The key moment in the History Channel's "1968 with Tom Brokaw" comes when Brokaw interviews my onetime colleague, the historian Alan Brinkley. Brokaw prompts Brinkley, "The left went too far, excessive in its behavior on a daily basis?" Brinkley replies, obligingly, "Well, there were excesses on the left, needless to say--" and then: Wham! Down comes the editor’s digital X-Acto knife. We don't hear the end of that sentence, nor do we hear any real historical analysis in the rest of Brokaw's two-hour film, whose secret subtitle is "How Hippies Ruined America."
The documentary rests on a sound, if familiar, premise: The critical year in modern American politics was 1968. Look back one presidential election and you see Lyndon Johnson routing Barry Goldwater, then pushing the New Deal well beyond Franklin Roosevelt’s wildest dreams. Look forward one, and you see Richard Nixon routing George McGovern, and putting paid to Roosevelt’s coalition forever.
Something happened here, and what it is is exactly clear (to contradict Buffalo Springfield, part of the shuffling troupe of rock zombies Brokaw and his producers exhume with reliable ghoulishness). And what’s more, Brokaw almost knows what it is, too. He shows the electoral map of 1968, saying if you add Nixon’s states to those won by George Wallace, you get something a bit like George W. Bush’s wins from 2000 and 2004. Nixon plus Wallace equals the modern Republican coalition, Brokaw says.
So far, so good: but then Brokaw tries to explain what brought this coalition together. He says, “Southern working-class whites deserted” the Democrats. Why? Brokaw goes to Nixon speechwriter and unbiased scholar Patrick J. Buchanan, who explains these voters were “Reagan Democrats ... they were driven out [of the Democratic Party] by what those kids and the rioters and the demonstrators and the denunciators were doin’ in the 1960s.”
It is also possible, of course, that Southern whites might have left the Democratic Party between 1964 and 1968 because the Democratic Party became, finally and after decades of vacillation, the party of African American civil rights, when a Democratic president put the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act through Congress over the resistance of the segregationists within his own party.
In other words, it is a moral certainty that race, and not the hippies, broke up the New Deal coalition. And not old, Jim Crow racism like keeping blacks from whites in public and private places alike, segregating buses, and banning interracial marriages--but new racial attitudes, like blaming African Americans for the growth of government and for the increase of lawlessness in America’s streets. On best estimates, a bit over thirty percent of the wealth transferred to poverty-struck Americans in the 1960s went to blacks--a sum that, if poor and middling whites kept it, might have increased their disposable income by under half of one percent. But the numbers didn’t matter--the symbols did, and the nonwhite poor were a startlingly effective target of white resentment. As Nixon noted privately: “It’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.” Moreover, as time has passed, those new attitudes blaming the black poor for the country’s troubles have increased in the South, and are closely tied with Republican voting.
But to Brokaw, it is about the dirty college kids--because to his dad, it was about the dirty college kids. “My working-class dad, a longtime FDR Democrat who was opposed to the war in Vietnam.... was enraged by what he had seen on television [at the Democrats' 1968 Chicago convention], enraged by the behavior of the antiwar demonstrators, the way they had flown the Vietcong flag, and taunted the police. I knew then, the Democratic Party was in real trouble.”
Brokaw swallows, uncritically, Buchanan’s line: that the protesters were “overprivileged kids [who] didn’t have any support in middle America.” For Brokaw, the clash happened between Americans of “working-class background” and college kids of, he diplomatically says, “different backgrounds.” He uses sociology worthy of David Brooks: there were “many Americas”--“one [in South Dakota], where the casualties of a controversial war were honored and mourned. And ... my new home in California, where the antiwar resistance and rebellion was fueling a massive cultural change.” In red states, parents of the dead bury their kids with flag-draped coffins and hymns; in blue states they bury their kids (if those America-hating hippies have any kids in the army) with tie-dye shirts and bong hits.
Brokaw rests too snugly in his own memories. This is how guys like him see it--but that doesn’t make it true. If you want to understand what broke up the New Deal coalition, you don’t have to think about those dirty kids, you have to think about race. If you want to understand antiwar feeling, you don’t have to think about kids, clean or dirty: you have to think about the fact that by 1968, no matter which side of thirty they were on, 48 percent of Americans thought the war was a mistake. If you want to understand what overprivileged college kids were doing in 1968, you have to notice that twice as many of them joined the largest right-wing group, Young Americans for Freedom, as joined the largest left-wing group, Students for a Democratic Society.
But Brokaw doesn't want to think past his own memories and impressions. He closes by piously saying we need to think about what’s worth saving from 1968. Judging by the film, he’s learned only one lesson, and it's the wrong one. Button up your shirt, man. And get a haircut. You look like a damn hippie.
Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author, most recently, of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America and Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America.