Lessons From 1968 for 2012

10/13/2011 10:28 am ET | Updated Dec 13, 2011

As America faces its next election, we find ourselves in the middle of a growing schism: left and right, rich and poor, peace and war. This gap has grown so wide that it feels as though we are living in a disjointed America where even neighbors seem countries apart. Where we see soaring unemployment, a diminishing middle class and endless war, politicians see opportunity. They pin citizen against citizen, convincing us that our nation's problems are caused not by their careless leadership, but by our own people. We have the power to overcome their petty feuds and put our country back into the rightful hands of its people.

The upcoming 2012 presidential election is marked by a schism, but we were in a very similar situation before the 1968 election. We lost the brilliant, young leadership of Bobby Kennedy. President Johnson promised peace, but delivered Vietnam. Anti-war feelings turned into a movement that stopped Johnson from running again and ended Humphrey's presidential run because he stuck with Johnson's Vietnam War. The 'long hairs' split from their fathers' crew cuts and turned to Janis Joplin, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Catholics began the eternal discussion of the pill and abortion, which lead to many exiting parishioners. We lost the visionary Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the riots after his death distanced white and black communities from each other. The fabric of society began to tear here and there once the tanks in the streets positioned themselves in major cities of the North. The schism did not heal, and the problems that caused it remain unsolved. The nation jerked from one party to the other in the hopes of reuniting the country. But to no avail.

Political strategist Lee Atwood, a visionary of the Republican Party, read the tea leaves of the changes in civil rights and built a southern strategy that the Republicans of Nixon rode into power. That coalition holds up today as conservatives still pander to fear and states rights as they use anti-Muslim sentiment to hype a war against a religion. However, this time both parties are tiring of the wars, of the losses of our soldiers, of the losses of fortunes spent on inane wars. The Iraq war is just as baseless as the Vietnam War. The antiwar movement is starting again, but this time the people of all sides respect the soldiers fighting and dying. However, we still struggle with issues such as high minority unemployment which is significantly higher than white unemployment. Again, the fabric of America is tearing.

The 'long hairs' are now the parents and thus the reverse is true -- their children are the short hairs. Instead of LBJ spinning in basic positions, we now have Obama spinning: no to torture, but yes to drones (with no reports of how many innocent people have been killed by the military); Gitmo was to disappear, but it is still here; Soldiers return to much praise, but little help for employment; and even injured soldiers go unnoticed once home. Generals are everywhere: talking, lobbying, making sure the military industry stays eternally strong and costly. Catholics, now embarrassed as money flies out the door to cover the costs of priests abusing thousands of children, are still split over women's rights. The clergy has gotten more conservative than ever with bishops threatening to withhold Holy Communion from liberals. There is no Joan, Janis or Bob give the anti-war moment a singular voice, but with access to the internet everyone can share their own voice. We have the weapons to fight back and stop the schism.

Though it is still a year away, the 2012 election is starting to look and feel like 1968. The national splits and chasms from forty years ago are still evident and clear today to any one who looks closely. The same battle lines are being formed: we will elect leadership for one side or the other of that chasm, but we have yet to elect one president who can handle and heal these splits. That is what we need, but looking at the field of 2012, I am guessing our need will go unfulfilled. Mediocrity will continue in the daily lives of the politicians and those we pick to represent us, the citizens.

1968 is back. I can feel it. More wars are coming, wars fought more and more by unmanned drones. The justification of these "extra-legal executions" is shaky at best. Imagine if all the governments of the world could afford their own drones -- the skies would be filled with faceless assassins. Sovereignty is abused all over the world by these drones and by military brass as extraordinary renditions continue. Cheney and Bush wrote a new definition of torture so that they would never be held accountable for their actions. People must be held responsible whether for torture or targeted killing.

2012 must be the year to unelect the status quo. If we stay on the current track, we will repeat the same mistakes from forty years ago by shifting the blame for our country's problems from one hand to the other. In another forty years, we will be faced with the same problems: a stalled economy, a stalemate on women's rights, another war and another anti-war movement struggling to find its voice -- unless we challenge our elected officials to solve these problems now. We need true leaders like Kennedy and Dr. King, leaders who will close the economic gap between the rich and poor, leaders who will not feed the rhetoric of fear that is responsible for distancing red states from blue states. Let the upcoming election be a signal to all politicians that we will not settle for mediocrity: we have learned from the mistakes of '68 and together we stand firm in our resolution to break the mold. It is up to us to mend the fabric of America.