Born 50 Years Ago, Social Imperatives Are Ascendant Today

Stop gun violence

I hadn’t looked through my copy of Cauldron 1971 for many years before working on this project, but when I did, I was struck with what a remarkable accomplishment it was. I had never before (or since) seen a comparable yearbook with such an inclusive scope of academic, local, national and global awareness or with such a wide ranging political, cultural and social focus.  

When I looked through the statements the graduating seniors submitted when asked to comment on their five years in college, I was especially struck by how many of them reflected a highly developed sense of social responsibility and an awareness of the tasks required to improve society and seek justice. This, of course, reflected the times, and I doubt these sentiments would be as strongly expressed today, either by these same seniors polled 50 years later or by today’s students.

Opinions and attitudes change over time, to nobody’s surprise, and there seems to be a cyclical rhythm to changes in the general zeitgeist. Stephen Skowronek, a Yale political scientist, wrote of his concept of “political time.” He sees 40- to 60-year cycles in history in which presidential innovators either change or follow changes in the zeitgeist of the times, as well as which policies are appropriate responses to them. 

Compare the careers of Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan as examples of these cyclical shifts. The Arthur Schlesingers (senior and junior) had a similar theory, saying that every 30 years or so, American history changes from an emphasis on public purpose to a concern with private interest, and then back again.  

It may not be that history repeats itself, but it sure seems like it rhymes.

People marching in protest

Protestors demonstrate against kids in cages and
Trump immigration policies in downtown Boston, 2019

The world we lived in as college students was very different from the one we’re confronted with today. Listen to some of the comments of the graduating Northeastern seniors from 50 years ago:  

– “Young people have discovered that they can be an effective force in stimulating social and political reform.”  

– “I can think of no more apt words to describe this time of my life than the title ‘New World in the Morning.’ ”  

– “It is not the decline or loss of moral values which has created our troubled times. It is the current re-evaluation of just what those morals should be. People are beginning to understand what justice, morality and love really mean.”  

– “I believe that we can peacefully reshape this system to better mankind.” 

Their words reflect hopeful optimism, faith in the future and belief in our ability to create a better world.

Now, 50 years later, the United States has just emerged from the worst presidential administration in its history. The government of President Donald Trump was dedicated to destroying unity and cooperation, both internationally and at home, and promoted regressive bigotry, selfishness, and callous disregard for morality and human rights. It contradicted the American ideals we were taught to respect, of democracy, truth and honesty, and replaced them with a dedication to crass self-promotion and naked self-interest. Its self-serving leader built his entire career and governance on lies, manipulation, arrogance, belligerency and the refusal to take any responsibility for his failed and destructive policies.  

It was politics based on an assault on truth, using lies and cheating to advance its objectives regardless of the damage it caused.

Trump’s administration conducted a frontal attack on truth itself and even on the very language we use to describe reality to further its anti-immigrant, anti-science and anti-intellectual campaigns. The words “climate change” were banned from government reports and publications. Stephen Miller, in his campaign to promote white resentment said, “What you call equity, I call discrimination.”  

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson wanted to remove the words “inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination” from his department’s mission statement, but later backed down. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered that the term “undocumented” be replaced with “illegal alien” in all Department of Justice communications.

The Trump years were basically an attack on democracy itself and on its most basic principle of free and fair elections. How does a minority party that managed to win the popular presidential vote only once over the past 30 years stay in power?  By suppressing votes, gerrymandering, restricting voter access and privileging less populated, rural Republican areas over Democrat-tending and more populous urban districts. 

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, from Jan. 1 to Sept. 27, 2021, when most regular legislative sessions ended, at least 19 states had enacted 33 laws that make it harder for Americans to vote. The laws limit voting by mail, impose voter ID requirements, minimize voter registration and aggressively enable voter roll purges.

Most notably, Trump and his supporters refused to accept the results of the 2020 election, and they still maintain that they actually won the presidency. They went to the courts more than 60 times to challenge the results, but their arguments were universally rejected, in many cases by judges appointed by Trump himself. 

On the other hand, the past 50 years have been characterized by profound and positive changes in the attitudes and beliefs of many more Americans. The feminist movement, at first the object of ridicule, sparked a sea change in personal and societal attitudes and practices. When we started college, the help wanted ads in American newspapers were organized into three rigid categories of male, female and general, and it seemed difficult at the time to imagine doing it any other way. 

In “Mein Kampf,” Adolf Hitler defined the Big Lie as the use of a falsehood so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” In his case, the lie was that Germany was not defeated in WWI but was instead betrayed by an international Jewish conspiracy.  Today, Trump continues to repeat the barefaced lie that he won the 2020 election “in a landslide” and that he is at least ostensibly supported in this baseless belief by most polled Republicans. 

After the criminal attack on the U.S. capital by armed Trump insurgents, many Republicans denied reality and still say the attack was planned and led by anti-fascist and Black Lives Matters undercover agents, despite the lack of any evidence to support this.

Congress passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963 in response to discrimination against women in the workplace. Although it never achieved its goal of equal pay for equal work, we’re much closer to the goal we continue to seek.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act included gender equality among its reforms, but failed to apply to public education. That omission was addressed in 1972 with the Title IX for Equal Opportunity in Education Act that furthered educational opportunities for women.

Women fought for and won freedom in reproductive rights through birth control. And in 1973, the Supreme Court in Rowe v. Wade established the still-contested right of a woman to control her own pregnancy rather than leave it in the hands of male politicians and religious interests. 

Because the language we use profoundly determines our thoughts, feminists fought for gender neutrality to include more than just male constructs in speech and writing. It is no longer exceptional for women to be elected to political office, and the number of women in high office continues to increase.

Partly as the result of feminist movement successes, the American public’s way of thinking about LGBTQ issues has undergone dramatic and rapid changes. Sexual nonconformity is today much more widely accepted than in the past. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that married same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits. Two years later, it made marriage equality a nationwide right. Last June, it ruled that gay and transgender workers were protected by civil rights law. 

Across the board, the legitimate rights and aspirations of many groups of Americans have improved, including the disabled, Asian Americans, prisoners, Muslims, immigrants, Native Americans, Latin and Central Americans, workers and many more. 


Pro-science/climate awareness and anti-Trump science policies demonstrator in downtown Los Angeles, Calif., 2017

It’s never been easy to overcome the constant opposition and foot-dragging by those dedicated to subverting progress, but people still struggle for fairness and human rights and, I believe, will ultimately prevail.

The state of civil rights and the position of African Americans in society, however, have demonstrably regressed over the past five years. George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests of police brutality during the summer of 2020 attracted an estimated 15 million to 26 million participants to demonstrations across the country. The protests were the largest in American history and spread to more than 2,000 cities and towns in more than 60 countries.  

But despite this support for change, Trump policies and inaction as well as the COVID-19 pandemic have subverted progress for African Americans.

Protestor wearing a mask

The Black Lives Matter demonstration in Brookline, Mass. was one of many such 2020 protests across the country and around the world following the death of George Floyd

A Gallup Poll last year surveyed American adults about whether they believe civil rights for Black Americans had improved during their lifetime. Only 59 percent believed civil rights had improved, compared with more than 80 percent who believed so from 1995 to 2013 and about 75 percent from 2015 to 2016. Only 65 percent of white adults and 52 percent of Black adults believe things are better, compared with 77 percent and 69 percent, respectively, in 2016. This is the result of both police murders of unarmed Black people since 2016 and the backlash policies and attitudes of Trump’s administration.

While 74 percent of adults over 65 (with their longer memories) see civil rights improvement during their life, only 42 percent of those under 30 agree, as do 59 percent of those 30-64 years old. In 1993, 30 years after MLK’s March on Washington, 38 percent of American adults said new laws were needed to combat discrimination. Now, 61 percent of all Americans believe so. Among African American adults, 82 percent support this position, the highest level to date; among white adults, 53 percent say new civil rights laws are needed.

So now we face the future. If the cyclical pattern of change expressed by Skowronek and Schlesinger holds true, we can expect a return to collective and universal concerns in the coming years. Such a change of political course and assumptions would put to rest the Reaganite foolishness that government is the enemy of the people rather than the social institution best equipped to promote the public good for the largest number of citizens.  

Contrast the failure of Trump and the Republicans to respond to the COVID pandemic with the accomplishments of the new administration of President Joe Biden vaccinating the nation. Trump denied the problem, lied about it and undermined efforts to solve it, while Biden recognized the seriousness of the threat and used logic, science and government action to confront it effectively.  

We still face a Republican party, and especially a Senate, dedicated to ignoring the desires of most Americans in setting more humane public policies, but I’m happy to say that there’s hope for the future.