Rand Paul and Richard Blumenthal: Evidence of the Sixties' Hold on Society?

Obama promised post-Baby Boomer politics. Did he deliver?

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Is American politics still struggling with the sixties? Matt Bai of The New York Times believes so. Spurred by recent controversies involving Republican senate candidate Rand Paul's quasi-segregationist comments and Democratic senate primary candidate Richard Blumenthal's Vietnam record--or lack thereof--Bai wrote Tuesday about a "vortex that pulls us inexorably back to the 1960s." Though Obama campaigned on a new era free of Baby Boomer divides, "here we are two years later," observed Bai, "arguing over Vietnam and segregation." He thinks it's partly because of "our basic tendency toward moral clarity," clarity being a scarce commodity once the "neat and satisfying" choices of the last generation were over:

Implicit in the president's vow to move us beyond the obsolescence of ’60s politics was the idea that he would replace it with something else, that he would reframe the debate of the 21st century in a way that would make our choices as a society seem clearer and more interconnected.

He hasn't, or at least not to this point. And without that modern framework there is only an absence, the familiar vortex that keeps pulling us back to things we had hoped to leave behind.

Not everyone agrees with Bai, though.

  • Bad Examples, but '60s Still Resonate  "It's been a few weeks since anyone's written a why-are-we-still-fighting-over-the-1960s article," explains Philadelphia Daily News' Will Bunch, dismissively. He mocks Bai's connection of "two seemingly unrelated--no, scratch that, they really are unrelated--events" such as the Paul and Blumenthal controversies, and suggests this is merely "the excuse they've been waiting for! A Democrat and a Republican--balance!" He himself thinks the '60s remain important, but that these aren't the best examples of it. Nor does he take Bai's view of the reason behind the prominence of '60s politics. Instead, he suggests "people in this generation carrying vivid memories of the 1960s just have more time for politics," whether because of retirement or unemployment, and that the '60s also "resonate" because they were the tipping point for a number of class shifts.
  • Real Question Is Why 'War and Racism Persist'?  Ira Chernus at AlterNet is equally skeptical of Bai's argument. "Political issues were just as complicated in the '60s as they are today--and just as simple," he argues. "Today's really pressing debates about war are the same as the debates we were having in the '60s:  Should we be sending our troops to kill and die in someone else's civil war halfway around the world?" He reframes the driving question: "It's not 'Why does the political debate of the '60s persist?', but 'Why do war and racism persist?' With nearly half a century of eloquent pleas for peace and justice -- and penetrating analyses of our failure to achieve them -- behind us, why are we still fighting the same political battles against these obvious societal wrongs?"
  • Blumenthal's Not a Controversy, but Paul Is  Mark Schmitt, writing for liberal publication The American Prospect, thinks Bai is muddying waters with "a trite premise backed up by weasel phrases like "inclined to assume" and "lingering bitterness," with not even a passing attempt to adduce empirical evidence to back them up."
  • The Sixties Are Here, but For a Different Reason  David Paul Kuhn makes an argument similar to Bai's at Real Clear Politics. But he places the cause of our '60s preoccupation elsewhere: "The conflicts of the sixties are still with us, in part, because those who fought the battles are still with us. But ultimately these fights concern honor. And honor concerns character, the currency of leadership. Little is more precious in politics." He also notes that both Blumenthal and Paul "will still likely become senators," pointing again to interesting divisions:
Imagine the states reversed. It's impossible to conceive of Connecticut electing a senator who questioned the Civil Rights Act. It's equally unimaginable that Kentucky would elect a senator who lied about his Vietnam War record ... Today, we tend to take refuge in an airbrushed American story. We want to believe in consensus. That we now honor civil rights. That we now honor our veterans. That America has moved on.
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