Chapter 1: 1963 1 1963
The assassination of Kennedy
In the mid-1960s, at a moment of deceptively permanent-looking prosperity, the country’s most energetic and ideological leaders made a bid to reform the United States along lines more just and humane. They rallied to various loosely linked moral crusades, of which the civil rights movement, culminating in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, provided the model. Women entered jobs and roles that had been male preserves. Sex came untethered from both tradition and prudery. Immigrants previously unwanted in the United States were welcomed and even recruited. On both sides of the clash over the Vietnam War, thinkers and politicians formulated ambitious plans for the use of American power.
Most people who came of age after the 1960s, if asked what that decade was “about,” will respond with an account of these crusades, structured in such a way as to highlight the moral heroism of the time. That is only natural. For two generations, “the sixties” has given order to every aspect of the national life of the United States—its partisan politics, its public etiquette, its official morality.
This is a book about the crises out of which the 1960s order arose, the means by which it was maintained, and the contradictions at its heart that, by the time of the presidential election of 2016, had led a working majority of Americans to view it not as a gift but as an oppression.
The assassination of Kennedy
The era we think of as the sixties began with relative suddenness around the time of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Americans are right to say that nothing was ever the same after Kennedy was shot. You can hear the change in popular music over a matter of months. A year-and-a-half before Kennedy was killed, “Stranger on the Shore,” a drowsy instrumental by the British clarinetist Acker Bilk, had hit number one. A year-and-a-half after the assassination, the musicians who would form Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and various other druggie blues and folk-rock bands were playing their first gigs together in San Francisco.
This does not mean that the assassination “caused” the decade’s cultural upheaval. The months before Kennedy’s death had already seen the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (August 1962), which upended notions about science’s solidity and a lot of social and political assumptions built on it; Rachel Carson’s exposé of pesticides, Silent Spring (September 1962); and The Feminine Mystique (February 1963), Betty Friedan’s attack on what she saw as the vapidity of well-to-do housewives’ existence. Something was going to happen.
The two conflicts that did most to define the American 1960s—those over racial integration and the war in Vietnam—were already visible. In October 1962, rioting greeted attempts to enforce a Supreme Court decision requiring the segregated University of Mississippi to enroll its first black student, James Meredith. The last summer of Kennedy’s life ended with an unprecedented March on Washington by 200,000 civil rights activists. Three weeks before Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem was ousted and then murdered in a coup that Kennedy had authorized.
Kennedy’s death, though, gave a tremendous impetus to changes already under way. Often peoples react to a political assassination, as if by collective instinct, with a massive posthumous retaliation. They memorialize a martyred leader by insisting on (or assenting to) a radicalized version, a sympathetic caricature, of the views they attribute to him. The example most familiar to Americans came in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, when the country passed constitutional reforms far broader than those Lincoln himself had sought: not only a Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery but also a broad Fourteenth Amendment, with its more general and highly malleable guarantees of equal protection and due process.
Something similar happened in the 1960s. A welfare state expanded by Medicare and Medicaid, the vast mobilization of young men to fight the Vietnam War, but, above all, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts—these were all memorials to a slain ruler, resolved in haste over a few months in 1964 and 1965 by a people undergoing a delirium of national grief. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was able to take ideas for civil rights legislation, languishing in the months before Kennedy’s death, and cast them in a form more uncompromising than Kennedy could have imagined.
Civil rights ideology, especially when it hardened into a body of legislation, became, most unexpectedly, the model for an entire new system of constantly churning political reform. Definitions of what was required in the name of justice and humanity broadened. Racial integration turned into the all-embracing ideology of diversity. Women’s liberation moved on to a reconsideration of what it meant to be a woman (and, eventually, a man). Immigration became grounds for reconsidering whether an American owed his primary allegiance to his country or whether other forms of belonging were more important. Anti-communist military adventures gave way, once communism began to collapse in 1989, to a role for the United States as the keeper of the whole world’s peace, the guarantor of the whole world’s prosperity, and the promulgator and enforcer of ethical codes for a new international order, which was sometimes called the “global economy.”
There was something irresistible about this movement. The moral prestige and practical resources available to the American governing elite as it went about reordering society were almost limitless. Leaders could draw not just on the rage and resolve that followed Kennedy’s death but also on the military and economic empire the United States had built up after World War II; on the organizational know-how accumulated in its corporations and foundations; on the Baby Boom, which, as the end of the twentieth century approached, released into American society a surge of manpower unprecedented in peacetime; and, finally, on the self-assurance that arose from all of these things.
The reforms of the sixties, however, even the ones Americans loved best and came to draw part of their national identity from, came with costs that proved staggeringly high—in money, freedom, rights, and social stability. Those costs were spread most unevenly among social classes and generations. Many Americans were left worse off by the changes. Economic inequality reached levels not seen since the age of the nineteenth-century monopolists. The scope for action conferred on society’s leaders allowed elite power to multiply steadily and, we now see, dangerously, sweeping aside not just obstacles but also dissent.
At some point in the course of the decades, what had seemed in 1964 to be merely an ambitious reform revealed itself to have been something more. The changes of the 1960s, with civil rights at their core, were not just a major new element in the Constitution. They were a rival constitution, with which the original one was frequently incompatible—and the incompatibility would worsen as the civil rights regime was built out. Much of what we have called “polarization” or “incivility” in recent years is something more grave—it is the disagreement over which of the two constitutions shall prevail: the de jure constitution of 1788, with all the traditional forms of jurisprudential legitimacy and centuries of American culture behind it; or the de facto constitution of 1964, which lacks this traditional kind of legitimacy but commands the near-unanimous endorsement of judicial elites and civic educators and the passionate allegiance of those who received it as a liberation. The increasing necessity that citizens choose between these two orders, and the poisonous conflict into which it ultimately drove the country, is what this book describes.