I started out to compare today’s protests and politics with those of earlier decades. After attempting a list of particulars, I began to think more of the general trends. Leadership and media seemed to offer the two most prominent differences. With the passing of power back and forth between the parties over the decades, these trends have resulted in the spiraling descent of the Republican party, and our country under its leadership, to where we are today.
Social media and cable news have changed the quality of reporting and allowed competing versions of political “reality” to develop for self-selecting audiences. We repeat our own version to other like-minded people through social media – the echo chamber effect. People in the 60s and 70s tuned in Walter Cronkite and whatever he said carried the weight of truth. If Cronkite caught a politician lying or taking personal benefit from public office, there were fraught political consequences.
Legitimate journalists today have been assailed by some politicians and even referred to as enemies of the people by the sitting president. These attacks and his universe of “alternate facts” are repeated and amplified in the social media echo chamber. These systems of competing truths did not exist in the 60s.
Devotion to democracy and the expansion of the electorate was then – in spirit at least – universally blessed. These values have been challenged in the current alternate reality as niceties designed to relegate a once dominant class of citizens (older white males like me) to minority status.
The movement of women and minorities into roles of power is judged in that alternate reality as the gift of affirmative action rather than the deserved result of their own hard work, intelligence and abilities. It’s hard on the ego to see the world becoming fairer as you, in turn, have to yield some of your own privilege.
We sometimes look at generational cohorts as meaningful units of analysis. My generation, bookended by the Greatest Generation on the older end and by the Baby Boomers on the other, is often overlooked. Those of us born just before the end of WW II are called the Silent Generation. The existential threats of our day were Vietnam and the nuclear arms race, both aspects of the Cold War. African Americans shared those threats and added to them the enduring cruelties resulting from our history of slavery.
The generations younger than the Boomers now face an even more complicated set of challenges, a whole battery of crises in fact, that should be keeping us all awake at night. Most of them are the result of an economy that has pushed consumption beyond the planet’s sustainable limits. Climate change, pandemic diseases, failing governments, human migration, the growth of terrorist organizations (foreign and domestic), wealth and income inequality, unmet infrastructure needs, and a government that is unwilling to meet the people’s needs are all on the list of realities that face young people now trying get educated and join the work force. On top of that, they have to deal with college debt far beyond anything I faced in my generation.
All of these problems can be addressed but they need the focus and work of governments here and abroad. They must lead people to commit to the hard work and sacrifice that can take us into new centuries with the expansion of democracy throughout the world. They must lead us to respect the planet and each other so that all of us can have the one thing we want most – an environment of peace and plenty for nurturing our children.
The other major difference that I see between the present decade and those of the 60s and 70s is our national political leadership. At the time, I could not see any redeeming qualities in Richard Nixon. The public would not tolerate lies from political leaders. Nixon spied, he lied, he connived and covered up. Yet he took his job seriously and he had the grace to resign rather than put the country through any more Watergate agony. And there were members of his party who had the strength of character to confront him with the truth of his situation and the nation’s needs.
President Trump, in my estimation, is inept and uninterested. He has no respect for the presidency or the constitution. And the Republicans in congress offer him no guidance or try to rein him in. I recognize that these points will be argued endlessly by his supporters. In defense of my position, I can only offer my years of study, witness and the close attention I have paid our country’s politics during my entire adult life.
My hope for Generations X, Y, Z and Alpha, it is that we can instill in them, once again, a devotion to truth, to service and the restoration of a leading role in the world for the United States. Public service can be their gift to their fellow citizens, not a gateway to grift. I hope we can help them to see that running for political office is a high calling and that it should always be done with humility, generosity of spirit and a dedication to our deepest civic values. That was the inspiration my generation took from President Kennedy and Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. They will not find any such inspiration in the White House today.
We have come up short in many ways. But we can pass the torch to our youth with confidence in their ability and the strength of their character. I know some of them well in my family and in my church. Above all else this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for them.Guest Column, The Facts, November 25, 2020, by the Lake Jackson Citizen