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The Politics of Againstness
Where will the Man and Woman of the Year be led by their discontent? The left sees the nation already on the edge of a long night of repression. Nixon, says the left, is subtly calling forth the night riders. The liberal-oriented National Committee for an Effective Congress worries that the Administration is molding the Middle Americans into a respectable new right based on the militant Goldwater morality. "The Administration is working the hidden veins of fear, racism and resentment which lie deep in Middle America." says the committee in its annual report. "Respect for the past, distrust of the future, the politics of 'againstness.' "
Witness, says the left, the Chicago conspiracy trial, in which seven defendants face possible $10,000 fines and five-year jail terms for violating a law of doubtful constitutionality. Or witness what seems to radicals—and many others—to be a systematic police slaughter of Black Panther leaders. They point to John Mitchell's wiretapping policies, preventive-detention program and no-knock raiding techniques. They see harsh drug laws as political instruments by which Middle America means to destroy dissent and counterculture. In Danville, Va., last July, an 80-year-old judge sentenced a 20-year-old student to 20 years for possession of marijuana.
Some Middle Americans doubtless do believe that repression is the only answer. They were disposed to take Spiro Agnew seriously when he tossed off his line: "We can afford to separate them from our society with no more regret than we should feel over discarding rotten apples from a barrel." Yet most Middle Americans would find repression incomprehensible and intolerable, a violation precisely of the American values they cherish. Certainly, a species of Know-Nothingism is evident in the U.S. But, as Harvard's Seymour Martin Lipset points out, the reaction does not begin to approach the tenor of the '20s, when many Government leaders preached a blatantly anti-immigrant racism.
Right or Left?
In the '20s, it was merely the values of small-town America that were challenged. In the '60s and into the '70s, it is the nation itself. Americans, almost unique in the world, are incapable of imagining a different form of government for the nation. As William Pfaff observes, "The Constitution is all." Thus to assault America, to call for revolutionary change, as some black and white radicals do, is a profoundly spiritual offense, an invitation to Armageddon. Most Middle Americans, and most radicals, share one blind spot: they tend to forget that both the form and content of the U.S. Government have undergone enormous changes over the years, and that the Constitution will tolerate much more change without having the entire system collapse.
The present shift to the right is in one perspective illusory. Since the start of the New Deal, the tide of the nation has flowed to the left. Middle America is now swimming against that tide on some issues, but the current is likely to continue, carrying it ever more