“History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, but It Often Rhymes” – Mark Twain
In this essay adapted from a speech he delivered at his 50th reunion in May, author and columnist Richard North Patterson ’68 explores three divisive issues of today, and a compassionate path to bridge them.
For some of you 1968 is — quite literally — history, like John F. Kennedy and the Beatles. But for those of us who came of age then, that was the year it all cracked open. The Tet Offensive tarnished official optimism about the Vietnam War. Anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy came from nowhere to challenge President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination. Robert Kennedy followed; Johnson withdrew. A racist murdered Martin Luther King Jr.; our cities exploded in violence. For millions, the assassination of Robert Kennedy felt like the death of hope. The Russians smashed Czechoslovakia’s dreams of freedom. The Democratic convention chose Hubert Humphrey over McCarthy amidst massive police brutality against anti-war and antiestablishment protesters. And Richard Nixon rose like a phoenix to win the presidency of a country in turmoil.
For me, and many around me, that year was visceral and divisive, turning our lives upside down. Mores regarding drug use and sexual freedom changed dramatically.
Guys we knew died in Vietnam — and many of the living wondered why. Some avoided the draft; others served. If our government was deceiving us about the Vietnam War, as its opponents insisted, maybe the beliefs we’d grown up with were illusory. All too often, parents and children regarded each other across a chasm of mutual incomprehension. The fault line of 1968 had separated us from certainty.
This line traces to today, along three contentious issues: race, gender, and gun violence. Crucially, there are profound social, cultural, and political divisions that cracked open in 1968 — and now threaten to tear American democracy apart.
No problem has been more wrenching than the legacy of one of America’s foundational sins, slavery. It is easy to forget that when my class came here as freshmen, 100 years after the Civil War, blacks in the South could neither vote nor enter hotels, restaurants, neighborhoods, and schools reserved exclusively for whites. But with the civil rights bills of 1964 came a white backlash against black empowerment. Subsequent polling showed that 50 percent of whites thought that Reverend King was hurting the cause of civil rights; only 36 percent thought he was helping. Race, it turned out, was not merely a Southern problem — it was an American problem, and America had not fixed it.
Following violent protests in major cities, Johnson established an advisory committee to address our racial dilemma. Its findings were stark, clearly stating that: “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” Its report concluded: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
This struggle to comprehend and address our racial divide caused a tectonic shift in American politics. Traditionally, Democrats were the party of the segregated South — in Congress, more Republicans than Democrats had supported the civil rights legislation spearheaded by Johnson. But by taking ownership, Johnson alienated millions of Southern whites, causing their mass migration to the GOP.
Thus the election of 1968 began the realignment of American politics — in great measure because of race. By pursuing the so-called Southern strategy, which emphasized “law and order,” Nixon carried Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Carolinas. But by explicitly attacking integration and civil rights, George Wallace won every other Southern state. The politics of racial identity were going national — not merely among African-Americans, but also among whites anxious about diversity and fearful of displacement.
The wedge of race still cuts deep. Few remember the furor in 1968 when Captain Kirk of television’s Star Trek kissed a black actress. It seems so silly now. But racial anxiety persists. Lenny Steinhorn, a historian and communications professor at American University in Washington, comparing 1968 with 2018, notes how many whites today believe that “America is being undermined by the emphasis on diversity, by elites that want to impose a politically correct culture on traditional Americans who believe that Black Lives Matter activists show no respect… .”
Consider two incidents 50 years apart. At the Olympic Games of 1968, two African-American sprinters ignited a firestorm when they raised their fists in a black power salute. In 2017, black professional football players who knelt during the national anthem to protest alleged police brutality excited similar outrage — and the condemnation of America’s president, who dispatched his vice president to an NFL game to stage his own symbolic counter-protest on national TV.
Beneath all this lies bitter disagreement about the shootings of blacks by white police; racial inequities in law enforcement; and laws that punish trafficking in crack cocaine more harshly than its powdery cousin, which led to disproportionate punishments for blacks. And 50 years after Johnson’s commission on race issued its report, fewer African- Americans have access to majority-white schools than in 1968, according to the University of California Civil Rights Project.
True, America has made great progress in advancing racial justice. But as uplifting as it was for many of us, regardless of party, the election of America’s first black president hardly resolved our racial problems.
Persistent, too, are the ongoing issues regarding feminism and gender roles.
On one level, things are dramatically different. I have my own memories of Ohio Wesleyan when I arrived here. The dorms were segregated by sex, with strict curfews for women. With the girls locked up, the powers that be reasoned, how much trouble could a guy get into — especially when, in a comic harbinger of “just say no,” the infirmary denied women access to birth control? The answer soon became apparent: The arrival of spring opened the floodgates of pent-up sexual demand to the vagaries of the great outdoors — unleashing a small population explosion.
With some exceptions, we imagined following our parents’ gender trajectories — the men pointing toward lifetime careers, the women planning a shorter stretch in some traditionally “female” occupation before transitioning to full-time motherhood. This led to a supposed syndrome called “senior panic” — believed to afflict any woman not yet engaged or, at least, attached to a guy who looked like a good bet for the altar.
But already the women’s movement was propelling millions of young women — here and elsewhere — toward a different life. When I entered law school 1968, there were six women in the first-year class of 160. Two years later, women were 35 percent of all new students. But their path was never easy. The workplace was frequently unwelcoming. Often they lacked mentors. Men who felt challenged resented them. Sexual harassment was chronic. Their husbands’ and boyfriends’ apparent support often cloaked a bedrock of traditionalism.
While enough swam upstream to change societal expectations for their brothers and sisters, daughters and sons, grandsons and granddaughters — it’s not yet over. Pay inequities between men and women remain, exacerbated by ethnicity and race. In particular, the #MeToo movement underscores the stubborn pervasiveness of sexual assault, exploitation and harassment — all the worse for the countless, nameless women we will never know. This battle, too, is far from done. (A minor personal note: One year ago I was thrilled to make a movie deal with an eminent Hollywood producer — Harvey Weinstein. Instead of “me, too”, all I can say is “Oh, well.”)
As for the toll of death by gunfire in America, all one can ask is “Will it ever end?”
Many asked this 50 years ago, when the assassination of John F. Kennedy was followed by the murder of his brother and Martin Luther King Jr. After Robert Kennedy died, Lyndon Johnson highlighted the average of 6,500 gun deaths per year. But the implacable opposition of the NRA stymied his efforts to pass meaningful gun-control legislation. Lamented Johnson, “We’ve been through ... too much anguish to forget so quickly.”
Surely no one who walks through the seemingly endless expanse of Arlington National Cemetery, hushed and pensive, ever forgets it. The tragic toll of war stupefies and stuns. In the 240-plus years beginning with the Revolutionary War, we have sacrificed nearly 1.4 million Americans. In itself, this number is hard to grasp.
In the past half-century, gun deaths by murder, accident, and suicide have claimed over 1.5 million Americans — 100,000 more deaths than all the wars of our history, as verified by Politifact, a nonpartisan factchecking organization.
Here we can find no nobility, no consolation, no agreed-upon parades or speeches or monuments or national days of remembrance. Nothing but 50 long years of public slaughter and private sorrow — over five times more deaths every year than when Lyndon Johnson mourned our forgetfulness — with no end in sight.
Yet here we are. So it is incumbent on all of us, I submit, to reflect on how the divisions of 1968 affect us now — and what we can do to bridge them.
To be sure, in some ways 1968 was worse than 2018. We are not, at this moment, engaged in an all-consuming war, nor are we routinely afflicted by mass political or racial violence. But what is more dangerous today is that more Americans are more alienated from one another by virtually every societal measure — as if America decided to reconfigure itself along the fault lines of 1968.
Instead of sharing a common vision of America, we are forming into tribes which despise each other. This divide is less about ideas than culture and demographics — and it is tearing us apart.
It’s not my role to advocate for any policy, philosophy, or party. My effort is to ask that each of us realize what is happening to the country we love in common, and how we can re-examine our own attitudes and actions in order to acknowledge and ameliorate all that divides us. For the admonition John F. Kennedy offered 55 years ago is even more pertinent now: “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
That, I submit, is a luxury we can afford no longer.
Consider what America is up against. Increasingly, we are sorted into think-alike communities defined by geography, ethnicity, education, and economic status. And so demography breeds division.
Take the chasm exposed by the election of 2016. College graduates preferred Hillary Clinton by 9 percent; those without a college degree chose Trump by 8 percent, according to Pew Research. More telling is the widening partisan gap among white non-college-educated Americans: 67 percent for Trump; 28 percent for Clinton. Women skew Democratic by a considerable margin; men are equally divided. Forty percent of Democrats are nonwhite; among Republicans, only 2 percent are black, and 6 percent Hispanic. The stark truth is that Americans have divided themselves into demographic tribes that started forming 50 years ago.
Thus American politics are increasingly racialized. Republicans often charge that Democrats practice “identity politics,” reflecting the social grievances of minorities and others. Frequently, Democrats accuse Republicans of promulgating “white identity politics,” reflecting the unease of many whites with America’s changing demographics and social standards. In terms of who both parties draw to the polls, both assertions are true.
Unsurprisingly, ever more political partisans live in gated communities of the mind. According to a Pew Research survey taken after 2016, Fox News was the principal source of campaign reportage for 40 percent of Republicans, but only 3 percent of Democrats, who, though in lesser numbers, preferred CNN and MSNBC.
These Americans occupy different Americas. Asked if they agreed that “Life in America today is worse than it was 50 years ago” for people like them, 81 percent of Trump voters agreed — and only 19 percent of Clinton voters.
This glaring disparity does not mirror relative economic anxiety — financially troubled whites were more likely to favor Clinton. Support for Trump reflected, above all, a rebellion against cultural and demographic shifts that have accelerated over the last five decades. When, in October 2017, 60 percent of Trump voters expressed a negative view of the National Football League, it was not about the price of tickets.
The same attitudinal divide permeates our views of gender. A Pew poll in July 2016 showed that 72 percent of Clinton supporters, but only 31 percent of Trump voters, thought that there were significant remaining obstacles making it harder for women to get ahead. A more recent poll inspired by my pal Harvey Weinstein showed that 80 percent of Democrats called sexual harassment a serious problem, and only half as many Republicans did.
Finally, guns. While in theory political partisans share some common ground, there are sharp differences on specific issues, as well as with respect to the role of the NRA. Far more Republicans than Democrats consider gun ownership to be an essential element of freedom. Among NRA members, opposition to gun control drives their voting preferences. Thus our elected officials are polarized by party.
Such divides become political trench warfare, stifling compromise and preventing us from resolving our most pressing problems. But even more pernicious is how this mass failure of empathy and imagination poisons our attitudes toward each other.
No longer do we view our political opposites as simply wrong or misguided, but as enemies of all we hold dear. As Paul Taylor notes, ever more Republicans and Democrats deny each other’s facts, disapprove of each other’s lifestyles, avoid each other’s neighborhoods, impugn each other’s motives, doubt each other’s patriotism, detest each other’s news sources, and, indeed, despise and dehumanize who they imagine each other to be.
In this environment, partisan loathing is what drives people to the polls. This is political crack cocaine for politicians who traffic in demagoguery and division. Today’s America is 1968 on steroids.
What on earth, we must ask, are we doing to each other — and to our country? Perhaps we need a new nationalism that transcends race and culture — one rooted in listening, not shouting; compassion, not fear; tolerance, not tribalism.
A leader we lost in 1968, Robert Kennedy, still has much to tell us: “We can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life. Surely this bond of common fate ... can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at the least, to look around at ... our fellow men. Surely we can work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us, and become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”
On turning 70, I thought a bit about the point of us as humans. Not only is our time on earth defined by our family and friends — those we cherish — but by those we learn to understand. We are not put here to be lab rats in someone else’s cage, but to expand the reach of decency and compassion for all who follow us.
Robert Kennedy’s brother said it well: “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future.
And we are all mortal.”
Richard North Patterson is a political columnist for the Huffington Post and Boston Globe as well as the author of 22 best-selling novels, former Chairman of Common Cause, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.