Opinion | America’s Never-Ending Culture War

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The points that drove protesters to Chicago in 1968 are nonetheless motivating our partisan divide, 50 years later.

By Michael Kazin

Mr. Kazin is a co-editor of Dissent and a professor of historical past at Georgetown.

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Police and demonstrators conflict close to the Conrad Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue in Chicago on Aug. 28, 1968, throughout the Democratic National Convention.CreditCreditBettmann Archive, by way of Getty Images

On the night of Aug. 26, 1968, I used to be arrested on a road nook in Chicago for a doubtful crime: protesting a political occasion. This was, in fact, the Democratic National Convention, which was about to appoint as its presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, the vice chairman, who had staunchly supported the choice to ship half one million troops to pursue a deeply immoral and doomed mission in Vietnam.

I joined lots of of others in jail that night time. Many of us on the time felt we had an obligation to oppose the warfare, and we actually felt the historic weight of the second. But I don’t assume any of us anticipated that the battle — not simply over the warfare, however over two visions for American society — would nonetheless be raging, half a century later.

The day I used to be launched, a confrontation between helmeted police and nonviolent demonstrators erupted in entrance of the Hilton resort in downtown Chicago. It was proven reside on TV for a full 17 minutes. Viewers noticed police brutally attacking women and men with mace and golf equipment. The video, replayed over the following few days, shocked and angered tens of millions who opposed the warfare.

But pollsters quickly discovered that twice as many Americans sided with the police as sided with the protesters. Whatever their views on the intervention in Indochina, a majority appeared to imagine that the younger, allegedly unpatriotic troublemakers had it coming. Mayor Richard Daley thundered, in protection of his males in blue, that his administration and the folks of Chicago “would never permit a lawless, violent group of terrorists to menace the lives of millions of people, destroy the purpose of a national political convention and take over the streets.”

In some ways, the civil warfare fought out in Mayor Daley’s metropolis that summer season has by no means actually ended. The ugly 2016 marketing campaign and Donald Trump’s embattled administration are solely the most recent episodes in a protracted battle fought on a number of fronts — cultural, social and political. This “discord” is hardly “unprecedented,” as journalists and a few political scientists have claimed. Nor has the United States not too long ago “lost a sense of common purpose” and a “sense of common narrative,” as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice instructed CNN this spring.

Not solely do Americans proceed to debate, usually angrily, about when and the way the police ought to use violence towards unarmed civilians. Liberals and leftists nonetheless battle with conservatives over many of the different huge points that roiled the nation again then: affirmative motion, the appropriate to abortion, freedom for gays and lesbians, curbs on company energy, environmental safety, the politics of academia — and rulings by the Supreme Court that cheer one camp and infuriate the opposite.

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Armed National Guardsmen stood watch at a Chicago resort the place delegates to the Democratic conference had been staying.CreditStephen Shames/Polaris

Of course, the identities and targets of the combatants have shifted over time. Now it’s progressives who accuse the Supreme Court of constructing choices based mostly on ideology slightly than legislation. And who may have imagined that liberal Democrats could be defending the F.B.I., whereas conservative Republicans denounce it?

But the cruel divisions amongst Americans in 1968 have largely endured. They are rooted in profound disagreements based mostly on tradition and creeds which might be impervious to compromise. If one thinks abortion is homicide or that L.G.B.T.Q. folks deserve each proper that heterosexuals have, the very thought of discovering a center floor is abhorrent. The mutual hostility between non secular conservatives and liberals — and nonbelievers — that emerged within the 1960s additionally fuels these seemingly irreconcilable variations. Each aspect is satisfied it represents a majority — and an ethical one at that.

In addition, the alienation of rural white Americans from cosmopolitan city dwellers has solely elevated since huge cities turned entry factors of immigrants from all around the world. The household reunifications made doable by the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 helped create at present’s polyglot huge cities.

The absence of a secure partisan majority additionally retains our home conflicts on a persistent burn. Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968 and his landslide re-election 4 years later tore aside the New Deal coalition that had dominated nationwide politics, with barely a pause, for the reason that early 1930s. Of the 11 presidential contests from 1976 to 2016, Republicans have gained six and Democrats 5. But on simply 4 events has the Republican victor gained a plurality of the favored vote.

Control of 1 or each homes of Congress has swung backwards and forwards too. In 1951, the eminent political scientist Samuel Lubell noticed that the Democrats had been just like the solar, the Republicans the moon. “It is within the majority party that the issues of any particular period are fought out,” he defined, “while the minority party shines in reflected radiance of the heat thus generated.” But for the previous half-century, the main events have been extra akin to asteroids that often collide however whose gyrations transfer neither of them a lot nearer to the middle of the political photo voltaic system.


In some ways, the civil warfare fought out in Mayor Daley’s metropolis that summer season has by no means actually ended.


Since the late 1960s, officeholders have sought to achieve a bonus for his or her aspect by stoking the fires of battle. This has been a constant behavior extra on the appropriate than amongst liberals. “Dividing the American people has been my main contribution to the national political scene,” acknowledged Spiro Agnew, who served as Nixon’s vice chairman till he resigned in shame in 1973. “I not only plead guilty to this charge, but I am somewhat flattered by it.” During his first time period in Congress a number of years later, Newt Gingrich accused Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill of putting “Communist propaganda” in his workplace. Last June, Eric Trump emulated these predecessors in addition to his personal father when he instructed Sean Hannity on Fox that Washington Democrats are “not even people.”

Until not too long ago, outstanding Democrats tended to keep away from responding with incendiary statements of their very own. Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all sought to win over impartial voters with guarantees to make bipartisan agreements and transcend the bitter fights of the 1960s. Most Americans first heard of Mr. Obama when he famously declared on the 2004 Democratic conference, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.” During Mr. Obama’s presidency, his chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities undertook a “Civility Tour” to withstand what he referred to as “polarizing attitudes” that “can jeopardize social cohesion and even public safety.”

But such conciliatory rhetoric appears naïve when a Republican president spews belligerence earlier than most Americans have completed their breakfast. Progressive activists and Democrats in Congress each routinely consult with President Trump as a “fascist,” a “tyrant” and a witting stooge of President Vladimir Putin of Russia. And after Michael Cohen incriminated Mr. Trump in courtroom this week, they’re additionally calling him a “crook.” Conservatives, in fact, return the hearth with speak of a “deep state” conspiracy to overturn the desire of the voters. As this 12 months’s midterm election attracts nearer, the language will burn even hotter.

National Guardsmen questioning folks at anti-Vietnam warfare protests at Grant Park throughout the Chicago conference.CreditRaymond Deparden/Magnum Photos

As a New Leftist in 1968, I didn’t fear that Americans had been preventing each other on the streets of Chicago and across the nation. I solely wished to determine how my aspect may come out on prime. Now, as a professor, I educate the virtues of empathizing with one’s adversaries, of understanding why these with whom you vehemently disagree assume what they assume and do what they do. But as a historian, I additionally know that civil wars, even cultural ones, seldom finish with settlements that please either side. Until the left or the appropriate wins an enduring victory, America will stay a society lease in two.

Michael Kazin is a co-editor of Dissent and a professor of historical past at Georgetown. His most up-to-date guide is “War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918.”

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