Well, I sure got that one wrong.
Four years ago, on the eve of the last presidential election, I wrote in this space of how the country has spent much of the past three decades “re-litigating” the 1960s, arguing over the changes wrought in that decade. As far as social justice is concerned, of course, the 1960s stand second only to the 1860s as the most profoundly transformative decade in American history. It was in those years that black folks came off the back of the bus, women came out of the kitchen, Hispanics came off the margins, and gay people first peeked beyond the closet.
Conservatives have been trying to repeal the decade ever since, a crusade that seemed to reach its greatest clarity and lowest depth in the rush to define a certain jug-eared senator from Illinois who was, in 2008, running for president. He stood to become the first black man to hold that job. This was not an incidental thing.
For his supporters, it helped make him the embodiment of “hope” and “change,” the renewal of inchoate liberal promises that died with Robert F. Kennedy. For his detractors, it was the realization of every paranoia-drenched, racially-tinged threat to the white picket fences and mom’s apple pie of status quo.
“You know what I hope Barack Obama is?” I wrote in 2008. “I hope he is reconciliation – the end of the 1960s at long last. And the beginning of something new.”
He wasn’t. That’s what I got wrong.
There are, after all, many words you could use to describe the period from 2008 to now. “Reconciliation” is not one of them. To the contrary, the nation has endured a four-year temper tantrum of shrillness and ferocity nearly unparalleled in history. You have to go back to the 1960s, or maybe even the 1850s, to find a time when America was this angry with itself.
Far from putting the ’60s to rest, we have seen a fresh assault on what had previously been considered the settled gains of that era. I mean, who could have predicted this election season would see debates on women’s reproductive health? Or, that we’d have to defend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965? Or that the state of Arizona would ban ethnic studies classes? Or that there would be a new attack on the right of public workers to unionize? And that’s not to mention the new onslaught of coded racial slurs. They still say Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. Just the other day, Mitt Romney surrogate John Sununu, honest to God, called him “lazy.”
Lord, have mercy. It’s like they can’t help themselves.
“Restore Our Future” goes the name of a conservative super PAC. It seems increasingly obvious, though, that the idea here is to restore our past. Except, it’s less a real past than a collective yearning for the perceived simplicity and normalcy of yesterday. And it is not “ours” in any sense, belonging instead to the collective memory of those who had the color, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation that signified rightness back in that mythic long ago.
In a word, it is not real – and never was.
Yet, the power it holds over conservative minds is proved in the decibel level of the temper tantrum, the desperate fury of the resistance. We have seen rocks flying through windows and weapons taken to presidential speeches. We have seen the president called the antichrist and accused of favoring white slavery. We have seen brazen schemes of voter suppression that must have Fannie Lou Hamer spinning in her grave.
Finally, we saw Election Day. You found no words about reconciliation this time around, no suggestion the ’60s might finally be at an end. Just a lament for the naive optimism that made such a suggestion possible – and for a nation where, these days, optimism is often devoured by rage.
It turns out the mythic past dies harder than anyone ever knew.
• Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.