For all that seems new, our broken politics have not escaped the sixties

“There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that we are paying a very heavy price for our failure to control our borders….50 percent of those arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department’s drug task force were illegal aliens….[A]n alarming share of our public assistance dollars are going to benefit illegal aliens.”

Don’t check your Twitter accounts. That wasn’t the President. Those are only three short extracts among many that I might suggest reading from a 1992 book by onetime-Senator and two-time presidential candidate, Eugene McCarthy.

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McCarthy proposed that the United States had become the victim of a sort of reverse colonialism. Politically, economically militarily, and demographically, McCarthy wrote, the United States had become a “dependent society,” one beholden to its military commitments to other nations, unable to control the flow of migrants across borders. During the Cold War the U.S. had become a world power. But since the Cold War, according to McCarthy, the U.S. had become a hostage to its own status as a global superpower, no longer in control of its own destiny.

One might summarize McCarthy’s book by saying it expresses his hope that, “The U.S. will not be taken advantage of anymore.” But of course, that was what the President said after leaving last year’s G7 summit.

The coincidences between McCarthy’s quarter-century old warnings and today’s presidential pronouncements are interesting. And, even if one disagrees with McCarthy and Trump (as I do), there is something important to be learned from reading McCarthy’s book.

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To understand the coincidences, begin with a contrast. Fifty years ago, young Baby Boomers cut their hair and shaved their beards to ‘Get clean for Gene.’ McCarthy was the anti-war candidate in 1968 whom young Democrats hoped might unseat Lyndon Johnson. Clean-shaved counterculture college students went door-to-door hoping to win support for McCarthy. In 2016, 53% of those same Baby Boomers voted for the Republican who promised to “bomb the shit out of ISIS” and to build a stronger, more powerful U.S. military.

What long, strange trip did those Baby Boomers take from Make Love Not War to Make America Great Again?

Here is another coincidence to chew on. McCarthy wrote about the economic and financial implications of this new colonialism in 1992. Like Trump, McCarthy opposed free trade. Yet McCarthy also laments several of the implications of our consumer and financial economy in ways that remind us of another 2016 (and, 2020) candidate. When he decries the “inadequacy of supervision” in the regulation of financial markets, or when he tells us that “international bankers and multinational corporations” have too much influence, McCarthy sounds eerily like Bernie Sanders.

One more coincidence. McCarthy wrote his book in the same year when Patrick J. Buchanan told the Republican National Convention that the presidential election was “about…who we are….It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” Like McCarthy, Buchanan (who agreed in 2017 when the New York Times called him “The First Trumpist”) also seemed to have sensed how the ending of the Cold War had shifted the ground. Yet, as we have come to understand, that shifted ground augured nothing more certainly than a new, darker chapter of the culture wars that Barack Obama has called “the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage.”

Strange bedfellows abound among these coincidences. McCarthy and Buchanan were on to how Trump and Sanders would connect with voters more than two decades before the 2016 election. Commentators still marvel at how many Sanders supporters voted for Trump. What does it all mean?

The Cold War that Baby Boomers grew up in has changed the United States. The end of the Cold War left us unsure of who we are. The Cold War ended, but but the argument that grew up during the Cold War goes on. Our politics began a long, slow process of polarization while we groped for an identity without the Cold War that gave us certainty for so long. We spent a half century becoming a superpower, and now we have no mortal enemy to oppose. We have turned our spirit of opposition inward, on each other.

I am far from convinced that America is A Colony of the World, or that we need to Make America Great Again.

But the evidence that our politics is broken has become irrefutable. If paying attention to what Eugene McCarthy, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Patrick J. Buchanan tell us reveals anything, it is that the problem and the solution are more complicated than simply choosing between the Left and the Right.

Steven P. Millies is associate professor of public theology and director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

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