What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy

Reviewed by Peter

Edward P. Morgan, What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010)

Have you ever wondered why generations that grew up in America after the 1960s have such a distorted view of what took place during that time period? Or, more generally, how we got to where we are in America today? If you are like me and came of age in the 1960s (I enrolled in college in 1968), you often find yourself shaking your head when you see media coverage of this era or hear young people repeating a caricature of it. This masterful book is the first to provide a convincing political analysis of the orchestrated campaign through which such stereotypes were implanted.

Morgan’s account captures the spirit of the 1960s, an era which is often regarded as another “springtime of the people.” Mainstream treatment of the ‘60s has been tainted with distortions, inaccuracies, and ideological agendas. Despite the attempts of corporate media and conservative politicians to discredit this era, it remains a contested time that still shapes political discourse, as illustrated by John McCain’s feeble attempt, during the 2008 presidential campaign, to connect Barack Obama to Bill Ayers.

To young people today the 1960s are a fascinating period. I have had students remark that they wish they had lived through this period. Others have suggested that their current efforts to promote social change can never live up to the activism of those years. Still others wonder whether the whole era has been romanticized by those who lived through it. Many people now suggest that it is important for Americans to get beyond the 1960s, and they blame this era and its continuing influence for much of what has gone wrong in the US since that time.

This is where Morgan’s book makes its finest contribution. It tries to place the 1960s in its larger context, looking both forward and backward to analyze exactly what occurred and how events have been appropriated and distorted by elites. Morgan does not romanticize the period, nor does he simply provide a left-wing defense of the era. Instead, he demonstrates that the backlash against the 1960s and the demonization of this time-period was an essential component of an elite strategy to reconstitute capitalist hegemony.

Morgan does a wonderful job of demonstrating that ideological hegemony is a lived experience which constantly needs to be reproduced and reworked in the face of alternative perspectives. He makes clear that the vilification of the 1960s arose not from a conscious plot but simply from the normal operation of capitalist institutions experiencing a legitimation crisis. The mainstream media did not need to be prompted to distort what happened. The journalistic norms of fairness and balance resulted in a safe and seemingly apolitical account of events that consistently reflected elite interpretations. As journalists strove for upward mobility, they understood the rules of the game and the boundaries of argument. In so doing, they gave little voice to points of view that challenged the accepted limits of discourse.

Morgan makes a similar argument with respect to other institutions – cultural, social, educational, philanthropic – that were “naturally” inclined to reinforce the existing social arrangements and to marginalize left-wing arguments. Drawing on Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, Morgan gives a dialectical analysis of why it was essential for the US ruling class to attack the 1960s and reestablish social control. As he makes clear, this was not easily accomplished by elites. There were discussions among panicked businessmen and politicians in the early 1970s. prefiguring Reagan’s cultural war against the ideals of the 1960s, which was later continued through the administration of George W. Bush.

A crucial document which prompted many discussions is the memo drafted in 1971 by Lewis Powell to the US Chamber of Commerce. This document argued for concerted action by elites to retake the initiative and to orchestrate a broad institutional response to the 1960s. Powell called for business to go on the offensive and to fund a political backlash in the media, in the political arena, and in cultural and educational institutions. The goal was to blunt, and eventually to repudiate, the values and ideals of the social movements of the 1960s. To accomplish this shift did not require collusion. The capitalist class responded as a class. The political backlash which followed was not a product of plans put together by just a few individuals. It was a predictable response by elites who felt threatened by the mass resistance they encountered in the 1960s and early 1970s.

As Gramsci argued, and Morgan concurs, reproducing hegemony is always a struggle. The 1960s represented a sea change in America in terms of citizens becoming conscious of social injustice, government lying, and the barbarity of a permanent war economy. Hence the legitimation crisis. The elite counterattack manifested itself in a one-sided class war waged through a variety of social, cultural, educational, political, legal and economic institutions. The elites did not get all that they wanted, but they were able to attack and reverse many progressive reforms rooted in the struggles of 1960s, as well as the 1930s. The rightward move would be continued in subsequent years, right up to the present.

The targets for elites in America since the mid-1970s make up a wish list of what they wanted to reverse from the 1960s. These include, as Morgan points out, overturning the “Vietnam Syndrome,” curbing excess democracy in America, defeating the labor movement, establishing the boundaries for legitimate media discourse on race, class, and gender, promoting the corporatization of higher education, and co-opting or repressing existing social movement organizations. In addition, elites promoted a political backlash against the 1960s by encouraging the creation of a “Bad Sixties” frame and the icons that go with it, as well as domesticating the 1960s through commodification and cultural co-optation. In sum, the goal of American elites was nothing short of reconstructing the past and constructing the future.

As the author concludes, the alternative view of the 1960s constructed by the right wing became part of a larger narrative which would provide a comprehensive explanation of what went wrong in America and how it could be put back on track. To win the cultural and political war from the mid-1970s to the present, it was first necessary for the right to systematically distort what occurred in the previous decade. This was accomplished by highlighting its excesses and by distorting, for generations to come, what people were fighting for, what the counterculture was about, and the goals of the civil rights, women’s, anti-war, student, environmental, and gay liberation movements.

It was a tall order even for elites who controlled the dominant institutions in America, but this concerted attack on workers’ rights in the economy, on the democratic process and on social, cultural, and educational institutions was necessary from an elite perspective in order to defend existing social arrangements. Morgan weaves a compelling account of the battles that ensued, showing how the mass media culture contributed greatly to restoring elite control. The results have been disastrous, as democracy has been eviscerated, inequality has increased, struggles for social justice have been thwarted, and the permanent war economy rolls on.

In the final chapter, entitled “Media Culture and the Future of Democracy,” Morgan suggests that the power of a good example has been lost to generations growing up after the 1960s, for they have been deprived of the knowledge that people can stand together and take history into their own hands. And, perhaps even more devastating, young people have been stripped of hope. The struggle continues to see clearly through the fog of distortions, half-truths, and outright lies promoted by the capitalist class in its cultural war against the 1960s. This is an important project and Morgan’s book makes a critical contribution to redefining history and building a counter hegemony.

Peter Seybold Department of Sociology Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis pseybold@indiana.edu