Something sinister must have occurred to start the cycle we are in now.
A cycle in which our political center has moved. When being “pro-business” became more politically popular than being “pro-worker.” When being for “free markets” could rally crowds and “consumer protection” would bring on “boos.” When prosecuting a “war on terrorism” stokes jingoism instead of fears of “nation building,” while “presumption of innocence,” “due process” and the “right to counsel” was the treasonous coddling of our enemies. When “gun rights” became more important than “insuring domestic tranquility.” When “faith” could claim a higher standing than “fact,” or “truth,” or “science.” When a call for “tort reform” was politically correct and “rights to redress grievances” became archaic. When discrimination based on “immigration status” became acceptable and mainstream. When clean water and air became associated with our world “competitiveness” and the cost not to pollute became associated with jobs. When “illegal” addiction would become criminalized with three strikes and you’re out while “legal” addiction would be promoted in prime time and on nightly stock market reports. When farm subsidies turned into corporate farm subsidies and small farms began disappearing throughout our hemisphere. When simple charity and kindness came mean “socialism” or worse? When we forgot why we had had anti-monopoly laws, taxed inheritance and regulated trade. Exactly when did “corporations” begin to have the rights of people, but so much more power? When did the music of the great society die?
There are cycles to our young republic that affect individual rights, justice, fairness and equality. Since our beginning we have moved from plutocracy to populism to oligarchy to kleptocracy and back. And forth. From idealism to materialism. From racism, to closet racism, to pragmatic racism. From nationalism, to imperialism, to isolationism, to exceptionalism. From secular, to criminal, to “in god we trust” to “born again” rule. From open immigration toward closed borders. From due process, to no process and interdiction. From hope to fear. Boom to bust. Republican to Democrat. From divided, to united, to polarized. And variations in between.
November 5, 1968.
1968, as years go, was a hellish time. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Lyndon Johnson was losing wars, Vietnam and the one on poverty. These wars divided our politics, our families and our generations. The US went off the gold standard. North Korea captured one of our spy ships and held its crew hostage for almost a year. The Civil Rights Act was signed amid protests from last generations’ Tea Party. We installed Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Pope condemned the use of birth control. Russia re-invaded Czechoslovakia. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their arms in a black power salute during the worldwide telecast of the Olympics. NBC cut off the final 1:05 of the Raiders-Jets football game to air the movie, “Heidi.” Airlines were hijacked to Cuba. Yale began admitting women. Jackie married Ari. During a violent Democratic convention, the sitting Vice-President from Minnesota defeated the populist, anti-war Minnesota senator, leaving most of the country wondering where the hell Minnesota was, and why the Democrats would think that we would want four more years of what we’d just lived through. Richard, aka: Dirty Dick, Milhous Nixon, with future felon, Spiro Agnew, became the Republican nominees. And “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” former Alabama governor, George Wallace with insane pro-nuke sidekick General Curtis LeMay, ran on the American Independent ticket and went on to garner over 13% of the vote.
November 5, 1968 was the day America elected the former Joe McCarthy inquisitor and former and almost-never-was-because-of-illegal-campaign contributions Eisenhower Vice President, former failed Presidential candidate, confirmed paranoid, anti-semite, homophobe, scare-mongering, foul-mouthed, dirty-campaigning, compulsively obsessed with a war on drugs, FBI and IRS abusing, media manipulating, Southern strategy architect, Bebe Roboso campaign money laundering, wire-tapping, lying, future-Watergate-burglary-conspirator, justice obstructor, power abusing, contempt of Congress, but pardoned, future impeachee, bigot, “I’ve got a secret plan to end the war, but I’m not going to tell you what it is because I don’t have one,” president.
It should be noted, that when Richard Milhous Nixon was elected, most of us didn’t know with certainty that he would one day be impeached for being so mind-bogglingly paranoid that he would do something as stupid as Watergate and actually get caught. The rest, however, was pretty common knowledge at the time.
So, how did this change things?
- Campaign money. A little background: on this day, campaign contributions were limited by the Federal Corrupt Practices Act (revised in 1925 and several other times), which required Senators and Congresspersons to limit contributions by any single contributor (individuals, unions and corporations) to $5,000 and to report contributions within 10 days of the election. It had never been enforced. After the election of 1968, the Clerk of the House, Pat Jennings, decided to report violators to the Justice Department. The Justice Department, led by should-have-been-a-felon AG Ramsey Clark, and later by, future-felon AG, John Mitchell, ignored it.
Corruption hardly began with Nixon, but his presidency set a new standard for the accumulation huge amounts of illegal and off-the-books contributions. They raised millions, and actually kept hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in the White House to fund secret campaign operatives, operations and dirty tricks. Post-Watergate, the rules changed a bit, but the cycle had begun: the quiet corruption changed overnight into an all out assault for campaign money. Everyone did it. Everyone got away with it and still does. And every large corporation knows they can bribe anyone in politics for special tax breaks, limited oversight, limited liability and most anything we don’t want to think about. This tiny event in our history, may have been the seed for most everything in the cycle that followed.
- The Courts. Richard Nixon was in office for just five and half years, but was able to appoint four justices to the Supreme Court: Warren Burger, Harry Blackmum, Lewis Powell and William Rehnquist. Their appointments set the court solidly conservative as it remains today (Republicans had the White House for 32 of the 42 years before Obama). Combine a solidly conservative Supreme Court with 32 years of a solidly conservative Justice Department and the cycle begins to seem obvious.
- Farm Subsidies. Yes, blame Nixon and Earl Butz. For corporate farms, monopolistic control of our food supply, genetic mutant seeds; excessive run off, huge pig farms, corn subsidies which have led to high-fructose corn syrup which has helped fuel the obesity problem, corn subsidies, which led to corn-based ethanol ,which sucks all the momentum from efficient alternative bio-fuels, subsidized, unfair trade, which undermined the family farms in our southern hemisphere, and deserves a great part of the blame for our immigration problem. When bread prices shot up before the election in 1972 because of a deal to ship huge amounts of grain to Russia, Nixon called in Earl Butz and told him that this was never to happen again. It hasn’t. The administration changed the subsidy system to stimulate production, resulting in a market glut and continually depressed below what-it-even-costs-a-farmer-in-Mexico-to-produce prices. And those subsidies underwrite the campaign donations to the small states that every year elect two Republican senators.
- Deregulation. It was Nixon who proposed deregulation of the transportation industry and his appointed successor/pardoner, Gerald Ford, who signed into law the bill that first deregulated trucking and trains. Future Republican administrations continued his phased plan by deregulating shipping and airlines. Then energy, communication and banking. Yes, Nixon is responsible for the cycle that created the mess in airline travel, the mess on Wall Street and the mess in the Gulf.
- The Southern Strategy. Nixon is most often credited for it, or Harry Dent, but some suggest that Nixon learned of it from George Herbert Walker Bush, who first reached out to the those disenfranchised former Southern Democrats in 1966 to become the first Republican to win a Congressional seat in Houston. The strategy was pretty simple: reach out to the former Southern civil war states with a pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-women, anti-gay, anti-busing, anti-civil rights, anti-union, anti-hippie/free speech, anti-elite, anti-journalist, anti-evolution, anti-welfare, antebellum states rights message. Basically, the same party of “no” issues we have today.
- The War on Drugs. Nixon flat out hated drugs. Not because of the pain it causes society or individual addicts, but because he believed deep down in his dark soul that it was in the nature of African-Americans to use drugs and that they sold it to young whites to turn them in to hippies (I’m not making this up). Under Nixon, the drug laws were re-written, which were the basis of the infamous Rockefeller drug laws creating easy prosecution and long prison terms for small amounts of drugs classified with these rules as “narcotics.” Under Nixon, and with the help of J. Edgar Hoover and Elvis Presley, the DEA was created. Under Nixon, we began sending weapons and money to tyrants in South America to execute a war on drugs (and revolution) on our behalf. The groundwork was laid to put a million people a year in prison, disproportionately black – which also, of course, got them off the voter rolls.
- Anti-Communist Witch Hunts. Nixon cut his political teeth prosecuting Alger Hess and working for Joe McCarthy. His legacy of looking for “pinkos” reverberates on Fox news to this day. It may not be the reason that the “nabobs of negativism” no longer flourish in newspapers across the country, but the stench of the cycle seems to emanate clearly from this day.
- China Policy. Seems pretty weird that this anti-communist would open up China? For Nixon, this was about his fear of red horde; it was about his legacy, his debt to campaign contributers and global trade. Cheap labor. Political payback to unions and industrialized states. His last snicker.
When I set out to write this, I wanted to find out what had happened to us. What had turned a generation so idealistic that we wouldn’t trust anyone over 30* to one that seems powerless and motionless on issues so similar today and of such heart-wrenching importance. What was keeping us from marching. What turned us so cynical. What changed us that we are quiet on the spewed and tainted politics and injustice of today.
Was there a moment? A point in time when we gave up and walked away? I kept coming back to the election of Richard Nixon as the moment when this terrible cycle began. There are plenty of others who built on his legacy of paranoia, division and hate – devil spawn of Reagan, Gingrich, Bush, Bush and Cheney. But I have drawn a line from that day to this one and feel it is time he acknowledged for his accomplishment.
Since the beginning, our cycles have always been connected to our wars, and to some degree, to our prosperity. I pray that some years from now, November 4, 2008 will be recognized for the beginning of the next cycle and that our wars will end.
*Updated, we shouldn’t trust anyone over 75 – When Jack Weinberg was quoted by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter in 1965 saying, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” he was being sarcastic. Weinberg was a 24-year old activist at Berkeley and had been asked if the Free Speech Movement was being manipulated by outside adults. Unlike most of the rest of us, Weinberg kept believing, speaking, and, often getting arrested demonstrating. He dropped out of graduate school to work for civil rights in the South. In 1969, believing that societal change couldn’t occur without blue collar America (it was the time of the “silent majority”), he moved to the Midwest, working in automotive and steel plants and being active in the unions. It was in Gary that he’d spend five years working to see that a nuclear power plant would never be built. An economic downturn took him to Chicago where his involvement in the environmental moment turned into a full time job with Greenpeace, where, at 70, he’s still active today, but even Jack, hasn’t been arrested for demonstrating for while (almost 10 years, Manila).
*Note: the story was edited to reflect a couple of mindless mistakes that are noted in the comments.