The 1960s, the Thatcher/Reagan Era, and Today’s Political DivideRoundup: Historians' Take
tags: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher
Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. For a list of his recent books and online publications, including some on wisdom, click here. His most recent book is An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (Anthem Press, 2008).
A recent op-ed by New York Times columnist editor Bill Keller declared “The Right Gets Its ‘60s.” In comparing present day right-wing zealots fuming against “Obamacare” to the left-wing advocates of the 1960s, he makes some legitimate points, but I see a profound difference between the two groups. And a recent book, journalist Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, praising Margaret Thatcher, convinces me that today’s Right has much more in common with her and President Reagan than with the 1960s. Going even further, I would claim that a good deal of the political divide in the USA today reflects the legacy of the Sixties versus that of Thatcher and Reagan.
When we think of the U.S. sixties, we think of JFK’s Peace Corps and LBJ’s War on Poverty, of civil rights marches and student radicalism, of rejection of “the establishment” and of opposition to the war in Vietnam, of mini-skirts and folk singers, of films like The Graduate and musicals like Hair, both first appearing in late 1967.
By then a much smaller percentage of college students than today majored in business, and many of them hoped for much more in their futures than just well-paid jobs. They wanted to challenge and change “the system,” not be absorbed by it. That is why many student viewers of The Graduate laughed at the advice the recent college graduate Benjamin (played by Dustin Hoffman) received from an older friend of the family: “I just want to say one word to you.” “Just one word.” “Plastics.” “There’s a great future in plastics.”
Many college students and some of their young professors (as I was then) were sympathetic with a counterculture that wished to challenge the dominant American consumer culture. In his 1969 book, The Making of a Counter Culture, California history professor Theodore Roszak paid tribute to the influence of Herbert Marcuse as one of the “major social theorists” influencing “the disaffiliated young of Western Europe and America.” Marcuse believed that by increasing the consumption of goods and services, the elite who ran technological society in the West had conditioned people to accept the increasing loss of their freedoms. And he wrote that “freedom from the rule of merchandise over man is a precondition of freedom.” Marcuse wished to help create a culture that eliminated surplus repression and emphasized such values as beauty, cooperation, and joy more than working “harder in order to get more of the merchandise that has to be sold” (as in the West) or the drab “gray-on gray culture of the socialist societies of Eastern Europe.”
1968 marked both the culmination and beginning of the decline of the spirit of the 1960s, both in the USA and abroad. To quote Dickens’ opening in A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” As U.S. military casualties crested to new heights, the anti-war movement reached its peak. But that same year Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) were assassinated and Richard Nixon elected president.
One of RFK’s most moving speeches that spring as he was running for the Democratic nomination for president was the one he gave in Indianapolis shortly after hearing of the assassination of King. Then, two months later, RFK himself was killed just after winning the California primary. After his body was returned from Los Angeles to New York City and he was eulogized by his brother Edward Kennedy at a moving ceremony, his body was transported by train from New York to Washington. The TV images of the train slowly making its way south were burned forever into many of our minds: Thousands upon thousands of people—men and women, black and white, young and old, poor and not-so-poor, uniformed (e.g. Boy Scouts, policemen, firemen) and in casual summer clothes—lined the tracks. There were flags and signs, and at the Philadelphia and Baltimore stations mourners sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
By the end of 1968, with Richard Nixon now president-elect, the earlier euphoric spirit of the Sixties was punctured. The air began slowly leaking out.
But the countercultural spirit of the 1960s did not end at midnight on December 31, 1969—history does not tie itself into such neat little packages. In 1970 Charles A. Reich’s bestselling The Greening of America appeared. He still thought that “there is a revolution coming.” That same year, the first Earth Day occurred and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came into existence. In Small Is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher’s influential book of 1973, he criticized modern economics and the consumer culture of his day for encouraging a “frenzy of greed and . . . an orgy of envy,” and he bemoaned their environmental effects. He declared that “the cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom.”
The resiliency of the consumer society and culture, however, was strong enough to co-opt, water down, and then absorb much of the 1960s counterculture, especially in the area of pop culture and entertainment. And this brings us back to Caryl’s book on 1979, Strange Rebels.
He thinks the 1970s were more important than the 1960s because of the legacy of his four “strange rebels,” “counterrevolutionaries”: China’s Deng Xiaoping, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II, all of whom assumed power in late 1978 or 1979. But the birth of “e-mail, the bar code, the MRI, the pocket calculator, and the personal computer,” as well as the founding of Microsoft and Apple, also makes the 1970s more important to him than the 1960s.
Caryl oversimplifies the target of what he believes unites the four “rebels”—secular progressivism. His references to “radical progressives” and “secular radicals” and his linking them with the welfare state suggest that his sympathies lie with “free markets” and religion, and especially with Thatcher and John Paul II.
But Thatcher and John Paul II had less in common than Caryl suggests. They might have shared a dislike of communism, but Thatcher was much more enthusiastic about free-market capitalism than was the pope, who sometimes criticized the type of capitalism championed by Thatcher. And John Paul’s many words about human rights and dignity parallel successful Progressive attempts to further human rights on both a national and global scale.
Caryl is correct, however, in emphasizing the long-range impact of his four leaders. Pope John Paul II did contribute to the eventual collapse of communist governments in Eastern Europe and the USSR. China has continued to modernize and grow stronger by following the path initiated by Deng Xiaoping. The Ayatollah Khomeini played a major role in the rebirth of a militant political Islam that continues to cause tremors in Afghanistan and elsewhere. And not only in Britain, but also in the rest of Europe and the United States, Margaret Thatcher’s ideas still resonate among conservatives.
In her memoirs she wrote of the necessity in 1979 of dismantling at least portions of the welfare state that had been developing in Britain for more than three decades: “a centralizing, managerial, bureaucratic, interventionist government” that “jammed a finger in every pie.” She believed that “no theory of government was ever given a fairer test or a more prolonged experiment in a democratic country than democratic socialism received in Britain. Yet it was a miserable failure in every respect.”
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the USA soon had a president that shared many of Thatcher’s beliefs about reducing government “interference” and giving more reign to “free markets.” He began by cutting spending in such social programs as food stamps, welfare payments, school lunches, and student loans; and various agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency significantly reduced their regulation efforts
Both Thatcher and Reagan claimed that their policies were increasing individual, social, and entrepreneurial initiatives and freedoms and decreasing dependency and bureaucracy, as well as taxes. Although taxes were decreased in both Great Britain and the United States, the tax cuts benefited the rich more than the poor, and the gap between rich and poor widened in both countries.
By 1987 the spirit in both countries seemed far different than in 1967. If a career in “Plastics” seemed funny to college students watching The Graduate, it did not seem so to future Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who by 1987 was running a small plastics and packaging company in Ohio. That same year a few lines from the film Wall Street seemed to reflect how far our country had retreated from the 1960s: “Greed, in all of its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
Two decades later, in 2009, President Obama’s chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, indicated that greed was still very much alive. He described the origins of the Great Recession which had begun the previous year: “An abundance of greed and an absence of fear led some to make purchases not based on the real value of assets, but on the faith that there would be another who would pay more for those assets. At the same time, the government [under George W. Bush] turned a blind eye to these practices and the potential consequences for the economy as a whole. Bubbles were born, and in those moments, greed begets greed and the bubble grows. . . . In the last few years, we’ve seen too much greed.”
When Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, John Boehner referred to her as “the greatest peacetime prime minister in British history.” Sen. Ted Cruz, the darling of the Tea Party movement, especially now after bashing the recent bipartisan deal to raise the debt ceiling and end the government shutdown, said that she was an “extraordinary leader,” with a “magnificent intellect and unwavering work ethic,” who was “utterly fearless,” and who rejected “the failures of socialism.” She was, he added, “one of kind, and the world will forever be in her debt.” Others on the Right were equally effusive in their praise for her.
Our present U. S. political chasm between Left and Right reflects differing attitudes toward the spirit of the 1960s and the Thatcher-Reagan “counterrevolution,” beginning in 1979. Despite the utopianism and extremes of the 1960s, those on the Left today are much more sympathetic to that decade’s War on Poverty, civil rights marches, anti-war sentiments, environmental causes, and rejection of “the establishment’s” corporate-dominated consumer culture. The hearts of those on the Right are with Thatcher and Reagan.
A half-century after the 1960s, the “system” and its consumer culture seem even more entrenched than they were back then. And the Right seems determined to prevent and roll back any leftist gains. But winds such as the recent self-defeating tactics of the Tea Party adherents and sympathizers during the government shutdown, hostility to non-white (and often non-male) Americans, raising income inequality, and unsustainable economic practices that contribute to environmental havoc, threaten to prevent any lasting right-wing victories.Neither the spirit of the 1960s nor the “counterrevolutionary” ideas of Thatcher and Reagan seem likely to achieve any permanent triumph. Perhaps U. S. political gridlock will continue long into the future. Or perhaps a new spirit of pragmatic working together for the common good—one that forsakes ideology but not ideals—will emerge. It is up to us.