What an election year this has been—and it’s only April! We’ve heard from socialists, the KKK, Black Lives Matter, and a host of others. We’ve seen more than a dozen candidates “suspend” their campaigns. In the past 12 months, we’ve seen war, the melting of the North Pole, riots, and an entire city being poisoned.
This election year is almost as wild as 1968—and that is saying a lot. That was the year of the King and Kennedy assassinations, urban riots, and the Tet Offensive. Groups as diverse as the Black Panther Party and the segregationist “Dixiecrats” raised their voices. Yippies were tear-gassed outside of the Democratic Convention, and CBS correspondent Dan Rather was sucker-punched on the convention floor.
While the 1968 election was billed as hardhats vs. hippies, this one may go down as Bud Light vs. Caramel Macchiato. But it’s every bit as real, and every bit as scary. How did we get to this point? And where do we go from here? Theories are a dime a dozen, so here is mine.
The world is changing very rapidly, as it did in the 1960s. The great polarizations of 1968 revolved around unending war, race relations, and the economy. The industrial revolution was winding down in America, and jobs were being shipped overseas—first electronics, then manufacturing, cars, and steel. The knowledge economy wasn’t even on the drafting table yet. As Blacks, women, farmworkers, and others stood up for their rights, the beneficiaries of the post-World War II economy stood their ground. The world became binary with the bumper sticker: “America, Love It or Leave It.”
This era looks hauntingly familiar to 1968. We are feebly trying to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression. Young people with master’s degrees are selling coffee to pay off $100,000 in college loans. More black men are in prison than college. Too many couples barely have time to wave to each other as they head to a third or fourth job. We turn on the TV to relax, and we see endless violence, corruption, and scandal.
So we look for enemies, because surely this must be someone else’s fault. We point to: tea baggers, socialists, rednecks, welfare cheats, Muslims, Fox News, MSNBC, fill-in-the-blank. But as iconic comic character Pogo once said: “I have seen the enemy, and he is us!”
Perhaps somewhere along the way, we’ve lost our way. In the name of progress, we’ve measured success by the models of our cars, the size of our houses, and the height of our hedges. Perhaps we lost sight of ourselves when we lost sight of our neighbors. And perhaps therein lies the answer.
This election year, tell the naysayers that you will no longer buy into their tactics of division. Turn off the TV, invite that neighbor who doesn’t look like you to dinner, spend time with your family, and practice random acts of kindness. Instead of “America, Love It or Leave It,” maybe it’s time for: “America, Let’s Work Together and Fix It.”
— Tony Russo is a retired social worker and government employee, and has lived in Jefferson County with his family since 1987. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Featured image: Bobby Seale at the Conspiracy Trial after the 1968 Democratic Convention, Chicago.)