When I came home from the Army in the late Sixties, I spent a lot of time smoking dope and arguing with a good friend about whether everything was politics -- his idea -- or everything was culture. I've never been more convinced I was right. Politicians, like everyone else, swim in the sea of mass culture. Political movements emerge and ride the wave of mass culture for a while, then sink back into the sea. It is impossible to imagine the New Deal outside a culture that understood the idea of society, just as it is impossible to imagine the Civil Rights Movement and the antiwar protests that followed outside the Counterculture of the Sixties.
Can protest movements stay alive in the absence of something like the Counterculture of the Sixties? Has enough work been done to build a culture of dissent to sustain them?
Near the end of the Sixties, the University of Texas School of Communication, together with Stanford University, hosted a week-long seminar every year at Pebble Beach. The schools brought a handful of graduate students and professors to Pebble Beach to spend a week with the leaders of the mainstream media. The kicker -- the brainchild of Stan Donner -- was that the "leaders" who were invited to the seminars were the number two men and women of the broadcast industry, the men and women UT and Stanford figured had the best shot at grabbing power and doing something different when they did. The theory was that the last people in the world who would shake things up were the people in charge. If you wanted to talk to somebody in the industry about doing something better, the person you needed to get to was the heir apparent.
The problem with the American political system now is that not only the leaders, but all of the possible pretenders to positions of leadership -- to political office, you see -- have been vetted by an establishment process that has eliminated the possibility that any anti-establishment -- read anti-Wall Street and anti-Corporate -- idea will work its way into the political process. The culture just isn't there to sustain it.