Monday, April 27, 2009

A Change Is Gonna Come

It's been hard to spend time in front of the computer when summer has arrived inexplicably early and I can sit on my porch for hours reading, particularly when I'm reading an engrossing book. Here's a little rhetorical game: name the most important change that happened in America in the 1960s. Student protests? Civil rights? Sexual revolution? A movement from the "conformity" of the 1950s to various "freedoms"? That's what I would have thought, but I would have been wrong. What's true is, in a sense, the reverse: the most important, most lasting, change to emerge from the 1960s was the conservative movement, the rise of the right. The lasting effect of 1960s liberalism was almost 30 years of conservative Republican rule. Without the upheavals of the 1960s, Nixon would in fact have become a political footnote. Reagan might never have seemed so darn sensible.

Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of American Consensus, finally out in paperback, provides not only a lively history of the 1964 Presidential race, but demonstrates how wrong have been assumptions about the results of that race. Johnson won in a landslide. Goldwater was a raving fanatic. How was it, then, that within a year of his historic victory Johnson was beleaguered, how was it that ultimately his Presidency is remembered as "failed"? Perlstein charts the grassroots growth of the conservative movement, demonstrating that Goldwater lost as much because of an ineffective campaign as because of any love for Johnson, and showing how, as early as 1962, the seeds of conservatism had begun to germinate.

Many accounts of the early 60s discuss passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Bills as culminations, victories in a long-fought struggle. I've read many an account of Mario Savio on top of the paddy wagon in Berkeley birthing the Free Speech Movement, and of the mop-topped Beatles revolutionizing pop music. Hidden underneath these accounts, though, is the fact that for many Americans these events were not triumphs but confusing tragedies. The Great Society? The War on Poverty? Government, overreaching. The British Invasion? Long-hairs, their guitars blaring noise. Free Speech? Ingrates, coddled by state-provided education. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act became law. Shortly thereafter, our first summer of riots ensued. Americans watched Harlem erupt in flames live on TV. The fact that government could not legislate consensus was demonstrated even as Johnson intensified his attempts to do just that. Most Americans abhorred upheaval, preferring perhaps not conformity so much as stability.

Goldwater turned out to be a terrible campaigner, articulating his ideas with statistics and boring recitations of the logistics of military hardware. By the end of the 1964 campaign, though, a politician emerged who was able to couch conservative notions in an emotional pitch, who was able to talk about "us" and "them" without sounding like he wanted to blow up the world or blow apart America society. His name was Ronald Reagan. His role campaigning for Goldwater was his springboard to the California Governor's mansion, and the rest, as they say, is history. Hopefully it is a history Perlstein will undertake. Now that he has shown how a movement was born and grew, perhaps he'll next describe its apotheosis.


Diane said...

Okay, I was with you till the very last word...apatheosis. Which I believe should be apotheosis, which would mean appeal, unless of course you meant apoplectic, which is what I became upon trying to figure this all out.

Elucidator said...

Thanks, Diane - it was a typo, which I've fixed. This is what I get for writing these things while I'm in the process of caffeinating.

tunsie said...

the title of this post is a song by sam cooke......tunsie