Let's play a game of current events connect the dots. What do the following three things have in common?: The resignation and subsequent gossip-fest of Pope Benedict; the circus side-show of former Senator Chuck Hagel's confirmation to be Secretary of Defense; the arguments made in front of the Supreme Court about the Voting Rights Act.
Answer? They are all Rorschach tests on the legacy of the 1960s.
When Joseph Ratzinger was selected to be Pope eight years ago, the elevation of a former member of the Hitler Youth and a man referred to as "God's Rottweiler" was greeted with celebration by those hard-line conservative Catholics who want to drive a stake through the heart of the reforms that remain from Vatican II. Much like the current leadership of the GOP, these cardinals and bishops enthusiastically anticipated a shrunken but ideologically pure church, purged of any vestige of Vatican II's embrace of the modern world.
On the floor of the Senate, Republicans brought up a series of fictional and fabricated objections to Senator Hagel -- including comments about Israel, financial improprieties and other nonsense. The subtext to all that shrill noise, however, was Hagel's service in Vietnam and, more to the point, the lessons he has drawn from it about the use of American military power. Hagel came back from the Vietnam War decorated but sobered, and grew to be circumspect about the idea that military force was the solution to all our foreign policy challenges. For the chicken-hawk chorus among GOP Senators, this is a kind of heresy, and they tried to swiftboat him.
And just to the east of the Capitol, conservative Supreme Court justices asked a series of deeply skeptical questions about the continuing efficacy of the Voting Rights Act, leading many to speculate that the Act's days are numbered. Passed in 1965, the Voting Rights Act did nothing less than revolutionize American political participation by finally ensuring that African Americans in Southern states could exercise their basic right of citizenship. Conservatives have been fuming about it ever since.
The social and political transformations brought by the 1960s continue to enrage conservatives, and those issues -- civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, a more tempered American military -- serve as the dog whistles for their constituency. During the presidential campaign four years ago, my wife somehow wound up on the email list of the Republican National Committee and began receiving daily emails from Senator Orin Hatch (whom I started referring to as her new BFF). In one of his denunciations of Barack Obama he noted that "Hanoi Jane" was among his supporters. "Hanoi Jane"??!! At one level, it was a measure of just how out-of-touch the GOP had become, how old, and white and tired. At another, it revealed the extent to which conservatives are still railing against the 1960s.
This fixation helps define a basic difference between conservatives and the rest of us at this political moment. Most of us believe that certain issues in American life have been resolved, and we want to move forward. Conservatives have never acknowledged those victories and believe that they can be undone. Hence Rick Santorum can be taken seriously as presidential timber by campaigning not just against abortion but against birth control of any kind (an issue the rest of us thought was settled by the Supreme Court in a series of decisions in the second half of the 1960s).
We thought the issue of voting had been laid to rest too, but even as the Supreme Court considers the Voting Rights Act, conservative activists in states around the country devise nouveau versions of poll taxes, literacy tests and other forms of disfranchisement.
Eight years later, God's Rottweiler proved to be toothless and ineffective, presiding haplessly over a series of scandals and bumblings. Some of them he created, others he inherited; but he failed to deal with either sort competently. So too, most of us see the results of November's election as an utter repudiation of the party that keeps fighting the battles of 1968 -- the party that wants to keep women in their place, restrict the franchise, and still believes the American military can do no wrong.
But what most of us see as victory, conservatives do not see as defeat. Those on the losing side of history have much longer memories than the rest of us. They keep resurrecting battles most of us thought had been decided long ago. Their world view was best captured by William Faulkner in his book Requiem for a Nun: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Which is why, while the rest of us want to get on with things, conservatives keep dragging us back to the 1960s.
Steven Conn's most recent book is To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government