Young people today assume that the trends of the world they grew up in extend indefinitely far back into the past -- or at least until the '60s, one of the earliest periods that they have any conception of at all. And Baby Boomers, desperate to stay hip and relevant, have re-written history to confirm those assumptions. The Sixties as the proto-Millennial era of political correctness, race mongering, feminazis, faggophiles, and so on.
Yet as I detailed in another post awhile ago, the concerns of The Movement of the '60s barely overlapped with those of the past 20 years. It was about civil rights -- a government-citizen issue -- and not affirmative action, Black history month, white skin privilege, etc. It was about student and youth liberation -- and not about voluntary youth imprisonment. It was about ending the War in Vietnam, and American imperialism generally -- causes that ring hollow in a post-Cold War world. And don't forget the anti-capitalist undercurrent to everything back then. Feminism, a later outgrowth, to the extent that it became mainstream, was more about "equal pay for equal work," and not about toppling the patriarchy, every man is a potential date rapist, women know better than men, and so on.
By the '80s, the civil rights movement was a done deal, and the fringe off-shoots like Black Power had been discredited. (Though apartheid in South Africa was still a big concern, and even featured prominently in the 1989 hit movie Lethal Weapon 2.) Ditto the nutball strains of second-wave feminism, and even a more palatable thing like the ERA had gotten torpedoed.
But imperialist interventions were still a mainstay of our foreign policy, during this time primarily in Central America. Big Government and Big Business were still scheming to control and exploit the common people. And of course there were domestic problems that were only in their initial stages back in the '60s, but that began to loom larger by the '80s -- homelessness, the drug war, runaways, teen pregnancy, and so on. The now impotent Religious Right was at their peak influence, and AIDS had come out of nowhere.
Perhaps the single most disorienting feature of yesterday's political world for an observer today is that there was still a cohesive, bipartisan Establishment, and so there was also a viable anti-Establishment. After the Cold War had been won, our gigantic nation no longer needed to hold together, and has been fragmenting into partisanship ever since.
Before, the old line was that the two main parties are identical on so many issues, and differ only on bread-and-circus issues to keep the public in a fog. Nowadays, though, Republicans and Democrats really do vote more along partisan lines, and knowing that someone is a Republican or Democrat tells you so many more other things about them than it used to. With no cohesive Establishment left, the old anti-Establishment chose to define itself in opposition to the Republicans, hence giving themselves over to mainstream liberals for the most part.
Why didn't they continue to define themselves in opposition to both big parties, only now framing themselves like the Non-Aligned Movement that sided neither with America nor the Soviets during the Cold War? I don't have a good answer for that one. Perhaps the anti-Establishment cause had won them so much fame, money, and influence -- as far as that's possible for such a group -- that they gave into temptation and figured, why not join the libs and enjoy some real influence for a change?
These days, the new "anti-Establishment" is really more of a non-aligned movement, framed as opposing the two main parties, although it's too inchoate to pin down what it is, other than populist. Since erstwhile left populists have mostly jumped on the elite liberal bandwagon (a la Michael Moore and John Cougar Mellencamp), that leaves the remaining populists to be more of a conservative bent. But there are still a handful of good old lefty populists hanging around too.
That's the main difference in orientation of leftists from the '80s vs. the '90s and 21st century -- populism. In those days, Pat Buchanan and Noam Chomsky could see eye to eye on so many pressing issues.
In fact, I'm going to quote Chomsky at length to establish that the various movements were not about Left vs. Right but about popular vs. elite control. There was a leftist flavor to The Movement (TM) of the late '60s and early '70s, but that had eroded by the '80s, when those championing popular causes were on one side, and those defending the elite were on the other.
Here is a transcript of a 1993 discussion between him and Michael Albert. Albert brings up the question of whether there are fewer and fewer left intellectuals over time, i.e. as of the early '90s. Chomsky's response, with the more important points in bold:
It's claimed now that there's less of a left intelligentsia than there was thirty years ago. I don't believe a word of it. Take a look at the people who they're calling the left, the big thinkers of the 1950s. Who were they? They were intelligent people. Ed Wilson is an intelligent person, but a left intellectual? Mary McCarthy? A smart person who wrote some nice novels. But not a left intellectual.
In fact, what you have now is much more serious activists in many more places. I travel all the time and give talks all over the place. I've been amazed to go to places throughout the 1980s ... take, say, the Central America solidarity movement, which I think is a pretty dramatic development. I don't think there's been anything like it in history. I'd go to a church in Kansas or a town in Montana or Wyoming or Anchorage, Alaska and find people who knew more about Latin America, certainly, than the CIA, which is not very hard, but people in academic departments who've thought about it, who understood things about American policy.
I can't even tell you their names. There are too many of them. Also, I'm not even sure that the word "left" is the right word for them. A lot of them were probably Christian conservatives, but they were very radical people in my view. Intellectuals who understood and who did a lot. They created a popular movement which not only protested U.S. atrocities but actually engaged themselves in the lives of the victims.
In the 1960s nobody ever dreamt of going off to a Vietnamese village because maybe a white face in the village would limit the capacity of the marauders to kill and destroy. That wasn't even an idea in your head. In fact, nobody even went to try to report the war from the side of the victims. It was unheard of, save for a few "crazies." But in the eighties it was common. And the people who were doing that are serious left intellectuals, in my view.
There was no fashionable / celebrity angle to the Central American solidarity movement. And it was face-to-face and grassroots, not planned by a large central committee. So, like much of the history of the 1980s, it has been totally forgotten -- like, where are all the Big Players to grab the reader's attention? Wikipedia only has a pathetic category page about it, with only 4 items, none of which is "Central American solidarity movement," a la the book-length article on the Anti-Vietnam War movement. I tried googling around to find a concise history of it, but not much luck there either.
Mediated culture does leave a trace, though, so how about looking there. I'm not going to dig up old issues of leftist magazines from the library and do a content analysis on their articles. It's sufficient to just look over their covers. Here are some partial cover archives for Mother Jones, The Progressive, and The Nation. Browse around and see for yourself. Below is a little gallery showing three covers from each one during the '80s. Click to enlarge.
Mother Jones took on mainstream media bias / censorship, the leading Democratic candidate for President, and the CIA -- my, how times have changed. Note the populist angle, and how they did not discriminate between Democrats or Republicans at the highest levels. And no silly culture war bullshit against their fellow Americans.
The Progressive also devoted a lot of space to mainstream media bias and the wars in Central America, working class politics, and faith in progress-progress-progress. ("Death of a small planet: It's growth that's killing us.")
Jeez, The Nation sure looked drab, didn't it? Mother Jones and The Progressive took part in the broader trend of the '80s for illustration over photography (stylization over realism), but The Nation insisted on minimal visual interest. At any rate, the range of topics are more or less what the other two leftist magazines covered -- blowback from intervention in Latin America, the peace movement, mass media consolidation (not in favor), tax relief for sub-elite Americans, poverty, the homeless, the CIA and FBI (why don't liberals worry about them anymore?), etc.
Even that editorial on AIDS is mostly about creating a free clean needle program for drug addicts, not about encouraging faggots to stick their dick wherever they want, with whoever they want, and hope that through such pathological behavior they'll end up like healthy normal people.
I keep telling you that nearly everything was better back in the '80s, even things you'd expect would've been worse. Add "the Left" to that list.