By Don Keelan
Much has been published recently on the subject of whether or not democracy is in peril. The basis for the question stems from the tone that exists in how we deal with political issues — the lack of civility has taken hold nationally and regionally. However, they are two distinct issues and must be addressed as such.
As to whether democracy is in peril, it might be helpful to go back in time to the 1960s to see and understand that period of our history. It was a period that truly tested our way of governance. Dissension in the halls of Congress was rampant. Internal and external conflicts came almost on an annual basis where the military was on constant alert, if not in direct battle. The animus towards those running for national political office was deep and, oftentimes, ugly.
The decade started off with a controversial individual seeking the presidency: John F. Kennedy. Would he, the first Catholic president, bring the country under the rule of the papacy? In less than three years in office, his administration had to deal with the aborted invasion of Cuba, the creation of the Berlin Wall, and more threatening, the Cuban Missile Crisis, when America and the former Soviet Union were days away from a possible nuclear confrontation. Residential bomb shelters were being built throughout America.
Within a five year span, from 1963 to 1968, three American leaders — President Kennedy, Rev. Martin Luther King, and Sen. Robert Kennedy — would be shot dead by deranged individuals.
In between the killings came two heated presidential elections. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson was contending with a U.S. Senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, whose trademark line was “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”
According to News Book’s report on the 1964 Republican National Convention, “Delegates stood up and shook their fists in the direction of the television studios high above the convention floor, where commentators like Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley could be dimly discerned. … They shouted and booed, too, in the direction of the newspaper and magazine writers.”
And the Democratic Party’s convention in August 1968 was more a war-zone than a political convention. Scores of people were injured and more arrested. For many, their choice of the contender to Richard Nixon had been assassinated two months earlier.
The cornerstones for the deep discontent were two major issues, the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. A lesser but controversial issue was the government’s takeover of a significant portion of the health insurance business, by the adoption of Medicare and Medicaid legislation.
Not since 1861, the War Between the States, and possibly the adoption of the 18th Amendment (prohibition), did America experience such discontent, massive rioting and civil disobedience over the federal government becoming the enforcer of tearing down the barriers of racial segregation, and waging war in the jungles of Vietnam.
The war had escalated soon after a suspected attack on the USS Maddox (DD-731) in the Gulf of Tonkin, near Vietnam, along with the death of three college kids in Mississippi. Two major movements took hold and would last for years and divide the country. To this day, scars of the rioting that had taken place are still in evidence in Detroit, Newark, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities.
The lack of civility which is taking place in American politics and media reporting needs to change — not necessarily because it is a threat to our democracy, but because it prevents us from being the nation we can be, and one the rest of the world constantly looks at for stability and leadership.
As threatening as the decade of the 1960s was, it came to a close, but not before astronaut Neil Armstrong, in July 1969, placed the American flag on the moon. Tolerance, resilience and hope trumped despair — and will always do so.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.