Building the Perfect Echo Chamber: The 1970s and Political Discourse in the 21st Century

Just before Bob Dylan breaks into “Like a Rolling Stone” on his 1966 Wembley Hall Bootleg series album, one audience member yells “sell out” while another cries “Judas” — both references to Dylan’s famous transformation from earnest urban folkie to ironic electric hipster. Dylan growls into the microphone, “I don’t believe you,” then as several moments pass by bellows, “You’re a liar!” As the band cranks into the song, you can clearly hear an angry Dylan scream “Play it fucking loud!” Ten years later, during his Rolling Thunder Revue (1975), a crowd member sarcastically begged Dylan “to play a protest song.” The audience laughed and Dylan and the Band ripped into “Oh, Sister.” Not quite the ideological heights of 1966.

Regardless of one’s musical preferences, one can agree the career of Bob Dylan spans several decades, often reflecting the currents of the time. If the 1966 concertgoers mirrored the self-righteous sincerity of the 1960s, Dylan’s jaded ironic 1975 audience epitomized the kind of altered consciousness of the decade that followed. As Bruce Schulman has noted,“[s]eventies sensibility then offered a kind of antidote to the melodrama of Sixties sensibility, an antidote devised by a generation of youth just plain sick and tired of being told how they missed out on the glory days.” (158) In many ways, the 1970s laid the groundwork for the mi x of ambivalence and divisiveness that have come to characterize late 20th century and early 21st century American life. Swaying between ironic indifference and froth mouthed partisanship, it would seem Americans either check out completely or are compelled to descend into sharp divide.

For those born in the latter half of the 1970s, for much of our lives, Republicans and the New Right seemed to be the driving force in American political and cultural life. Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton (zing! Ok, not fair, but undoubtedly Clinton’s agenda was heavily influenced by Reaganite philosophies that even former members of the New Left felt obligated to adopt or engage) and both Bushes served as presidents for the vast majority of Generation Xers’ lives. It would be foolhardy to claim that it had no effect; my own understanding – and I suspect others born within a similar time frame – was colored by this experience. From birth to adulthood, America appeared to be center right, conventional, big business oriented, and increasingly privatized. Culturally, outside of L.A., NY, San Francisco, and a handful of other U.S. cities, America seemed more invested in conservatism than the avant garde or bohemianism.

Of course, this view ignores the long trajectory of 20th century political history. In fact, for decades the New Right appeared an unattractive aberration to the largely Democrat-led consensus governments that ruled throughout much of the postwar period. From some vantage points, the 1970s appear liberal to a fault. Even looking at the high school yearbooks of some of my older high school teaching colleagues revealed a very different America from the one most of Generation X experienced. One of my coworkers shared her early 1970s yearbook with me pointing out thinly veiled pot jokes – the kind that would have earned me a suspension in the 1980s or 90s- and odd sexual innuendo. Politically, both presidents Nixon and Carter seriously considered decriminalization and even legalization of cannabis. While the medical marijuana issue continues to gain converts, for much of the 1980s and 1990s, the drug remained an anathema. Three relatively new books examine how, as Professor Alex Cummings related in an email to the author, “white, straight, homogeneous, New Deal-era American culture began to fragment in the 60s and 70s”: Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, John McMillian’s Smoking Typewriters, and Edmund White’s City Boy.

If one wanted to think about this more simply (like primate simply), consider popular culture. Children coming of age in the 1980s had St. Elmo’s Fire, Wall Street, Ordinary People, and The Breakfast Club. Adolescents and adults of the 1970s had Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider (okay, not quite the 1970s but pretty damn close), Chinatown, and Breaking Away. So what happened? How did a country that appeared worried about endemic corruption (Chinatown) and viewed the promise of the American dream warily (Easy Rider/Five Easy Pieces) become a nation of navel gazing yuppies (St. Elmo’s Fire/Breakfast Club) that only occasionally deemed the actions of big business as nefarious (Wall Street)?

Certainly, economic shifts of the 1970s had a deep effect on American culture and politics. As T of M has explored, many historians trace the shift to the early 1970s connecting deindustrialization, the end of Fordism, stagflation, government corruption and a brutal energy crisis as the driving forces of this change. In addition, the rise of New Right figures such as Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, and Bill Kristol harnessed a right wing movement, once populated by John Birchers and anti-Semites, into a political juggernaut that would dominate the country’s politics in the last third of the century. Yet, by the 21st century, the conservative movement of the 1970s no longer satisfied modern day right-wingers. Richard Nixon would probably struggle to win a Republican primary today, let alone a national election. Where did this shift begin? How did the “Silent Majority” emerge? Who were they responding too? What countervailing forces affected it? What about those who placed themselves outside the suburban Silent Majority, who chose to reside in New York City, the epitome of 1970s decline?

Nixon and Smoking Typewriters

Nixonland: it is the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans … Nixonland is what happens when these two groups try to occupy a country together. By the end of the 1960s, Nixonland came to encompass the entire political culture of the United States. It would define it, in fact, for the next fifty years. (Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, 46-47)

Modern day America, if one were to oversimplify, often seems split between those who watch Fox and those who watch MSNBC . I guess everybody else watches CNN or more likely just doesn’t pay attention. “The parties have reorganized themselves along ideological lines, as white conservatives have abandoned the Democrats and northern liberals the Republicans,” a recent Economist article observed. “The ideological factions have built mighty propaganda machines stretching from Washington think tanks to the studios of Fox and MSNBC. And ideologues have resorted to previously taboo weapons, such as the threat of default.” How we got here is the subject of Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.

The value of Nixonland lies in Perlstein’s ability to contextualize Nixon within the zeitgeist of late 1960s and early 1970s America. In reality, Nixon was less ideologue than political operator. According to Perlstein, Nixon’s main interest lay in foreign policy. In Tricky Dick’s mind , domestic politics served as little more than political theatre. Speaking to Theodore White Nixon once opined, “I’ve always thought the country could run itself domestically without a president.” (393) However, Nixon utilized the stage as few others. In language eerily reminiscent of today, Nixon castigated the “liberal media,” gave cultural but not economic recognition to the working class, and critiqued anti-war protesters and others by claiming their work emboldened the enemy. Take Nixon aid Bob Haldeman, for instance, telling Barbara Walters on the Today show that “Democrats still opposing the president were aiding and abetting the enemy of the U.S.” Nixon followed this up shortly after arguing that Democratic opposition regarding his decisions in Vietnam, “might give the enemy an incentive to prolong the war after the election.” (623) Sound familiar?

Perlstein portrays the late 1960s and early 1970s as a rapid fracturing of the American public. The Vietnam War, leftist and rightist radicalism, and a faltering economy combined to place strain on the very seams of public life. Though many writers highlight the violence of the extreme left like the Weatherman, Perlstein points out, far right extremists employed similar tactics just as frequently but the media reported on these events far less frequently. Perlstein illustrates how a chastened media felt compelled to represent America’s great middle classes more equally. When journalists critiqued Mayor Daley’s handling of the 1968 Democratic Convention, letters poured in chastising the media and praising the aggression of the Chicago Police Force. When in 1972 National Guardsmen shot dead four Kent State University students, citizens opposing the student protests provided their own response. “I extend appreciation and whole hearted support of the Guard of every state for their fine efforts in protecting citizens like me and our property,” wrote one. Another lamented “When is the long suffering Silent Majority going to rise up?” A local resident speaking to a researcher uttered a common feeling for many of the period. “Anyone who appears on the streets of a city like Kent with long hair, dirty clothes, or barefooted deserves to be shot,” related the Kent City citizen. (489) Letters and responses greatly circumscribed media coverage in the decades that followed. Nixon successfully exploited this hostility.

Contrary to popular belief, youth movements of the day were not dominated entirely by leftists. At Queens College, where radicals “rampaged” through the library and occupied administration buildings, another conservative group referred to as the Students Coalition held a sit in in the registrar’s office in order to protest the “college president’s failure to call the police to evict the students occupying the administration building.” (380) Similar scenes unfolded on other campuses as well. As Perlstein points out, the Left did not monopolize youth. Roger Ailes, Pat Buchanan, Ron Ziegler, and others were only in their mid to late twenties when Nixon plucked them from obscurity.

Of course, while the mainstream press seemed fixated on the antics of leftists, left leaning editors and writers in what became know as the Underground Press (UP) purposely sought to make waves. In Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, John McMillian explores the milieu of radical journalists and publishers of the period. McMillian tracks the initial emergence of radical newspapers like the Free Press (Los Angeles), the Rag (Austin, Texas), Berkeley Barb (take a guess) and the Paper (East Lansing, Michigan aka Michigan State), noting that in the very early stages each operated in isolation from one another, a symbol of the very uncoordinated leftism that emerged in the mid 1960s and early 1970s.

However, with the establishment of Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) and the Liberation News Service (LNS) all that changed. For McMillian, the underground press played a vital role in institutionalizing the New Left: “Although historians are fond of referring to an overarching ‘youth community’ in the 1960s, before the advent of the underground press, the youth revolt was marked more by fragmentation than cohesion.” (McMillian, 73) Though UPS came first and provided much needed organization, the LNS proved even more influential. “A kind of radical alternative to the Associated Press,” McMillian writes, “LNS aimed to centralize news gathering and dissemination in the underground media.” (83) The ability of LNS to distribute materials widely served as critical factors when reporting on major protest events like the 1968 Columbia University Revolts.

Though the journalistic practices of some UP writers remain questionable, they nonetheless highlighted aspects of protest that New York Times an others ignored or purposely obscured. Moreover, the UP projected a culture that united readers. “Underground newspapers functioned as vital institutional bases for radical political and aesthetic communities,” McMillian argues. “In their pages, they replicated the creativity, zaniness, humor – and otherworldliness – of the youth movement at large.” (81) Through their influence, the world of alternative weeklies developed soon after, often eschewing the kind of politics the UP celebrated but clearly shaped by the UP’s successes and failures. Without the UP, publications like the Chicago Reader probably would not exist.

Considering the level of paranoia that pervaded both the Left and the Right in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the UP’s radical take on political affairs had to rankle and frighten many a conservative. In all likelihood, the promotion of Marxism and bohemian lifestyles did little to ease the fears of the Silent Majority. The fact that many writers and UG editors professed a desire to shake things up only added to the tensions that had been mounting.

City Life

During this period, few sites elicited trepidation like cities. Many of the UPs developed on college campuses or in urban settings. McMillian acknowledges this development, noting, “many of the ideas that gave rise to New Left journalism had an important material context – they were generated in urban spaces.” (36) Moreover, while many fled cities for the suburbs, others took solace in the caverns of metropolises like New York City. In his 2008 memoir, City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ‘70s, Edmund White recounts his own experiences, recasting New York as a space of danger but also artistic and social ferment:

It is difficult to convey the intensity and confusion in our minds back then in the sixties and early seventies as we tried to reconcile two incompatible tendencies – a dandified belief in the avant-garde with a utopian New Left dedication to social justice, both of which in my case could be overruled by an admiration of the simple humanity of the Great Russians or Singer. Looking back now, I’d say that because we were Americans emerging from the stultifying 1950s, we were extraordinarily naïve about both politics and esthetics – humorless, unseasoned, dogmatic – because untested. (White, 38)

White’s memoir reveals the complexities of identity for those the Silent Majority deemed unworthy. White’s homosexuality would have clearly stigmatized him among the suburban masses that Nixon attempted to woo through naked patriotic tropes. “Not that concepts like ‘patriotism’ meant anything to me,” White recalls. “As a gay man I didn’t think that I was American or that I belonged to a society worth defending … I felt powerless to affect national policy, and I also knew that any policy might be devised by any government present or future would contain a clause condemning me as a homosexual.” (24) As White notes later, it was to the city they felt devoted, a city that nurtured the artistic creativity and sexuality of himself and others: “Perversely, we were proud to be New Yorkers but not Americans.” (211) As a native Midwesterner, White came from the very stock that made up the Silent Majority. However, despite his own origins, White claimed that Midwestern transplants like himself were the only ones who truly loved the city. As White recounts, 1970s, New York “was so shoddy, so dangerous, so black and Puerto Rican, that the rest of white America pulled up its skirts and ran off in the opposite direction.” (210) Ignoring White’s gendering, the longtime literary critic and author represents a central irony of the “Silent Majority”. Its dissidents, self perceived outcasts like White – whether due to sexuality, political beliefs, or other like factors – provided the very life blood to the nation’s symbol of urban decay. Throughout City Boy, White continually returns to this theme. For White, “no one loved New York except us, the gay and the artsy misfits from the Midwest.” (210)

If many Americans portrayed New York as a city of negative energy filled with malcontents, criminals, and angry minorities occupying public spaces White saw it differently. Clearly, White agrees with Perlstein’s assertions regarding violence. “Suburbia, television, and the automobile had isolated everyone – perhaps a good thing in such a potentially violent country.” (224) Still, also like Perlstein, White points to the kind of mindset that befell American suburbanites, people in gated communities “miles away from the nearest ghetto” so petrified they fortified their homes with weapons or karate training. In fact, despite White’s own proximity to the alleged urban trouble spots, “it was precisely in those places that were the safest that the sheltered populations most often expected imminent violence.” (224) To be fair, White himself acknowledges that simmering tensions in New York meant that by the late 1970s, the 1977 blackout revealed “how racially divided we were, how much anger seethed just below the surface, how rapacious and every man for himself we’d become.” (225). The larger point here is how fear and anger had pervaded the nation especially in places where violence and protest seemed a distant possibility.

Whether Perlstein hangs this on Nixon or simply positions him as a knowing conduit through which fear and anger could be broadcast remains less important than the fact that regardless of where it originated, the divisions that seem so stark today emerged then. If Bob Dylan’s sarcastic ironic audience of 1975 seemed comfortably ambivalent, other citizens felt anxiety ridden and furious. Vietnam, assassinations (Bobby Kennedy, MLK to name only two), campus protests, Kent State, the 1968 DNC, various rights movements, and the resentments of the “Silent Majority” collided. In the years that followed, Americans increasingly placed themselves in camps that operated like political and cultural echo chambers. John McMillian’s Underground Press at the outset provided the New Left with a vehicle for a clarion call of beliefs that initially won converts, but soon after devolved into the very echo chambers that plague public discourse today. Responses to recent events such as the London Riots illustrate this tension as Conservatives harnessed arguments that blamed the riots on immorality and a bureaucratic nanny state, while liberals portrayed all rioters as victims who simply needed more government intervention. The best remedy to these issues is probably something between the two poles: one that accounts for law and order, but also provides social and economic measures that address poverty and racism. Unfortunately, when the only voice you hear is an echo of your own, real solutions become that much harder to divine.

Ryan Reft