Why were the sixties an ordeal for liberalism?
No good questions are answered in one sentence. If they could be, a little gem from William O'Neill's "Coming Apart" would be my one line summary of the failure of the American 60s. "A hundred flowers had bloomed in vain." (O'Neill, 1971).
The highly visible (and first televised) failures of the sixties managed to overshadow the important liberal successes of the decade. Race riots, violent police actions, "cold" wargames, body counts and assassinations were prime time fare. Gone were the innocent evenings with family huddled around the black and white, soothed by the likes of Uncle Milty and lovable Lucy. My own childhood memories should be inundated with Gilligan and Batman, but I am still haunted by the scrolling names of American soldiers who were dying daily for no apparent reason. On the other hand, the liberal voice can claim most of the credit for exposing the futility and corruption of the Vietnam War. Civil rights for minority Americans, aid to the poor, feminism, environmental protection and education reform had made impressive progress. Liberalism was responsible for a fresh new exercise in "questioning authority."
The ordeal of the liberal came not from the actual failure to be heard, or to spread righteous social awareness, but in the resulting crisis of conscience as the collapsing system failed to achieve overarching goals. Princeton's voluminous political encyclopedia describes the lasting success of 60s liberalism:
"These heady ambitions fueled forms of liberal social
and political activity that left a permanent imprint on
American culture and American law. Under pressure from
liberal and radical reformers, race, gender, and labor relations
gradually shifted. Th ese changes-piecemeal, partial,
and incremental-rarely satisfi ed impatient liberal
activists, yet they nevertheless transformed the American
cultural landscape. Campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s
on behalf of American women, workers, prisoners, ...
The piece discusses the self-destrution of the American liberal movement of the 1960s. The forces that led to the failure of liberal reform are outlined, with supporting citations from Howard Zinn and William O'Neill.