The Candor

Parallel Political Climates: What We Can Learn From the 1960s

Omair Ali

Perspectives Editor

Stubborn presidents?  Transformative American activists? Proxy wars? Check, check, and check. The 1960s (60s) might seem like an era that is very distant from the 2010s, but we share many of the cultural and political elements of the time. Specifically, both the current decade and the 60s were marked by a noisy time of growing, civic activism and presidents with a variety of philosophies and opinions that have changed American society. In this article, I argue that the events in the 1960s can help us navigate through the sociopolitical climate that exists in our nation today.

Similar Presidents and Political Circumstances

When we think of this decade’s social activism, we think Black Lives Matter, 3rd wave feminism, the millennial LGBT movement, and other prominent groups. In a similar fashion, the 60s was an impactful time for civil rights, as many breakthroughs occurred in support of people of color, women, and LGBT rights. In fact, many of the civil rights groups today are rooted in the same groups that fought prejudice in their communities during the 60s. We also see the mainstream response to social movements. When the hippies were transforming communities through the Counter Culture movement, mainstream society objected to this and strengthened their own beliefs. In our society, we too are quick to disapprove of radical groups and notions, and we often express this by exercising our right to vote or by demonstrating against such ideas.

During the 60s, America had ongoing political tensions with Russia, which resulted in conflicts in Cuba and Vietnam that also threatened national security. In a similar fashion, we have ongoing tensions with ISIS, which has called for a variety of controversial measures that includes drone strikes and the possibility of banning people from specific, Muslim-majority countries. In a lot of ways, foreign policy (diplomacy, war, and national security) today is regarded by some politicians and our current president as the most pressing matter, much like it was during the 60s. I find it reasonable to compare the presidents of the Vietnam War Era, Johnson and Nixon, with Trump, who is not unfamiliar to failed policies.

President Trump and President Nixon can be very difficult to compare, especially when both clearly have different personalities and advocated different policies. But if we can look past their differences, such as the showmanship of Trump (unlike Nixon) and the pro-environmental policies of Nixon (unlike Trump), we can see that Trump and Nixon share a similar leadership style that includes how they treat ideological opponents. We all know that Trump is very critical of the mainstream media, but Nixon was also very critical of the media at times. Both Nixon and Trump have had their fair share of terrible approval ratings, and both have been linked to controversy. We can even consider the political approaches of both presidents to be similar in stubbornness. On one hand, Nixon enforced policies very quietly, often going against the popular consensus (i.e., Operation Menu). On the other hand, we have Trump, a leader that speaks openly to the public, even though he might not be keeping all Americans’ needs in mind.

What was unavoidable in the Johnson administration, Nixon administration and now the Trump administration was the lack of truthfulness. The insensibility of the Johnson administration to the anti-war consensus of the public and the Machiavellian tactics of Nixon meant that the popular views of American people were frequently neglected by the federal government in the 60s, just like we are confronting with Trump, who only likes to offer his perspective on how things are. Perhaps this why Americans still find Trump to be less trustworthy than major media outlets.

What we can learn from the 1960s

As a millennial, I cannot fathom what it felt like to live in the 60s. But I do know that this was a socially-progressive period in America, a time when people spoke freely against issues and were largely successful in many ways. The political vibes of this time seem to resonate with the 60s.

It is understandable that there are people disheartened by political or social circumstances in our environment, but the traditional response to uncooperative presidents and crazed civilian activists has been to remain firmly with our values. During the 60s, mainstream society patiently expressed disdain for antithetical elements that drove social reform (i.e., Counter Culture movement) and poor policy (i.e., Vietnam and Nixon’s authoritarian tactics), which is why hippies were not able to overtake society with their ideas. We should also exercise our right to vote every time we can to avoid making bad or unethical leaders take office (of course, sometimes we cannot help but unintentionally vote the “wrong” leader to his first term in office).

Even now, when we deal with an opinionated president and politically-extreme civilians on both sides of the political spectrum, the response should be the same; but if this seems and too simple to be effective and unconvincing, then allow history to provide hope. One of the most important truths about political power we learned in the 60s is that politicians can’t overcome the force of democracy when they have demonstrated poor leadership. The bad decision-making by presidents from the 60s and early 70s lead to irreversible consequences: President Johnson did not run for a second term as his unpopularity was growing and President Nixon resigned amid the threat of impeachment. While Nixon’s temperament counterpart Trump is nowhere near as scandalous as Nixon was, it is still important to note that he is still at the mercy of the will of the people, and that is something that cannot and will not change.