Before the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, conspiracy theories were primarily a feature of the political fringes in the United States. Groups like the John Birch Society warned of the dangers of fluoridated water; the Reverend David Noebel thundered against the threat posed by the Beatles. Their conspiratorial arguments were easily ignored, even laughable.
A half-century later, few people are laughing. After Kennedy’s death in Dallas, the notion of conspiracy moved permanently into the political mainstream. The assassination and its unknown motive became a benchmark conundrum for anyone with even a faint interest in public life. Americans of all stripes found it difficult to accept that such a monumental tragedy could be the random act of one man. Theories, ranging from the Warren Commission’s Report’s official finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone to speculation about additional shooters and Oswald being connected to the Mafia, CIA or other shadowy operatives, became part of American life.
The mainstreaming of conspiracy changed the political process in the U.S. by suggesting that candidates might win elections by running against government. The rhetoric of the Tea Party and the recent congressional attempts to bring down the administration of President Barack Obama at all costs are the legacy of JFK’s assassination.
Within a decade of the shooting, the powerful political consensus that had guided the U.S. out of the Great Depression was dead. This consensus valued pragmatism and civility in getting the job of government done, and eschewed extremism; it extolled democratic capitalism and a two-party political system; and it touted the nation’s exceptional history and the American dream.
Above all, the consensus stressed the importance of elites and experts. Kennedy’s violent death cast his successor, Lyndon Johnson, as the epitome of reason, moderation and self-control. Johnson took the reins of government from the fallen hero; he could be counted upon to lead the country in prudent domestic and foreign-policy directions.
This scenario did not play out as anticipated.
First came the aborted Republican revolution of 1964, in which Arizona senator Barry Goldwater wrested the presidential nomination from the so-called eastern liberal establishment, represented by moderate Republicans such as Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton. Conservatives achieved this triumph through an unprecedented grassroots strategy, ignoring elites and establishing and working through local and state organizations – setting<QL> a precedent for a more recent politics.
Goldwater lost that election to Johnson – one of the worst defeats ever for Republicans. Pundits suggested at the time that the GOP would never recover. But they ignored the retirement or defeat of several leading liberal and moderate Republicans. The latter, so important to a smoothly functioning democracy, especially in loyal opposition, served as a buffer against untamed ideology of the sort espoused by Goldwater. Soon, purged, defeated or retired, the moderates would become an endangered species, and the GOP would become a haven for the far right.
By 1968, the United States, led by a Democrat president, was mired in Vietnam. Urban riots, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and JFK’s brother, Robert (which reopened old wounds and old questions), and the Democratic convention in Chicago that turned into a bloody confrontation between police and antiwar demonstrators left the impression that the United States was self-destructing.
Republicans, dead in the water four years earlier, resuscitated Republican warhorse Richard M. Nixon, whose campaign emphasized patriotism and the rule of law. In 1968, the nation swung rightward, a shift accelerated by George Wallace of Alabama, a third-party candidate whose anti-political rhetoric outdid even Nixon’s with its attacks on elite northern white liberals, “pointy-headed intellectuals,” and protesters generally. “If any demonstrator ever lays down in front of my car,” Wallace warned, “it’ll be the last car he’ll ever lay down in front of.”
Nixon promised to bring Americans together, but his administration ended ignominiously with the Watergate scandal – an actual, provable government conspiracy. He faded away, but the Republicans’ right-wing grassroots organizers and organizations did not. Girded by a new infusion of energy from evangelical Christians offended by the liberalization of American society, they stepped up their work on local and state levels. God was on the Republic’s side, and God did not approve of Big Government. The demise of the Soviet Union – the ultimate godless “evil empire” – in 1989 proved the point. Five years later, during Bill Clinton’s first term, a right-wing landslide brought to Congress a group of Republicans whose views on personal morality, welfare and national security would have been considered extremist in the 1960s, but who were now members of the elite.
Today, Mr. Obama, a Democrat president who came to power on a wave of optimism, is obliged to address conspiratorial accusations about his birthplace and religion that 50 years ago would have been left out of mainstream discussion. And shutting down the government is a political tactic.
The Kennedy years began with great hope, with the president’s challenge for Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Fifty years later, we behold something quite different – gridlock, suspicion and recrimination. Nothing gets done, despite all there is to do.
Geoff Smith is an American-born professor emeritus at Queen’s University whose 1973 book To Save a Nation: American ‘Extremism’, the New Deal, and the Coming of World War II was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in history.