to put just the war. I think we required right to put just the war. I still think it was a that awful thing that the United States did to intervene in what was a civil war in Vietnam, which we had no right to intervene in and things people died as a result of our intervention. But same time some of the things we did like smashing windows with box didn't exactly warm the hearts of many Americans who were unhappy about the war, but were not necessarily sold by the idea of the anti-war move of protesting the war, at least in the ways that we did protest the war. And a very interesting poll came out after this kind of convention. Asking Americans whether they agreed with what the police did, the police acts against demonstrators on the streets of Chicago, which people saw on their television screens was quite violent. Police using tear gas and building clubs against the demonstrators who were almost completely unarmed with anything, even rocks at the time. And the polls show that by two to one margin, most Americans agree with the police, sided with the police against people like me, against the demonstrators. So that I didn't know about that poll all the time, but I learned about a little bit later when I began to write history in the 1960s. And that taught me that if movements of demonstrators, movements on the left want to change America's society, they have to listen to what most Americans think of them and think about how to win people over rather than just how to express themselves. Being angry in itself is not a politics. Being angry in itself is the beginning of a politics, but you need to have strategy. You need to have tactics that don't turn more people off than they win over. And that's one of the things I did learn from my experience in the 60s. Earlier in on conversation, you mentioned that the radicals of either party or any party often can drive the agenda. But I think I've noticed at least anecdotally that they often target their own parties. That's certainly that was the case in Chicago in 1968. Why do you think a lot of their iris reserved for what would be their allies? Well, to be radical is to go to the root. That's what the term comes from. You know, Wadix and Blattin means root. And radicals want to go to the root of what's the problem in the society, how they define the problem of the society. And that means they don't like to compromise. And also, of course, we also believe in a more strategic sense that you shouldn't dilute what you want, at least in the beginning of a campaign. And even through the middle of a campaign, because if you do that in the beginning, then you're unlikely to get even half of what you want. So better to seem to be uncompromising to make those in the middle, those in power come to you than to compromise with yourself in the beginning. And that's also something that often radicals who understand they're not going to win everything. Often strategically, they make that calculation that better to be really tough on all the issues. And then if you have to compromise in the end, well, of course, they're compromising from a better position, rather than a position which is already giving up on some of their ideals and some of their real demands. So as you moved from an early 20-year-old radical in the streets of Chicago to an academic with a career studying American history, how did your additional expertise and perhaps age and experience complicate your views of these political moments? When did you begin to realize fully that compromise itself, that pragmatism, that being able to bend with the winds of change might be more effective? Well, I should say I still believe in the ideals that I taught about and thought I still believe in having a more radically democratic society and more egalitarian society. But, you know, I as the title of my recent book has it, I think it's important to win. It's important to make changes that can be made. One of my favorite radicals in American history, Michael Harrington, he talked about the left wing of the possible, left wing of the possible. So you have to understand what the political system is likely to give you, how much you can push them. And that's politics in the end. Politics have, it's utopian moments and those are important. You have to talk about the kind of world you would like to see ideally. But then you have to understand that you also have to win elections, to throw yourself to build institutions, which evolve a lot of people who don't agree to do anything. Because power comes out of institutional might, it comes out of winning elections, it comes out of convincing people on a mass basis. You need a majority, that's democracy. And so, you know, I realized going forward in the 70s and 80s when I stopped being an activist full time anyway and became a graduate student at a good job. That's something else which, you know, matters of course, you know, living that it was more interesting in some ways in the end to think about how you can win some victories rather than how to hold out and wait until the millennium comes and you win everything if that ever happens, which you probably never does. So I became committed to the left wing of the possible, defining what the left wing might be, what the possible might be as well. And that's sort of still where I am today. So you left your activism behind to pursue an academic career in history. And history itself has become one of the more charged topics of the cultural wars recently. As we determine which figures from history we celebrate and how. As a historian yourself, how do you think about this issue? Well, first of all, I don't have any real heroes historically. I have some people I look up to certainly, but you know, the past is a different country. Past is a foreign country. Many ways, you know, people do things differently back then. That's a, they say, quote from a unnamed historian, a hoick here. Remember the name of, and so we should understand that people in the past, we're not from our point of view, perfect in many ways. They had their own prejudices. They had their own shortcomings from our point of view today. And so I think we should certainly, you know, look up to certain figures in the past. And I have a bunch of people I mentioned Michael Harajan, for example, I can mention others who I look up to, Martin King Jr., for example, but they had their blemishes, of course. I mean, King had many affairs and, you know, was abusive towards women, for example. So I think we should talk about the virtues, the accomplishments of certain figures in the past, but at the same time, understand that putting up statues of them and admiring them and being unhappy when people point out their shortcomings is not to be really cognizant of what history means. History is about people changing and about the context changing. And so if we hope that to look up in every way to figure from the past, that's a hope that's going to be dashed, I think. Well, Michael Kason, thank you so much for coming on American Scandal today. Thank you. I enjoyed it. That was my conversation with Michael Kason, a professor of history at Georgetown University, an author of American Dreamers and what it took to win a history of the Democratic Party. From Wondery, this is episode four of the Chicago Seven for American Scandal. In our next series, we look at a story involving a pair of judges in Pennsylvania, who stood accused of making millions of dollars in kickbacks in exchange for sending children to private juvenile detention centers. The judges would face their own day in court, and in the fallout from the scandal, the public was forced to grapple with fundamental questions about punishment, the costs of America's criminal justice system. Hey, prime members, you can listen to American Scandal add free on Amazon Music, download the Amazon Music Cap today, or you can listen add free with Wondery Plus and Apple Podcasts. Before you go, tell us about yourself by completing a short survey at Wondery.com slash survey. American Scandal is hosted, edited and executed to produce by me, Lindsey Graham for Airship, audio editing by Molly Bach, music by Lindsey Graham. This episode was produced by Alonam and Kofsky, our senior producers Gabe Riven, executive producers, our Stephanie Gems, Jenny Lauer Beckman, and Marshall Louis for Wondery. When you download the Croger app, you have easy access to savings every day. Shop weekly sales and get personalized coupons to get the most value out of every trip every time, whether you shop in-store or online. Download the Croger app now to save big. Croger, fresh for everyone, must have a digital account to redeem offers, restrictions may apply, see site for details. 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