Politics of Symbolism
Liberalism measures a process of receding freedom, and conservatism measures a process of receding authority. Both call the expected end-result totalitarianism.
In this age of tantrum-driven “Crossfire”-style punditry and (to use Jon Stewart’s term) “partisan hackery,” Michael Flamm proves to be a surprisingly even-handed, cool-headed critic of both right-and left-wing politics. On the one hand, Flamm re-constructs the way in which Nixon conservatives, in the 1967-68 election season, endlessly parroted their commitment to “law and order,” tactfully playing on Heartland America’s fears and prejudices; however, as Flamm’s intensively researched study progresses, one could easily conclude that the combined LBJ/Humphrey defeat in 1968 was largely self-engineered—having embarked on a four-year course of dishonesty and miscalculation that began soon after the 1964 election.
By 1967, rising crime in the U.S. was beginning to capture the public’s attention, and became an even greater middle-class concern than the unpopular, but physically distant Vietnam War. Television, the same medium that brought the horrors of the Vietnam conflict into the public consciousness, also tweaked the public’s fears concerning the wars in the streets of America’s cities. To make matters worse, the U.S. television and print media’s cherry-picked news coverage helped put a distinctly black face on crime. Conservatives were convinced that increased rights for criminals and liberal tolerance of civil disobedience were the causes of urban disorder; the Johnson administration decided poverty and unemployment were the root causes of crime, and thus began slinging federal chump change in the direction of the nearest urban ghetto.
Flamm points to the rise of juvenile delinquency in the late 1950s and early ‘60s as an important factor in the rioting and street violence that became commonplace by 1967. He also emphasizes the role integration and the Civil Rights movement in driving Dixiecrats out of the voting process altogether, or toward the made-in-redneck-heaven ticket of George Wallace and Curtis LeMay. Surprisingly though, there’s no mention of the earliest (and bloodiest) riots that kicked off the raucous post-JFK 1960s: the hyper-violent anti-integration riots in Mississippi and Alabama, which sparked a backlash among frustrated African Americans who no longer saw Martin Luther King’s non-violence as a viable option.
Flamm eventually pieces together an all-too familiar scenario in which scheming conservatives (barely) triumph over befuddled Dems via mantra-like repetition of easily digestible sound-bites; and in 1968, same as 1980 or 2004, the GOP did possess an uncanny ability to portray craven weasels as infallible warrior-king uber-mensch. Flamm traces the Nixonian catch-phrase “law and order” as it shapes up as an obvious precursor to the modern conservative “talking point;” it’s the blueprint for much of today’s hyper-repetitive Fox Newspeak and Frank Luntz-style sloganeering. You’ll find variants of the “law and order” template in everything from familiar loaded terms like “tax relief” and “activist judges” to the reality-bending GOP spin involved in fashioning a certain NYC mayor and U.S. president into “heroes” for, presumably, little more than holding office during a major terrorist attack.
Extremist anti-integration candidates like Cold War paranoiac Barry Goldwater, and later, George Wallace, believed that mandatory integration was a natural recipe for violence, and denounced the “communist” co-conspirators thought to be funding the Civil Rights movement. “Moderate” right-wingers like Reagan and Nixon would absorb the spirit of the white-supremacist Goldwater/Wallace philosophies, yet manage to fashion a comparatively race-neutral message that had wider appeal.
As Flamm authoritatively explains, Nixon utilized generic father-figure phraseology—the “law and order” and “freedom from fear”-themed showboating—and spread a simple, one-sided message that resonated just enough with blue-collar Caucasians and the storied “silent majority.” Meanwhile LBJ, Hubert Humphrey and their stable of nice-guy “Best and Brightest” advisors got mired in the swampy middle ground between authoritarianism and liberalism—an indistinct gray area that inevitably makes for inarticulate political platforms (just ask hapless Gore/Kerry-advisor Bob Shrum). And as it happened, the same shrewd manipulations of language that helped fell the linguistically deficient liberal ticket in 2004 also aided in vanquishing the Dems way back in 1968.
However, beyond the superficial politicking of both parties, could there be found any clear-cut recurring motif in the major urban riots of the 1960s? Was urban violence, as conservatives charged, caused by unrealistic expectations brought on by LBJ’s Great Society and the Civil Rights movement? When Flamm’s clear exposition has worked it’s simple magic, you’re left with a persistently obvious impression of what lay at the center of the riots: racism and police brutality. Although Flamm is careful to avoid partisanship, it’s hard to argue with the facts he uncovers from under all the detached gamesmanship of presidential politics. The major riots of the mid-to-late-1960s were all prefaced by official (but historically downplayed) incidences of police brutality, social injustice, or other discriminatory actions against African Americans. Minority communities may have made some economic strides in places like Newark and Detroit, but as Flamm notes, “lacked an equitable share of political power.”
Flamm also exposes and dissects a tottering Johnson administration, which risked its political future on grandiose promises, both at home and abroad: the Great Society, the War on Crime, the War on Poverty, the War in Vietnam. But LBJ, from the beginning, was powerless to keep order in American cities, which were traditionally outside the primary jurisdiction of federal crime-control. Instead, from Newark to LA, national guardsmen and police acted upon orders from state and civic authorities—many of these higher-ups being openly racist, or at least unsympathetic to the Civil Rights movement. You’ve got a pre-Daryl Gates LAPD chief referring to inner city demonstrators as “monkeys in a cage.” Then-governor Ronald Reagan and many other high-profile white political leaders routinely characterized inner-city (read: black) neighborhoods as the “jungle.” It doesn’t take a genius code-breaker to translate such “secret” messages as these. And of course, anyone familiar with Nixon’s “off the record” litany of race-related remarks knows that Tricky Dick wasn’t, at heart, exceptionally sympathetic to integration.
And if certain origins of urban violence in the ‘60s were swept under the rug of history, Flamm helps demystify the paradoxical role Johnson played in this large-scale hush campaign. A telling example of LBJ’s uneasy relationship with reality was his ordering and subsequent rejection of the Kerner Commission’s investigative report on rioting in America. The commission found discrimination and white racism to blame for the violence—a conclusion too controversial for Johnson to embrace. The equivocal LBJ found himself facing a classic Hobson’s Choice—he needed to retain the black vote, but without alienating the white South. So LBJ instead embraced the lame-duck issue of gun control as a counter to the conservatives’ hard-line “Law and Order” militancy. Here again, the liberal tendency toward wishy-washy centrism would prove disastrous: as Flamm puts it, “Once again, liberals were unable to draw meaningful distinctions between race and crime, crime and riots, civil disobedience and civil disorder, lawful and unlawful protest.”
In the end, both Nixon and Johnson could only muster, at best, a militaristic siege mentality to deal with rioting and violence. Their anti-crime policies, as Flamm concludes, were strangely similar, and both would apply similarly superficial remedies to the gaping wounds opened all across America’s urban ghettos. And of course, as the 1970s progressed, secret Cambodian bombings, ever-escalating crime in the U.S. streets, and the Watergate scandal would prove how phony Nixon’s commitment to “law and order” always was. As this just-the-facts study suggests, buried beneath all this right- and left-wing symbolic maneuvering were ugly social realities affecting real people—and given the dismal voter turnout in ‘68, it was an America that neither party had much in common with.