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The Failure of Conservatism Belongs to Conservatives

President Bush’s Veterans Day Speech, when he claimed critics of the war in Iraq “send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will,” set the Republican strategy dealing with the failure of neoconservative policy in Iraq. Dick Cheney and company, making the rounds on Sunday talk shows and stump speeches, are taking a page from the playbook of the right wing during the Vietnam era. Wrongheaded policies and indigenous resistance resulted in a resounding defeat for the United States in Southeast Asia. However, the right blamed the peace movement—which was completely ridiculous. Our popular history might claim the 1960s were a decade of liberal excesses but conservatives ultimately had the last laugh. Now, the same thing is happening.

I have always been taught a simple history. The 1960s were a triumphant decade for the left. According to the popular narrative, progressives gained an unprecedented amount of power in politics and society. Thinking they should be proud of this legacy, leftists from the 1960s joined with conservatives to spread this tall tale. That’s why most books about the 1960s are either written by conservatives or extreme leftists like Tom Hayden.

However, the left wasn’t nearly as powerful as people claim. In fact, conservative political movements won many more victories than the left during the 1960s. In electoral politics, the career of Richard Nixon is a good illustration of how the Republican Party moved rightward. After losing numerous elections as a moderate, Nixon eventually reinvented himself as a fire breathing conservative who would restore “law and order.” In contrast, the left never elected anyone president. The most liberal candidate of that era, George McGovern, only managed to win one state and 17 electoral votes. Clearly, the left did not obtain significant political power during the 1960s.

The right blamed the left for everything bad that happened during that tumultuous decade. Eager to claim a false measure of political power, even as conservatives consolidated control over government, leftists have helped foster this myth.

Some might claim progress made in areas of racial and gender equality were products of left-wing activism. However, this is inaccurate. While some black leaders received support from leftist institutions, the left cannot claim ownership over the entire civil rights movement. It was the actions of ordinary people, sick of being oppressed by white supremacy, which loosened the chains of racial oppression. Those who claim otherwise border on both racism and naiveté. An entire generation of freedom fighters cannot be reduced to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

Why are leftists often given responsibility for the social movements of the 1960s and where did this idea come from? The answer is counterintuitive in some ways. Despite the current narrative offered by some on the left, very little about the political culture of the 1960s should be celebrated. It was not a time of progressive triumph. Corporate profits soared, but the purchasing power of regular workers actually decreased significantly. Thousands of young Americans were fighting and dying in Vietnam, while many more embraced a responsibility-free lifestyle of drugs and sexual promiscuity. Growing economic insecurity and profoundly anti-social behavior by many young people troubled mainstream America. Despite what Jane Fonda might claim, it was not a time when freedom and justice expanded for most people. Instead, it was a moment when hardship increased. Out of touch and oftentimes in a drug induced haze, the privileged leaders of the campus left were blind to the hardships faced by most Americans.

The greatest trick ever performed by conservatives was avoiding responsibility for their destructive policies at home and abroad. Instead of trying to deal with the real problems of the 1960s, like the impossibility of winning the war in Vietnam, right-wing politicians and pundits blew the menace of Abbie Hoffman and his ragged band of radicals’ way out of proportion. It became so overblown that many people half-expected hippies and Weathermen to invade every town across America. The right blamed the left for everything bad that happened during that tumultuous decade. Eager to claim a false measure of political power, even as conservatives consolidated control over government, leftists have helped foster this myth.

Now, the modern conservative movement has taken a page from the same playbook. Michael Moore, Howard Dean, and any other person without a Ronald Regan poster on their wall are currently being blamed for everything that has gone wrong during President Bush’s presidency. Anti-war protesters are responsible for the death of soldiers in Iraq. Labor unions are blamed for the outsourcing and downsizing. Victims of Hurricane Katrina and the incompetent response of the federal government are blamed for being poor. We are living in a political culture that has rendered irony meaningless.

Progressives would be smart to learn the often overlooked lesson of the 1960s—the failure of right-wing international and domestic policies should be blamed on conservative ideology, not the imagined power of oppositional movements.

Ben Waxman is a student studying politics at Juniata College.