By Bernie Quigley
For The Hill on 8/27/12
Two American moments cast the fate of politics here since post-war; the Chicago Democratic convention marked by riots and massive demonstrations at the height of the Sixties, and the second term election of Ronald Reagan in 1984. These two events, one of rage, one of consensus, would claim us until today. But today we enter a turnstile and something else awakens. Maybe something just ahead in Tampa. Maybe in 2016.
Quite by accident I happened to be at the 1968 convention in Chicago. My plane home from Saigon had just arrived in San Francisco and I had just enough money to get to Chicago by train. It was largely an anarchist disgrace with hippies bearing signs "Chicks up front" so bloodied college girls would feed the evening newsreels, but it did identify once and for all for the next 45 years the character of liberalism in America. Overnight, the party of modest traditionalists like Senator Hubert Humphrey, the “happy warrior,” would become the party of Ted Kennedy and George McGovern. And had there been then no Jerry Rubin calling on hordes to go home and kill their parents, there would in the interim have been no Bill Clinton and here at the denouement, no President Barack Obama. This is the rude anthropology of how events are forged in time to make history.
The other political day I remember well was March 30, 1981, 69 days into the new Ronald Reagan presidency when the president was shot. New York then was an ugly place. John Lennon had just been gunned down in front of his apartment at the Dakotas. Drugs had come to identify social class; on my way to work at 31st and Madison I’d pass construction workers openly smoking refer, while bicycle messengers were shooting heroin in the stairwells of skyscrapers and bankers were snorting cocaine. Like today, maybe. The nihilism which speakers like Jean Genet had brought to Chicago in the Chicago event had come to pervade the liberal culture. Violence, as the prosaic black power speaker H. Rap Brown had claimed, had become as American as apple pie. But something happened after the assassination attempt on Reagan: Americans had become embarrassed – ashamed really – of what we had become and said ENOUGH. The culture suddenly flipped and in 1984 Reagan won every state except Minnesota, home of his competitor, Walter Mondale. Reagan would mark the times. Things calmed down and prosperity returned to America.
After the attempt on Reagan’s life America returned to its senses. But ugly as it may seem, the '68 riots in Chicago were probably the more characteristic historic path for actual political advancement. Things had pent up, exacerbated especially by the unpopular war in Vietnam. Change needs a catalyst and the ’68 convention provided one.
Conservatism may be facing such a change today. Ron Paul, Judge Andrew Napolitano, Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and others including libertarians bring to conservatism today a primary shift. It resembles in my opinion most closely the change Andrew Jackson brought to Washington of headstrong country people in direct opposition to the Washington elites. It too will have a breakout moment ahead because that is the way the world works.
I’m not talking Sons of Anarchy, but maybe something to responsibly rise from this, Dwight Eisenhower’s prescient speech at the 1956 Republican Convention in San Francisco:
"Geographical balance of power is essential to our form of free society. If you take the centralization shortcut every time something is to be done, you will perhaps sometimes get quick action. But there is no perhaps about the price you will pay for your impatience: the growth of a swollen, bureaucratic, monster government in Washington, in whose shadow our state and local governments will ultimately wither and die."