The Return of the 1960s
More than a few commentators have decreed that the seeming madness of this election cycle is unprecedented, or simply chaotic. Certainly my friends and family seem to think so; many have remarked to me that they have “never seen anything like it.” I think they are wrong. I think we have seen something like it: the 1960s. Again as in the 1960s, America is experiencing major political and social movement, the emergence of radical new communication tools, a series of contentious campus controversies, the victory of a major civil rights movement, suppressed racial tensions rising back to the surface, a rising young left dissatisfied with the center-left Democratic status quo, and a conservative revolt against Republican elites for their failure to meaningfully halt the march of progressivism.
Of course, Black Lives Matter is not like the Black Panthers. There’s no heated MLK/Malcolm X divide. Today’s campus controversies, inflamed as they are, can’t match those fomented by the New Left. Hillary Clinton won’t be dropping out of the presidential race like LBJ did. Gays and lesbians don’t hold the same status in American history as black people. An the ‘establishment’ may yet prevail in the GOP race. But the parallels are there, and they are striking.
The root of this chaos, I believe, is the gradual emergence, especially among the young, of a new way of thinking about the world: one in which authenticity is prized heavily, the essential fluidity of all concepts is embraced rather than resisted, and ‘the right to form one’s own conception of existence’ is held up as a supreme virtue. In other words: the young are adopting a sort of vulgarized, democratized version of ideas found in the writings of Martin Heidegger. If our culture has been animated by vulgarized Nietzscheanism for a while — obsessed with the analysis of power, taking a delight in unmasking ulterior motives, and wantonly accusing institutions of illegitimacy on the basis of their being historically constructed — maybe now we’re looking at vulgarized Heideggerianism coming to a head. Maybe it just takes about a century or so for the popular horizon to catch up with the horizon of the greatest of thinkers. It is undoubtedly so that the shattering impact of the financial crisis of 2008 accelerated the sense of urgency among the young of the need to dis-cover and implement a new way of thinking and living — but our culture has been traveling down this road for decades. If the 1960s were the decade in which America realized the Nietzscheanism inherent in its Lockeanism, maybe the 2010s ought to be viewed as the decade in which America realized its inherent Heideggerianism.
Maybe it’s not so much, then, that we’re going through something like the 60s again, per se, but rather that social change in America tends to follow certain patterns, a certain generalized ‘rule book’ intrinsic to the logic of our self-understanding and our history. The convergence of science and technology, libertarian and egalitarian ideals (which are always in tension), our uniquely fraught racial history, and Lockean governmental structures must result in something like this — our democracy at work.