The Day After: 1964

The Day After: 1964

Day After: Mark Greif – Is This 1964?

IN THE television coverage of Barack Obama’s electoral victory, pollsters and strategists kept invoking an unexpected year: 1964. This was the pier that number-crunchers threw a line to in an effort to anchor Obama’s election to the recent American past. In coming days, they promised, a thorough breakdown of voting numbers would reveal what had really happened, how voting patterns had gone, and whether a historic realignment had occurred. But in the midst of qualifications and presentiments a kind of intuitive connection seemed available to these specialists that the rest of us wouldn’t possess. Nineteen sixty-four, the last year a Democratic candidate won Virginia. Nineteen sixty-four, the last time a Democratic candidate had so large a share of the popular vote.

I think 1964 looms large in the consciousness of Obama’s victory for other reasons, which have nothing to do with the vote. Something remains in the story of Obama’s triumph that can shape a fantasy of our American twenty-first century as another chance at the late twentieth century with certain segments of our past sliced out. Nineteen sixty-four is the year of Barry Goldwater’s ill-fated campaign for the presidency, thus also the year from which the rise of modern conservatism is often dated. The year when the grassroots supporters of Goldwater’s anti-tax and anti-government ideology, which had seemed so lunatic in the context of a mid-1960s welfare state consensus, built networks in defeat that led to the Reagan Revolution 16 years later. Could we recover a liberalism after four decades of conservative ideology and safely expel its post-Goldwater innovations?

Nineteen sixty-four represents a date when identity was still racial and integrationist–before the violent turns of the late 1960s and the 1972 McGovern vision of an “ethnic” and pluralistic Democratic Party, which has seemed to many a source of its weakness at different points in the decades since. Nineteen sixty-four means the 1960s without Vietnam and division. It means a politics still oriented toward progress (judged economically), toward the coming Great Society, and not toward liberation (something Obama has been willing to soft-pedal with his strategic dismissal of full gay marriage). And 1964, to confront the weirdest but most visceral dimension of this fantasy, would have been the year of Kennedy’s re-election, had he not been killed; as if Obama were really Kennedy returned, but racially colored in by the civil rights movement JFK did not do quite enough to advance, and as if Michelle were Jacqueline, and the two little daughters were John-John and Caroline, moving into the White House. “We have,” this story seems to suggest, “another chance.”

We really don’t. There are all sorts of analogies to history floating around at the present moment. One that I will confess attracts me is the 1932 analogy, in which a massive economic collapse is the only thing that allows the U.S. government to break through disastrous laissez-faire and create essential forms of social insurance for which generations of Americans will be grateful, ever after—indeed, which they won’t be able to imagine life without. But these analogies make the task of this moment look easier than it is. There is an obligation, with a Democrat in the White House and Democratic majorities in the Congress, to figure out what we on the left should want, right now. An underlying imagination of 1964 or 1932 would suggest that we want the past back—without acknowledging the fundamental shifts made by modern conservatism in American thought, and without acknowledging that liberation is still the rogue element whose value and consequences the left can’t quite get straight.

The thing that excites me most, truthfully, is the possibility that black political thought will have to come back into our conception of what it is right to ask for and how we should ask. I say this not because I think Obama will practice anything like black thought. I’m not sure it has ever come into our politics at the presidential level. But, unexpectedly, insofar as there is a coherent political and intellectual line which runs through Douglass and DuBois and Ellison and King and Malcolm X and Morrison—a line which assumes the existence of distant global relatives whom one will never recover or know; which assumes that restriction by circumstances, and not natural liberty, is the starting point for every American life; which accepts that the poor are not losers and unfortunates in a neutral system, but as much a part of the natural community as the feet are part of the body—it might be the grounding for the new social institutions of our moment, especially when it comes to a better stance toward the globe. And thanks to an accidental complexity of Obama’s parentage—very un-JFK-like, and previously unknown to the Oval Office—this racially-inflected form of a universal politics, which was somehow drawn away from us by the schisms of the late sixties, may be back on the table.

Mark Greif is co-editor of n+1 and teaches literature at the New School.

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