If I oversimplified things and bought into my own bias, I’d say this is about waging the war between manic, fevered ignorance and measured deliberation.
NPR’s been running stories on the boom in American distrust lately, the rapidly rising lack of faith in our country’s leadership because of a ‘perfect storm’ of distrust factors. They also suggest that its part of the American identity to give a leery eye to the people in charge.
One obvious trend, evidenced in polls that concluded 42% of American’s trusted Reagan during his presidency as opposed to 29% trusting Carter, is that simple sells. Obviously. The more you encourage thinking, the more time allowed for evaluation, the more room there is for dissent.
You get a huge range in trust figures, as illustrated in this slayerly chart. Predictably, the Kennedy/Johnson administration is the most trusted of the past fifty years – as polarizing as Kennedy was in life I’d guess (stupidly, I’m sure) that this owes more to the martyr factor than anything else. It was a strange and tumultuous time in the country, during which that sort of faith in the powers that be seems out of place. Reagan comes in a distant second (68% of American’s trusted Kennedy’s administration) because he knew how to talk to Americans, paint us as the great hero locked in battle against the forces of evil, and artificially inflate the economy (oops). Also, torn up from the earth. It felt good to be American. Or so I’m told by people alive and aware at the time.
Pew polls also suggest that distrust grew steadily in the wake of Vietnam, until reversing for a brief and furious four years of insanity immediately after 9/11. The faith lasted until the Iraq imbroglio became an indisputable mess with invented justifications while economic strains conjured the usual malcontent demonstrated in Bush’s abysmal approval rating as he left office. Then the era of hope, change, and high expectations.
As it turns out, it doesn’t matter what’s on the horizon if people are stressed about a paycheck. Ideals and visions, rights of man, all that pales in comparison to paying a mortgage or leasing a car. So cross your fingers that the economy rebounds impossibly by November and everyone can forget their pocketbooks and remember their brains for a minute.
I don’t think it’s out of place for people to have ‘faith in the higher powers’ during strange and tumultuous times. Not that I was alive in the 60s and can say for sure that was going on–but don’t forget that Kennedy was also young and handsome and had a sassy wife. People (here, in Australia) act all mouth agape when reminiscing about how Bush got his second term, but that didn’t surprise me either. You remember that. Shit was a bit off in the bubble of America, and the masses gave it up and put all their trust in government because they were afraid. I’d imagine that the threat of nuclear war (no matter how silly it sounds now) was a lot scarier than the threat of a handful of zealots with fireworks.
I think of the 60s as such a time of rebellion, of challenging the establishment and rewriting the rules – and that leads me to believe in a more incredulous public. But it’s true that Kennedy was a slayer, and he talked a very hopeful game. And I completely neglected the force of fear in any of the post – of foreign powers, losing a job, whatever – and the way politicians use it. We just need to all unite in a terrible and motivating fear of the financial behemoths destroying the world.
I don’t disagree with you–but if you want to change the way people react you have to acknowledge their behavior. And it was popular to challenge the mainstream in the the late 60s, but in the first part of the decade that was a much more daring thing to do.