In the early 1990s, a journalist wrote about the existence of a “permanent adversarial culture” in the U.S. The journalist was absolutely correct: throughout American history, millions of Americans have “refused, either actively or silently, to go along.” The Democratic party has tried to win some of these people’s votes, and, in fact, depends on these votes. However, the Democratic party has been unable to appeal to the adversarial culture in substantive ways, due to its loyalty to corporate interests and the American system’s overall dependency on war.
Throughout this book, Zinn has praised the American people for their resistance to government propaganda and jingoism. Again and again, ordinary American people have resorted to demonstrations, riots, nonviolent resistance, and other forms of protest to express their dissatisfaction with the Establishment.
Dissatisfied with both political parties, Americans demonstrated against their government throughout the 1980s. In 1980, peace activists demonstrated outside the Pentagon against the buildup of the nuclear arsenal; later, they were arrested for their nonviolent civil disobedience. Later in the 1980s, as the movement against nuclear buildup expanded, peace groups encouraged referenda on nuclear disarmament. In 1982, the largest political demonstration in the country’s history took place in Central Park, New York City, against nuclear buildup. Throughout the eighties, activists staged protests against Reagan’s policies in the Middle East and Central America. Zinn notes that, during his time as a professor at Boston University in the 1980s, he rarely noticed selfishness or unconcern in his students. Rather, he found that young people were highly committed to social activism and social justice. Students protested Reagan’s cuts to welfare and the arts, as well as his tepid responses to police brutality against blacks.
The 1980s aren’t often thought of as a time of widespread political protest. However, Zinn shows that, in fact, millions of people protested and demonstrated against what they saw as government corruption and injustice during the 1980s. People of all ages and backgrounds joined together to protest America’s unjust policies, both in other countries and at home.
Despite the abundance of committed social activism in America in the eighties, the press, by and large, did not report on activism. Furthermore, the press persisted in characterizing the elections of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush as “landslides.” In so doing, the press overlooked the facts that 1) about half the voting population didn’t vote, 2) those who did vote were limited to two main candidates, 3) many of those who voted were unenthusiastic about either candidate, and 4) “there was little relationship between voting for a candidate and voting for specific policies.” In the eighties and nineties, no president was elected with the support of more than thirty percent of the voting population. However, because of the idiosyncrasies of the electoral college system, the media pointed to each victory as a “landslide.” Even so, most American voters didn’t support their chosen candidates’ policies. Despite the fact that a majority of Americans supported a “Canadian-type health system,” reduction in the military budget, and increased welfare, neither Democrats nor Republicans were willing to entertain such policies.
Again, Zinn discusses the ways that the media colludes with the Establishment. In election years, news networks often focus on the electoral college more than the popular vote, because it’s easier for presidential candidates to win “landslide” victories in the college than in the popular vote (for example, George Bush barely defeated Michael Dukakis in the popular vote in 1988, but he won a “sweeping victory” in the electoral college). By focusing so excessively on the electoral college, the media hide the fact that most Americans are disillusioned with voting, and have no interest in voting for any presidential candidate. They don’t feel that the American political system is representing their needs and beliefs.
During the 1980s, there was no cohesive “national movement for radical change,” but there were hundreds of smaller movements that reflected the people’s dissatisfaction with the government. Protesters challenged the nuclear power plant industry. In the South, there were hundreds of “local groups organizing poor people, white and black.”
Although he admits that the 1980s didn’t see a cohesive national radical movement, Zinn insists that the American people continued to work together, transcending race, to protest what they saw as the Establishment’s abuses of power.
One of the most important activist movements in the 1980s was the Chicano movement. Chicanos—people of Mexican descent living mostly in California and the Southwest, had been active in protests and activism in the 1960s, and in the seventies and eighties, when poverty “hit them hard,’ they retaliated by going on strike. Some Chicano strikers in California and New Mexico succeeded in winning union contracts for themselves. Also during the decade, the Latino population of the U.S. grew until it matched the percentage of the population that was African-American. With the influx of Latin people in the U.S. came some significant changes in American culture, especially its music and art. Latino immigrants were instrumental in building awareness of the injustices the U.S. facilitated in Latin America.
In this chapter, Zinn gives brief accounts of the many different populist, radical movements of American society in the 1980s. The Chicano activists of the Southwest were influential because they brought awareness of America’s foreign policy in Latin America, and also fostered important changes in American music and art.
In the eighties and nineties, the feminist movement faced a strong backlash from opponents of abortion. Congress passed laws that cut federal benefits designed to help the poor pay for abortions. However, the National Organization of Women (NOW) stayed strong in the 1980s, and in 1989, NOW held a rally in Washington, D.C. that attracted over 300,000 people. Other major forms of activism in the eighties and nineties included the gay rights movement, which, in 1994, held a Stonewall 25 march in Manhattan, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, when gay men fought against a police raid at the Stonewall bar in Greenwich village. Homosexual activists fought discrimination in the workplace and lobbied the government to fund AIDS research. However, the labor movement was greatly weakened “by the decline of manufacturing.”
Zinn has been criticized for not spending enough time discussing the feminist movement of the 1980s or the massive AIDS movement of the same period. Indeed, Zinn mentions AIDS only four times in the 700 pages of his book. For a more thorough account of AIDS activism in the 1980s, readers should consult Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On.
In the weeks leading up to Bush’s declaration of war against Iraq, Vietnam activists, including Ron Kovic, led protests opposing America’s military involvement overseas, and college students across the nation demonstrated. After the war began, the tides turned, and popular support for the war increased. However, Zinn asks, “Was it an accurate reflection of the citizenry’s long-term feelings about war?” Zinn posits that the American people were “swept up” in propagandistic support for the war, and didn’t truly support it at all. And even if a majority of Americans did support the war, there were hundreds of protests and demonstrations against the war. Protesters pointed out that, until very recently, the American government had ignored Saddam Hussein’s acts of genocide in Iraq. Only now was it deciding to “liberate” Kuwait, timing that suggested that the government had other motives.
In this section, Zinn is faced with the awkward task of accounting for the American people’s widespread support for a war that, as per his own arguments, was unjust and deeply immoral. Zinn argues that, had the American people known the truth about the Gulf War, they wouldn’t have been so eager to support it; furthermore, he suggests that government propaganda tricked Americans into supporting the Gulf War. Zinn has been criticized for skewing the evidence and making the American people seem more morally committed and opposed to foreign military intervention than they really were.
In the year following the end of war in Kuwait, support for the war, and for Bush, fell off. Activists continued to push for the idea of a “peace dividend”—in other words, the idea of taking a portion of the defense budget and using it for human needs. Americans demonstrated their understanding of the genocidal origins of their own country when, in 1992, on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World, they protested Columbus’s legacy. Indians across the country demonstrated on Columbus Day 1992 and lobbied textbook companies to “tell the truth” about Columbus. Indians’ efforts proved influential and sparked a major rethinking of Columbus’s legacy in K-12 classrooms.
Even though Zinn is mostly critical of the quality of contemporary American textbooks, he’s willing to acknowledge that American history textbooks have gotten better in recent years, largely because of the activism of Native Americans and other left-minded activists.
The effort to rethink Columbus’s legacy was greeted with horror by many powerful people in America. William Bennett, the Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, argued that Americans needed to respect their “common heritage” instead of questioning and criticizing it. But activists, especially feminists and advocates of black equality, questioned the idea that there was one “historical tradition” that bound all Americans together.
Zinn alludes to the “culture wars” of the 1980s; the widespread debate about which texts should be taught and studied in classrooms. Many elites believed that American students should respect tradition (and traditional books, heroes, versions of history, etc.) instead of learning to question it. However, in A People’s History, Zinn encourages readers to treat tradition with skepticism instead of reverence.
In all, as the nineties dawned, the U.S. remained under the control of powerful people, some of whom were Republicans and some of whom were Democrats. The Establishment was enormously powerful, not only because of its wealth, but also because it controlled the media. Even if the media largely refused to report on activism in America, it was clear that the “adversarial culture” wasn’t going away; on the contrary, people continued to fight for “a more equal, more humane society.”
Zinn concludes his chapter on the bipartisan consensus by arguing that the differences between Republicans and Democrats are minimal compared to the differences between elites and the common man. As Zinn sees it, the common man will continue to fight for equality and justice, even though the American Establishment continues to maintain an unjust balance of power.