Arnold Kling  

The 1960s and Today

Who To Blame: Generalizing Bre... Think Tank Rumors...

In response to my post on Civil War Scenarios, some commenters brought up the 1960s. I actually do not have to read a history of the 1960s--I can remember them.

One thing people forget about the 1960s is how many of the student protests revolved around silly issues. At my high school, for example, the big item on the radical student agenda was a demand (to which the administration caved in) for a student smoking lounge.

I will grant that the 1960s had more political violence than the current period. I think that this is primarily because the U.S. population has aged. Political violence tends to correlate with a large youth population.

However, I will argue that today's political divisions are more troubling. In the 1960s, people were less invested in their political views and identified less strongly with the major political parties.

Through 1968, the political divide was between the Democratic establishment and the anti-war left. Humorist Mort Sahl captured this when he would describe an anguished liberal-establishment father talking about how hard it was to get out of Vietnam, and a son responding, "Gee, Dad, why don't we just turn the boats around?"

President Nixon changed this dynamic. First, his very presence in the White House served to heal the differences within the left between young and old. Second, he defused the Vietnam War as an issue by (a) ending the draft (b) going to China and (c) turning the boats around. The decade of the 1970s saw the heat on the American political burner turned down.

I would describe the American scene in the 1970s as fissaporous, with people identifying themselves in terms of various identity markers, not so much as Democrats or Republicans. More like a high school, with lots of different sub-cultures.

I see two phenomena today that are more disturbing. First, the government is going broke. That is not a problem that has a simple, "turn the boats around" solution. So I do not see how the fundamental source of today's divisions goes away so easily.

Second, I think more people are invested in their political identity than I can ever remember. In the 1960s and 1970s, people were not as worked up about the Dems and the Reps, and they were more worked up about other things.

UPDATE: This story might be filed under "civil war watch."

An armed intruder, spouting opposition to social conservatism, walked into the Washington headquarters of the Family Research Council on Wednesday and shot a security guard before the wounded guard and others wrestled him to the floor and subdued him until police arrived, authorities said.

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COMMENTS (28 to date)
Adam writes:

The relevant question here, I think, is whether more people are actually invested in their political identities, or if you're just in a different environment from the one you were in during the 1960's, which just so happens to have more people invested in political identities than the rest of the country does.

Mentha Trecenta writes:

theres an excellent analysis by John R. Searle on the internet, named The Campus Wars, in which the Jacobin spirit of the student movements, indeed of all such movements, from the Levellers to OWS, is well captured.

John Donnelly writes:

I always enjoy your writing although I don't always agree. I am fascinated by the econ blogosphere discussion of the assertion such as yours that "the government is going broke."

I would enjoy hearing your definition of "going broke" and supporting arguments. Perhaps you could blog on it?

Thanks for a great blog.

Greg G writes:

It seems odd that an analysis of how serious the political divisions of the 1960's were would include no discussion of the Civil Rights movement but would include the issue of a high school student smoking lounge.

Comparing different historical eras is always difficult. The early days of the republic had the Whiskey Rebellion, the Alien and Sedition Acts and threats by some northern states to secede.

Much of the post Civil War years featured routine violence and lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan. People have always thought the world was going to hell in a handbasket.

First, the government is going broke. That is not a problem that has a simple, "turn the boats around" solution.

Sure it is, just means test entitlements. Or raise the age limits for SS and Medicare. Simplify the tax code....

Now, 'palatable'....

Jeff writes:

Arnold, what to make, then of the fact that party affiliation is on the wane, as Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch have pointed out over and over? People may be becoming more invested in their political ideologies and positions (I'l take your word for this, since the '60's were before my time), but that probably makes them harder to organize for any collective action, be it democratic action like getting out the vote or something more sinister, like beating up Hispanics or something.

The knock on libertarian politics has often been that we're rigidly ideological, fiercely independent, and thus politically ineffective ("herding cats" is the analogy often used to describe the situation). If other people start acting more like us, I don't see that as necessarily a bad thing. It may turn out that way, but I don't think all the signs point in one direction here, I guess is what I'm trying to say.

How many lefties would take a bullet for Obama? How many right-wingers would take a bullet for Romney? Not many on either side, I'd wager. The hard left may be delusional, but they know enough to recognize that Obama is not one of them. Same goes for the hard right and Romney. One nice thing about constantly electing mediocre politicians, as we seem to do quite often, is that no one gets too terribly upset if they lose.

Jim Glass writes:

Second, I think more people are invested in their political identity than I can ever remember. In the 1960s and 1970s, people were not as worked up about the Dems and the Reps,

Nope, the data show, as I mentioned before, that the voters are more independent and *less* party-aligned than at any time in polling history. One example, from Gallup:

January 9, 2012
Record-High 40% of Americans Identify as Independents
...Gallup records from 1951-1988 -- based on face-to-face interviewing -- indicate that the percentage of independents was generally in the low 30% range during those years, suggesting that the proportion of independents in 2011 was the largest in at least 60 years.
The voters are more moderate and less polarized than ever -- and I mean *ever*, IMHO.

Going back generationally in 20-year jumps I can't find a time when the voters don't look to me more polarized than today, all the way back to and *including* George Washington's presidency.

(Consider the mutual hate-libel-&-slander-fest that was the Adams-Jefferson election. In those days a sitting Vice President of the USA could shoot a political opponent dead then return his job. A few years later when Representative Preston Brooks used a cane to beat Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death on the Senate floor, Brooks became a hero in his home state and was promptly re-elected overwhelmingly. *That's* when a civil war is coming.)

US politics today is nowhere near as bitter, dirty, and divisive as it typically was in the past. Claims that it is "worse than ever" on these counts bring to mind Flaubert's quote: "Ignorance of history makes us libel our own times."

The partisans and pundits are polarized today, out of self-interest, that's what they do. But that's another story.

About such things one must beware believing one's own lyin' eyes, because they lie.

Mark Bahner writes:
The knock on libertarian politics has often been that we're rigidly ideological, fiercely independent, and thus politically ineffective ("herding cats" is the analogy often used to describe the situation.

What's weird and depressing to me is that I think the Libertarian Party has the strongest President/Vice President candidates in...maybe ever...and yet I haven't heard a word about them.

They should be hitting college campuses *hard*...especially Gary Johnson.

The Sheep Nazi writes:

I wonder if something might have happened between the 60's and now which makes it seem as though politics is more polarized. But what might that something be? Hmmm....

Steve Sailer writes:

"Second, I think more people are invested in their political identity than I can ever remember. In the 1960s and 1970s, people were not as worked up about the Dems and the Reps, and they were more worked up about other things."

To a reasonable approximation, the exact same individuals who were worked up over the Beatles v. the Stones back then are worked up over the Democrats v. the Republicans today. Smart white Baby Boomers are so culturally dominant than whatever they obsess over at this stage in their life cycle seems at the moment like the biggest thing ever.

Jeff writes:

Sheep Nazi,

I assume you're referring to the rise of cable news and the interwebs.

I don't know if that is just a "seems." The internet certainly pushed me to the right, or at least helped. Absent the easy dissemination of information via blogs and hypertext links and so on, I might have been a nice cuddly, Rockefeller Republican. Instead, I read on a semi-regular basis. 'Nuff said, right? I suspect that I am not alone in this.

Steve Sailer writes:

There are a whole lot of people in America who were highly worked up over Team Edward v. Team Jacob (Bella's two suitors in "Twilight"), but they don't count for much.

While well-educated white Baby Boomers are highly agitated over politics, they are way too old to do much about it.

And the young? On average, young people in America today tend to be sedentary, not all that bright, extremely easily distracted by glowing screens, and rather conformist and authoritarian. They can barely organize a sandlot soccer game, much less a revolution.

Lori writes:

You sneaky little mustelid! You used a word that's not in Wiktionary!

Ramled writes:

I seem to remember several assassinations in the 60s and 70s. Kidnapping and murder of civil rights activists. Beating of civil rights marchers. Bombings. Construction workers beating people in the streets. In the south, long hair often meant a beating when the thugs found it convenient.

Mr Kling seems to have a biased memory.

mick writes:

As long as people leave office when they lose elections it won't get to that point. The United States preexisted the liberal consensus, and as long as said liberals respect the will of the voters, the US will continue existing as is.

Peter St. Onge writes:

Rothbard's Conceived in Liberty gives, I think, some perspective on this. Reading through the outrages of 17th & 18th c US puts today's troubles in a very small light.

As for the US being broke, it will force a change, but I'm not seeing the causal link from change to revolution. Pensions or gov't salaries will be cut, war procurement constrained. Not seeing the revolutionary rumblings there.

Joe Cushing writes:

People are more identified with their political parties today? I thought were were in a time where people were frustrated with political parties because neither of them was providing what people want. I thought the independents were the fastest growing group.

Shayne Cook writes:

Hey, I'm with Lori on this one Arnold. What the heck is a "fissaporous" anyway? (heh, heh).

I lived through the 60s as well. And I remember it similarly to what Arnold described. But there was a vastly more significant element than VietNam that weighed on the American psyche at the time. It was the perceived imminent threat of a very much larger nuclear war with the Soviet Union - and potentially China. (China, under Chairman Mao, acquired nuclear capability in 1963.)

VietNam was certainly prevailing in the news of the day. But had there been an Internet, or an HGTV back then, the most visited Internet site and most prominent "Yard Crashers" episodes would have been on how to create a nuclear bomb shelter in your back yard. The 1960s was the decade where "peace" discussions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R were concluded such that both nations would live under the doctrine of "Mutually Assured Destruction" (MAD).

The 1964 presidential campaign was between Barry Goldwater (R) and Lyndon Johnson (D). At mid-1964, Goldwater had a significant lead in the polls. A few months later, the Democrats produced an anti-Goldwater ad depicting a nuclear detonation. The ad only aired for a few days, as it was widely considered "unfair" and "inflammatory" - which it was. But it had the desired effect. Goldwater's lead evaporated and Johnson was elected.

This election, and the election of 2008 for that matter, is about domestic economic policy, not foreign policy as was the case in the 1960s. The issue that is creating the polarized political atmosphere today is, what U.S. economic sector gets to "crony up" (make use of Governmental coercive power) after the election - in order to prop up their particular economic interests.

Arnold may be right. Economic interests are almost as compelling as fear (the threat of "mutually assured destruction"). And economic interests are certainly of more imminent concern to Americans right now.

Roger Sweeny writes:

Shayne Cook,

You are absolutely, unequivocally wrong that "At mid-1964, Goldwater had a significant lead in the polls." He was never ahead or even close.

Lyndon Johnson had a lot of automatic good will because he had been vice-president for the assassinated John F. Kennedy. Johnson very deliberately presented himself as continuing and fulfilling JFK's legacy. Goldwater was strongly opposed for the Republican nomination. Rockefeller, Scranton, and the other "moderate Republicans" characterized him as an extremist, and there was a real question whether they would endorse him if he won the nomination. Once he was nominated, Goldwater began his campaign well behind. The outcome was never in doubt, only what the margin of victory would be.

A quick googling found this graph of "Republican share of two-party preference in pre-election polls" on page 30:

Goldwater had been called trigger-happy well before the flower petal ad, by the mainstream media, by his Republican opponents, and by Democrats.

Daublin writes:

It's just anecdotal, but my world matches Arnold's description. It's rare that I can go to a party without someone flaming off on how evil the Republican opposition is for obstructing the policies that every free thinker knows is a good idea. They defend these positions using the folk-economics arguments that Bryan described in a recent post.

It's very disturbing. To Jim Glass's point, I also encounter an increasing number of people going, "whoa, this is ridiculous" and stepping out of the fray. However, that's just because the people still in it have become more radical.

In my lifetime, this change happened around the time that the general public started browsing the Web from their homes. The more radical people I know have a nearly universal overlap with the ones that spend all day reading DailyKOS and RealClimate.

Mark A. Sadowski writes:

"I see two phenomena today that are more disturbing. First, the government is going broke. That is not a problem that has a simple, "turn the boats around" solution. So I do not see how the fundamental source of today's divisions goes away so easily."

Under the CBO’s extended baseline, which assumes no changes to current law, starting in 2014, public debt is projected to fall by 0-3 percentage points each year. The public debt is shown to be fully paid down by 2070, and within 75 years the federal government is projected to have accrued reserve surpluses equal to about a third of the economy:

The CBO's extended baseline would mean that the Bush-era tax cuts expire next year, the sequestration cuts also go into full effect next year, the Alternative Minimum Tax will apply to more upper middle-income households, and Medicare reimbursements to doctors will be allowed to fall dramatically.

This is similar to a "turn the boats around solution" except that it requires far less effort. Since it assumes current law, all it requires is that we do precisely nothing.

But as long as Republicans refuse to allow a more amenable solution than the turn the boats around one, the second phenomena that you list will necessarily follow from the first.

shecky writes:

Filed under civil war watch: Have you been unaware of the years long history of abortion bombings and killings, sovereign citizen killings, "treasonous" (usually) liberal politicians, Unibomber, etc? Kling's universe is one where the glass isn't only perpetually half empty, but half empty is the clear indicator that the end is nigh.

Shayne Cook writes:

@ Roger Sweeny:

I remember it differently. But I'll concede the core of your point. I have no idea who would have won the '64 election. Admittedly I was quite young and much of what I retain as memory of the time was probably influenced and filtered by parental and elder sibling biases and hopes of the time. But your statement that "the [Johnson] outcome was never in doubt ..." is a bit much. Every election outcome is "in doubt" until after the election.

As to your recommendation to refer to "research" out of Columbia University to clarify history, I think I'd rather not. "Research" produced by many of the folks at Columbia tends to be, well, revisionist. Your reference to the "flower pedal ad" is indicative.

While "flower pedal ad" is a very pretty euphemism, I saw the ad aired in it's original and I've seen it a couple of times since and there was nothing "pretty" about it. What was "blossoming" was not a "flower". It was the bright flash and mushroom cloud produced by a nuclear detonation. It was intentionally designed to imply that nuclear holocaust would be the inevitable result of a Goldwater presidency. It was a horribly vicious political attack ad that even disgusted most democrats of the day. That's why the ad was removed so quickly. And it continues to be something of an embarrassment to democrats even to this day. Hence the revisionist, "flower pedal ad" label for it.

Goldwater was running - even within his own party primary - on effectively a "peace through strength" type of platform. Which oddly was an attempt to co-opt Kennedy's success in the Cuban Missile Crisis standoff with Kruschev. And which his political opponents (both with R and with D behind their names on the ballot) "spun" into extremist (dangerous) war-mongering. The "flower pedal ad", as you call it, was the ultimate political "spin" in that regard that doomed the Goldwater campaign.

Conversely, and as you say, Johnson's initial political momentum was largely based on JFK's legacy. But he also was running on his "Great Society" musings.

As an aside, I'm an unabashed and unashamed JFK fan. And not due to the tragedy of his assassination. John F. Kennedy inspired and initiated wonderful things for the U.S. during his all-too-short presidency. Lyndon Baines Johnson, not so much.

Vladimir writes:


First "The Great Unmentionable" post, and then this. You are either getting radicalized or having a streak of really bad days!

In this case, I'd recommend that you soothe your fears by reading some Mencius Moldbug. The circus of electoral politics might be getting more rowdy, but the permanent government that's actually running things is swayed very little by whatever happens in it. At the same time, the elites are not torn by any deep ideological or other rifts, and they're also supremely confident in their legitimacy and righteousness, so that the only path to power, wealth, and status for ambitious people is through conformity and playing along with the system. Overall, this looks like a recipe for stability in the foreseeable future, even if the economic and other outlook is far from rosy.

Roger Sweeny writes:


You are absolutely right that " Every election outcome is "in doubt" until after the election." If some horrible thing had happened, Goldwater might have won. But outside of that, he had no chance.

As soon as Goldwater became a national figure, people in the media, Democrats, and the moderate wing of the Republican Party had been calling him (more and less explicitly) dangerous, trigger-happy, etc. This was hardly something that began with the flower petal ad. I don't think the ad made much difference one way or another. As you say, the ad only ran a few times and a lot of people thought that it was extreme.

(It is ironic that in 1964, Johnson ran as the "peace candidate." No doubt, one reason a lot of people wound up hating him was a feeling of betrayal when he later escalated the Vietnam war. Something like how limited government people felt when George H.W. Bush went back on his pledge, "Read my lips: no new taxes.")

It would probably be more accurate to refer to the ad as the daisy petal/nuclear explosion ad. A cute innocent-looking little girl counts to ten as she pulls petals off a daisy. A male voice then counts down from ten ending in a nuclear explosion. It is then rather obviously implied that not voting for President Johnson will make nuclear war more likely.

It's a 60 second ad, well worth taking a look at

Shayne Cook writes:

@ Roger Sweeny:

You and I may be arriving at a point of concurrence. And also a point on which we disagree. Both are applicable to Arnold's post.

As a response to my previous comment, you said, "If some horrible thing had happened, Goldwater might have won." I agree it probably would have taken something horrible. And you indicate you don't think the nuclear explosion ad was a significant influence to the 1964 election outcome. That's where I disagree. Perhaps I can explain why, by way of a thought experiment preceded by a history review. And I think it's to Arnold's point.

Keep in mind that less than 2 years before the 1964 campaign, the Cuban Missile crisis had occurred - which JFK brought to a head and to a successful conclusion. But the fear in the American public mind that was created during the evolution and resolution of that crisis did not subside. Indeed, it grew.

The American people were scared to death as the crisis grew - of war. But after it's resolution, that fear became a more broad and deeper fear. People considered not just the known horror of war, but the additional horror of the destruction of a nuclear war, and the morbid horror of the inevitable aftermath of a nuclear war. The overwhelming majority of Americans truly began to understand that a nuclear war was not "winnable" in anything like the same sense that a World War II or previous wars had been "winnable".

That is the "significant element ... that weighed on the American psyche" that I referred to in my first comment. And as I said, that new type and depth of fear was so intense and ubiquitous it motivated ordinary Americans to dig holes in their backyards to construct underground bomb shelters - at least. And then realizing that surviving an initial nuclear exchange only afforded them the option of dying by starvation or radiation poisoning.

That new deep and extraordinary fear was the most significant relevant underlying factor throughout the 1960s. And to only a slightly lesser degree remains relevant today. That is what I am asserting.

Now to the thought experiment.

Given the above, consider Goldwater behind in the 1964 election polls (as he was), but it is the Republican party that pulls the "fear" card with a nuclear detonation ad instead of the Democrats. Suppose the Republicans try to "spin" Goldwater's alleged "militarism" as a strength comparable to the known strengths of Kennedy. At the same time, the ad emphasizes Johnson's weaknesses, different from the strengths of Kennedy - painting Johnson as a "cowboy buffoon politician" who "ain't no Kennedy" and would inevitably screw up the next confrontation with Khrushchev. Then, follow that spin with the "nuclear detonation" footage. I suspect that could have been the "horrible thing" you allude to that would have secured a Goldwater presidency.

But I recognize, it's just a thought experiment. I merely consider it plausible. Because the nuclear detonation content of that campaign ad so played to the worst fears of the American public, whichever "side" used it first and most effectively, would "win".

You mentioned the "ironic" result of the Johnson presidency. I concur. Frankly, I see an irony in the nuclear detonation ad as well. Note the political and popular "polarization" that existed later in the 1960s was not one based on engaging in peace versus engaging in war. All knew peace was the only way to win. The fear I described above completely ensured that all knew peace was the only way to win. Rather the argument centered on how to avoid engaging in nuclear war - through "strength-based stalemate" or through "withdrawal/isolation". The irony of the 1964 nuclear detonation ad was that it was cohesive in its effect on the American public, not divisive. At the time, Americans hadn't had time to fully consider alternative ways of avoiding nuclear war. Those were issues that developed more fully later. The only important thing at the time was to avoid nuclear war.

Part of my point, and expressly to Arnold's post, is that campaign ads and campaigns that exploit and expand people's most morbid fears often lead to violent conflicts and binary public division. Arnold's concerns (and mine, to some degree) are that this particular election is already descending into that sort of "hate-fest" - focusing on "class warfare".

I'll say "thank you" for posting a link to the ad video, but I have no intention of viewing it again. I consider it vicious, vile and sick. And frankly, had it been used by the Republicans in 1964 as I described in my "thought" experiment, I would also consider it vicious, vile and sick.

As far as your comment on George Bush, at the time I read his lips and fully expected to "Know New Taxes". (I did NOT misspell anything in that last statement.)

Danny L. McDaniel writes:

The federal government is not going broke, but it is way, way overextended. As for as the 60's go, I always thought the 1980's were the 1960's without Vietnam.

Roger Sweeny writes:

A seed has to fall on fertile ground.

Americans' fear of nuclear war waxed and waned in the years after WW II. That fear was at a high point during and immediately after the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 14-28, 1962).

A lesson many people took from the Crisis was that nuclear war could only be avoided if leaders acted in a calm, thoughtful way. This was certainly the spin of the mainstream media. A second lesson pushed by many respectable people was that victory was impossible in the Cold War.

Unfortunately for Goldwater, he had published a book Why Not Victory? Many of his supporters, and some of the people he seemed to listen to, minimized the dangers of nuclear weapons. It was easy to characterize him as an extremist, who would push too hard and get us into a war. Then, in his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention (July 16, 1964), he famously said, "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!" Video at

Whatever the merits of that statement as an abstract proposition, it pretty much killed any chance of presenting himself as the person Americans would be safer with.

The flower petal/nuclear explosion ad, which ran for the first and only time on September 7, 1964, strengthened a feeling that a substantial majority of Americans already had.

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