Eric Rauchway: ust because Tom Brokaw's dad says hippies are responsible for the U.S. going Republican doesn't make it so.

Roundup: Talking About History

[Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author, most recently, of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America and Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America.]

The key moment in the History Channel's "1968 with Tom Brokaw" comes when Brokaw interviews my onetime colleague, the historian Alan Brinkley. Brokaw prompts Brinkley, "The left went too far, excessive in its behavior on a daily basis?" Brinkley replies, obligingly, "Well, there were excesses on the left, needless to say--" and then: Wham! Down comes the editor's digital X-Acto knife. We don't hear the end of that sentence, nor do we hear any real historical analysis in the rest of Brokaw's two-hour film, whose secret subtitle is "How Hippies Ruined America."

The documentary rests on a sound, if familiar, premise: The critical year in modern American politics was 1968. Look back one presidential election and you see Lyndon Johnson routing Barry Goldwater, then pushing the New Deal well beyond Franklin Roosevelt's wildest dreams. Look forward one, and you see Richard Nixon routing George McGovern, and putting paid to Roosevelt's coalition forever.

Something happened here, and what it is is exactly clear (to contradict Buffalo Springfield, part of the shuffling troupe of rock zombies Brokaw and his producers exhume with reliable ghoulishness). And what's more, Brokaw almost knows what it is, too. He shows the electoral map of 1968, saying if you add Nixon's states to those won by George Wallace, you get something a bit like George W. Bush's wins from 2000 and 2004. Nixon plus Wallace equals the modern Republican coalition, Brokaw says.

So far, so good: but then Brokaw tries to explain what brought this coalition together. He says, "Southern working-class whites deserted" the Democrats. Why? Brokaw goes to Nixon speechwriter and unbiased scholar Patrick J. Buchanan, who explains these voters were "Reagan Democrats ... they were driven out [of the Democratic Party] by what those kids and the rioters and the demonstrators and the denunciators were doin' in the 1960s."

It is also possible, of course, that Southern whites might have left the Democratic Party between 1964 and 1968 because the Democratic Party became, finally and after decades of vacillation, the party of African American civil rights, when a Democratic president put the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act through Congress over the resistance of the segregationists within his own party.

In other words, it is a moral certainty that race, and not the hippies, broke up the New Deal coalition....

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