The Democrats' Radical Pique

The candidates are allowing a flawed view of the 1960s to dominate the presidential debate.
The candidates are allowing a flawed view of the 1960s to dominate the presidential debate.

For those of us who identify with the American Left, the last month or two has been disheartening. This election campaign should be the best chance in decades for the Left to be relevant in the national political discussion: U.S. imperialism is more unpopular than ever, and the current economic situation is calling attention to our huge income inequalities and the disproportionate effects of the "downturn" on those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

This context makes Hillary Clinton's recent strategies for capturing the Democratic presidential nomination all the more frustrating. Clinton is determined to shore up Republican stereotypes about Democrats and attack broad segments of the Left as outside the bounds of reasonable political debate. What's most remarkable is how her political maneuvers have played out as an outright rejection of the Sixties.

Barack Obama takes a complicated view of past struggles, both paying homage to the Sixties, while remaining aware of the limitations of that era's social movements. The speech Obama made in Philadelphia explained both sides of that vision. His remarks about Rev. Jeremiah Wright—whose criticisms of the treatment of minorities in this country and U.S. foreign policy decisions continue to generate controversy—allowed the presidential candidate to distinguish himself from the tradition of black liberation theology Wright represents. This tradition descends directly from Sixties figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.: when Wright said that "America's chickens are coming home to roost," he was directly quoting Malcolm X, and Dr. King frequently used incendiary rhetoric, including calling the U.S. government the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world" during his campaign against the Vietnam War.


Obama made the case that Wright expresses a perspective on the U.S. that is too static, too stuck in the battles of the past to be able to recognize the present's potential for social change. In refusing to disown Wright, however, in describing him and the tradition he represents as "family," Obama acknowledged the Sixties project of advancing equality and democratizing American society as his inheritance. It is an inheritance that Obama knows he cannot turn his back on.

The debate on April 16th explicitly framed the candidates' different relationships with the Sixties. When Hillary Clinton attacked Obama for his relationships with Rev. Wright and William Ayers, she mentioned both in the context of 9-11. By portraying both men as un-American, Clinton overtly rejected the movements behind their rhetoric–the Black Power Movement and the Weather Underground. These certainly are two of the more controversial sides of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam Sixties. It may be depressing, but it certainly isn't a surprise that the Democratic presidential hopeful who actually came of age during the Sixties is unwilling to acknowledge the complexity of the militant aspects of Sixties' struggles.

Rejecting the Sixties is a move generally associated with conservativism, but the liberal or progressive relationship to that decade isn't always more productive. In The Latino/a Canon and the Emergence of Post-Sixties Literature, Elena Machado Sáez and I discuss the tendency among those who identify with the Left to maintain a nostalgic reverence for the Sixties as the last time in which progressive politics was possible.

These narratives of a fall from the height of Sixties politcs see a lack of commitment to social justice and economic redistribution today. Houston Baker's new book, which argues that contemporary black public intellectuals have abandoned the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, certainly fits into this trend. While our main focus in The Latino/a Canon is on these debates within U.S. Latino/a studies, we also note the parallels to the 1990s argument between Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson over nihilism and nostalgia. What Elena and I want to shed light on is how the younger generation of writers, who came to consciousness after the Sixties, have a much more nuanced view of that decade's successes and failures. The "post-Sixties" politics they imagine, and that Obama has been able to articulate, takes on the mantle of the social movements of the Sixties, but also acknowledges that simply trying to reproduce the same political projects can be paralyzing for confronting today's challenges.


If the Left is to have a post-Sixties existence, we cannot remain stuck in trying to replicate the strategies and tactics of the movements embodied by Rev. Wright and William Ayers. The Right has been all too happy to reject even the most idealistic goals of those movements and the energies that gave birth to them.

The conservative movement is born of opposition to the Sixties and has worked for decades to return us to their version of a 1950s devoid of the feminist and Civil Rights movements. When Hillary Clinton joins in the rejection of the Sixties, she sides with those who oppose gains made thanks to the radicalism of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or Students for a Democratic Society.


We already know that the Republican Party has written off the Sixties as the decade that destroyed our country's greatness and values. Unless the Democratic Party wishes to confirm that narrative, we need to support a presidential candidate willing to present a different point of view, one that sees the dreams and goals of the Sixties as still relevant to the present, one that seeks to update that vision for our post-Sixties reality.

Raphael Dalleo teaches at Florida Atlantic University.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter