What-Really-Happened-to-the-1960sWhat Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy

Edward P. Morgan

2010, University of Kansas Press


Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.

– George Orwell, 1984


As a young and politically naïve college student, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to take several of Ted Morgan’s classes. His “Movements of the Sixties” course was hugely influential for me, primarily because exposure to the upheavals of that era taught me that the project of transforming our world towards a more democratic, just, and ecologically balanced future has deep roots. Standing confidently atop those long, sturdy roots transmits the possibility and hope that we can indeed change the world, because we already have. Indeed, the black freedom, anti-Vietnam War, women’s liberation, gay and lesbian liberation, welfare rights and other movements of the 60s era so successfully challenged the dominant capitalist institutions of the U.S. that those institutions have been scrambling for the last forty years to systematically minimize the possibility of future freedom struggles.

In this book, Ted Morgan documents a key component of that reaction: the two-pronged mass media campaign to denigrate and obscure the democratic promise that the movements of the sixties still hold, while at the same time co-opting the symbols and imagery of the sixties to make Corporate America “cool” and thereby sell more products. This media reaction has gone hand-in-hand with material forces, such as student debt, coercing the population into inactivity and obedience. In Morgan’s words, the result is a “depoliticized society,” with a “diminished ability to make history” (pg. 7). This book therefore becomes a weapon against rootlessness and despair, which I especially urge young people to read.


The Promise of Democracy

The 1960s are typically remembered as a time of turbulence and change. We all know the iconic images: assassinations, war, protests, urban riots, men on the moon, long hair, drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll. Yet, it’s a decade that Americans are still trying to make sense of, justifying an endless stream of retrospectives like CNN’s latest 10-part weekly series “The Sixties.”  Ted Morgan’s necessary book What Really Happened to the 1960s provides answers you won’t find on primetime TV. In his writing, the underlying story of that decade was a clash between capitalism and democracy, one in which perhaps millions of Americans participated in social movements and challenged the country to become more just and more democratic (8). In some ways they succeeded and in others they failed. But as the book’s subtitle, How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy suggests, the true history of that struggle has been consistently distorted and hidden from view. What the media still cannot comprehend, or perhaps would seemingly most like to forget, is the democratic promise that formed the basis of those sixties social movements.

“[L]argely disappeared from memory [is] the surge in democratic empowerment in which large numbers of Americans of all ages organized themselves to confront and transform a range of injustices rooted in American institutions” (6, emphasis added).

As a practice of democratic empowerment, students initiated the lunch counter sit-ins to challenge legal racial segregation in the South. (1961)

As a practice of democratic empowerment, students initiated the lunch counter sit-ins to challenge legal racial segregation in the South. (1961)

Morgan goes on to define the phrase “democratic empowerment.”

“[D]emocratic empowerment means one’s unfolding ‘freedom to,’ a lifelong discovery of one’s authentic self, the discovery of which progressively frees one from manipulation by others and potentially by the disabling scripts of the unconscious” (51).

In other words, the sixties’ social movements, at their best, were not just about stopping racism or war on a systemic scale, but also about the self-realization of the millions of individuals involved on a personal level. Forty years later, I experienced the same rush of democratic empowerment when I attended my first organizing meeting and realized for the first time that in working with others I had the power to impact the world around me for the better. The meaningfulness and self-confidence that comes from a politically active and engaged life contrasts dramatically from the dominant modes of apathy and self-loathing inoculated into us by capitalist society and its mass media appendages. The experience of activism allows people to see themselves differently and to grow into their full potential, gaining courage as they take on greater and greater challenges – from speaking at a meeting, to holding a picket sign, to risking arrest in direct action.

As civil rights organizer Jim Lawson is quoted, “ordinary people who acted on conscience and took terrible risks were no longer ordinary people. They were by their very actions transformed” (51).

This wave of personal and political transformation exploded in the black freedom movement as African Americans of all ages stood up against terrorism and oppression and gained new pride and voice, then contagiously spread out from the South to other areas and populations in the country. White students returning to campus from battles against segregation began to question and stand up against the U.S. invasion of Vietnam. Women involved in these movements connected their gendered experiences at the hands of “movement men” with the role of women in capitalist patriarchal society, and fought for a world without sexual inequality. Gay, lesbian, and trans people, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, American Indians, Asian Americans, factory workers, prisoners, and many others also joined in to the wave of democratic empowerment, finding themselves with greater confidence and higher expectations for the world around them.

Together, these social movements pointed the way towards a vision for a radically democratic society, in which capitalism would be replaced by the participation of diverse constituencies in the decisions which affect them. Such a vision was spelled out in many places including Students for a Democratic Society’s famous Port Huron Statement, which coined the term “participatory democracy.” This vision mortified the ruling class of existing society at the time, prompting such responses as the Trilateral Commission’s 1975 publication “Crisis of Democracy,” which defined the “crisis” as an “excess of democracy,” or too much democracy for the correct functioning of the U.S. in its role as “the hegemonic power in a system of world order” (243-46).

The fear of rising democracy was the prevailing attitude of elites long before 1975. Much of Morgan’s excellent book, in fact, deals with media distortions of sixties social movements at the time they happened. Rather than the right-wing myth of a “liberal media” bias, Morgan documents how the mass media during the 60s consistently misinterpreted the democratic surge of social movements in order to discredit them in the eyes of the public and prevent them from picking up too much steam. This was done on two fronts: 1) a right-wing “ideological backlash” which bore fruit in the policies of the Reagan-Bush presidencies of the 1980s, and 2) a “commercial exploitation” of sixties sights and sounds to sell “a feeling of empowerment as at least a partial compensation for the real thing” (9).


Ideological Backlash

“Jenny” from the 1994 film Forrest Gump embodies many of the media’s backlash mythologies about the sixties.

Building from Chomsky and Herman’s groundbreaking critique, Manufacturing Consent, Ted Morgan explains that while the United States has freedom of the press, the reality is that corporate media confines itself to covering and promoting “legitimate” points of view and excluding contradictory ones.

“[L]egitimate discourse for public consumption encompasses a range of viewpoints that embrace rather than challenge the system’s foundational myths, ideological beliefs, and institutions” (11).

Many of the perspectives and actions of the earlier black freedom movement, which challenged racist segregation in the South, were considered “legitimate” and were covered at times sympathetically by the mainstream press. Yet, once that same movement turned its sights from regional (Southern) to national or economic targets, the press swung against it. For example, Morgan quotes The Washington Post reacting to Martin Luther King’s first anti-war speech in 1967, “Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people. And that is a great tragedy” (76).

MLK had stepped outside the boundaries of legitimate discourse. Questioning Jim Crow segregation was “useful,” but questioning a US foreign policy which ultimately killed 3-5 million Vietnamese was interpreted as betrayal.

Many Sixties historians draw a line between earlier civil rights activism, most of which was explicitly nonviolent, and later post-1965 struggles, including “Black Power,” anti-war organizing, the women’s movement, etc. and create a “Good Sixties” vs. “Bad Sixties” mythology. Morgan’s research highlights how this was entirely a media construction, mostly due to the movements moving their criticisms of American society beyond “legitimate” media boundaries (64). As the press turned from sympathetic to unsympathetic, the official story got further away from the issues that movements were raising and increasingly focused on the protesters themselves as “outsiders.” Unable to comprehend or transmit growing moral outrage against the war in Vietnam, white supremacy in the North, or male domination of women, the media became fixated on the idea that all this protesting was due to “a new, postwar baby boom generation that… was restless, questioning, and ultimately rebellious” (61).

The “baby boomer” story or the “family quarrel” frame therefore was used to characterize protesters’ actions as errant and their causes as worthy of dismissal. Similarly, the media sensationalized appearances over substance, constantly revisiting the “dirty hippie” theme as a way to ridicule those involved in grassroots movements.

Other right-wing anti-sixties backlash frames have so thoroughly poisoned much of the media’s coverage of protest and activism that they have graduated to the level of “common sense.” Thus, attempts to challenge racism, sexism, homophobia or other oppressive behaviors are lumped into the belittling term “political correctness” (294). Feminism has become almost a dirty word in much of society, associated with “man-hating” and a completely fabricated, over-sexualized “bra burning” myth (130). Another commonly-held belief which Morgan’s book reveals to be a total myth is the story that veterans returning home from Vietnam were “spit on” by anti-war protesters. Instead, “[Jerry] Lembcke’s search for documentation of spitting incidents found only a few press reports of pro-war people spitting on antiwar veterans” (279). Nevertheless, this myth serves the larger establishment goal to “shift historical guilt from those who instigated and ran the war to those who opposed it” (248).

Forrest Gump, perhaps more than any other film, has become iconic for its thorough use of sixties-era imagery and music to reach a mass audience in the 1990s. However, the film also unquestioningly contains and propagates many right-wing backlash frames, reinforcing them in the public mind. I find it interesting that the selected protagonist is a white man from Alabama, home of the most vicious racism and some of the greatest racial battles of the 1960s. In Morgan’s words, the “innocent and mentally challenged Gump” remains oblivious of this racism however, and therefore provides an avenue for today’s viewers to “move past” or “get over” racial conflict by simply ignoring, Gump-like, that it is still a problem (276).

More blatant right-wing themes fill other scenes in the movie, including Jenny’s physically abusive boyfriend being “the President of SDS at Berkeley,” who hangs out with threatening, rhetoric-spouting Black Panthers, and the portrayal of the Vietnam War “reduced to one in which invisible Vietnamese inflict gruesome damage on young American men” (276). Finally, there is the incredibly problematic portrayal of Jenny herself. Instead of remaining with slow-witted-but-loyal Forrest, Jenny’s crime is in her seeking independence (perhaps an allegory for the women’s movement?) As punishment, Jenny then becomes the butt of a long string of backlash myths. Joining up with hippies she doesn’t know, she then “begins to smoke dope, performs naked in a club, is featured in Playboy, gets strung out on hard drugs, and eventually dies of an AIDS-like disease” (277). Along the way, Jenny is also shown with a large number of strange men, and even contemplating suicide. In one character, who happens to be the only sympathetic character involved in any kind of protest or movement activity in the film, Jenny embodies not only the myth that 60s activists had too much sex and took too many drugs, but that these behaviors led directly to the social problems of the 70s and 80s, most devastatingly the AIDS epidemic.


Commercial Exploitation

While Forrest Gump transmits these anti-movement backlash messages, the film is remembered more for its heavy dosage of iconic sixties imagery and its classic countercultural soundtrack. This represents the second prong of mass media’s reaction to sixties-era social movements, cultural co-optation. As Morgan details, not only the music and film industries, but TV especially adapted itself in the late-60s/early-70s to attempt to absorb the attention and market of “rebellious youth,” through such shows as “Mod Squad” and “All in the Family” (228-233). While these and other shows communicated various liberal ideas and attitudes prevalent in sixties counterculture, they effectively exploited them in order to sell ratings. At the same time, to the extent that this commercial co-optation took people off the street and plopped them onto the couch, it worked hand-in-hand with the government’s repression of social movements to demobilize the population.

Even more fascinating is Morgan’s exploration of the work of Mark Crispin Miller and Thomas Frank, who have each written extensively about the mass media’s post-60s adaptation that has elevated irony, self-satire, and absurdity in an attempt to stay “hip.” “The introduction of ironic, hip advertising became, in Frank’s words, ‘The magic cultural formula by which the life of consumerism could be extended indefinitely, running forever on the discontent that it itself had produced’” (221).

Watching TV commercials in 2014 is a drastically different experience than watching ads from forty years ago. If you go back and watch old commercials, it’s a startling experience. Not only do they run at a much slower pace, without constant cutting from one shot to another, and of course making use of far fewer computer generated effects, but the tone of the commercials was very different. Older ads tried to convince the viewer that their product was quality, useful, and affordable. Today’s commercials often have nothing to do with the product in question. Although they display the company’s logo and deploy other clever techniques to slip the brand into dialogue, the vast majority of today’s ads are 30-second comedy routines headlined by celebrities or wacky characters who are involved in some satirical or absurd plot. Corporate brands actively parody themselves in order to present the impression that they are perhaps cooler or hipper than other brands. Morgan suggests that this transformation is part of a “subversive dynamic that effectively preempts dissent and criticism because the media themselves are self-parodying.” (222).

Interesting to me is that parody, satire, and irony remain the most common cultural weapons utilized by those of us on the left or in the counterculture. It is as if we are attempting to stay one step ahead of capitalism’s cultural co-optation, mocking them faster than they can mock themselves. Yet, I would suggest that we have entered a race we cannot win. This is no longer 1968, and the vast majority of youth in the US today are completely plugged in to the mainstream media’s constant hum, while most are probably unaware that a counterculture or left movement even exists in this country. Whereas Thomas Frank speaks of the media’s “cultural machines that transform alienation and despair into consent,” the left’s use of satire apparently reverses this transformation (263). Yes, we know how to use our words and images to break down consent and conformity, but in doing so we seem to generate more cynicism and despair than we do hope or inspiration, qualities that are absolutely necessary for building a mass movement.


Pillars of Neoliberalism

Of course, the capitalist system’s response to the movements of the sixties has not only been confined to the realm of ideology or media. Material and economic conditions have also changed dramatically, largely due to the policies of neoliberalism, as Morgan recognizes: “Turning the world over to the market has produced an accelerated erosion of the ecosphere and an ever-widening gap of inequality in American and global society, to say nothing of the persistence of destructive and arguably counterproductive American wars.” (8).

What interests me is not only how the world has gotten worse since the 1960s, but how American society in particular has been redesigned in order to stifle and suppress the potential for grassroots movements, which are the best hope for the future to be better than the present. Here is an incomplete list of restructurings the political and economic system of the US has undergone through neoliberalism:

Image courtesy Divya Nair.

Image courtesy Divya Nair.

  • The prison-industrial complex and the “War on Drugs”
  • Rolling back the social safety net and redirecting funding to the military
  • The flight of manufacturing overseas and crushing the labor movement
  • Television’s orchestration of electoral politics and Wall St.’s  command over campaign financing
  • The non-profit industrial complex, which professionalizes and moderates dissent
  • An infinite number of new media and entertainment forms, offering distraction and fantasy
  • Student debt and the skyrocketing cost of higher education

Each of these changes is a pillar holding up the edifice of neoliberalism in the U.S., and the effect of each standing in place, not coincidentally, is to limit the space for grassroots social movements to grow and challenge the prevailing order. The last one, student debt, is the focus of my current organizing with a new campaign called Strike Student Debt! I was astonished to read in Ted Morgan’s book how drastically the attitudes of students have changed in the last 45 years, illustrated by this statement:

“[In 1966,] 88 percent of ‘today’s college graduates’ preferred careers ‘anywhere but business’” (165, emphasis added).

Certainly the rise of student debt has totally reversed these figures today, as the average student graduating with negative $30,000 is far less able to make ethical decisions about the jobs they take after college. Even while still on campus, students experience the chilling effect of the looming ball and chain of debt waiting for them in the future, encouraging them to focus their energies on concerns such as grades, networking, and a career, effectively shutting down space for activism. Instead of building occupations, we have students building their résumés. Instead of dropping out to join a community organization, we have unpaid summer internships. Morgan puts it plainly:

“Neoliberal policies” have led to “the reversal of past student activism.” “Escalating costs of higher education” and “burdensome loans” have reinforced students’ “preoccupation with finding the high-paying jobs the advertising world suggested were both desirable and necessary.” (253-54).

I believe we can build a mass movement to confront the staggering injustice of student debt. It is a strategic issue to organize around simply because of how widespread the problem is, affecting many millions of American youth, and disproportionately hampering those with less earning potential, such as women and trans youth, youth of color, and those from working class or low-income backgrounds. If the pillar of student debt were to fall, it’s quite possible that the increased room for student and youth activism would start a chain reaction that toppled other pillars and ultimately the entire neoliberal regime. Morgan’s book and many others exploring the radical democratic promise of grassroots social movements going all the way back to the first American revolution have documented that the public, once mobilized, has the power to change this country for the better.



The United States in 2014 is a profoundly “depoliticized society.” The vast majority of Americans do not participate actively in political life outside of voting or other severely limited, top-down arenas. As a result, people feel powerless to affect events, and the direction of society appears to be determined almost entirely by the existing capitalist power structure. Lawrence Grossberg called this “a world in which pessimism has become common sense, in which people increasingly feel incapable of making a difference” (316).

The contrast with the 1960s, a time when mass movements involving millions of “ordinary” Americans toppled entrenched power relationships like Jim Crow segregation and large-scale Cold War-driven U.S. war against the Global South, is stark indeed. As Ted Morgan’s landmark book explores in detail, a major reason for this epic shift has been the mass media’s misinterpretations, distortions, backlash against, and commercial exploitation of that tumultuous decade. By failing to communicate the real, grassroots history of 1960s America, entire generations such as my own have been raised in this country with a massive blindspot where there should be a rooted connection to that legacy of social struggle. Morgan phrases it best:

“What is lost in the media culture’s ‘Sixties’ is the powerful experience of people taking history into their own hands… If [this story] had been told to people over the past thirty to forty years, innumerable groups could have sensed their connection to this history, could have learned from it, and might thereby have a greater sense of hope linked to their own potential empowerment.” (326-327).

Empowerment is the key word. How do we empower ourselves, collectively and as individuals? How do we build a future whereby each of us is empowered – a real democracy? Action is necessary, but surely knowledge is the first step.