On October 1, 1964, Jack Weinberg, a free speech advocate at UC Berkeley was challenged by a reporter who suggested that Weinberg and his fellow students were inspired by Communists. Weinberg dismissed the reporter by replying, “We have a saying in the movement that we don’t trust anyone over 30.”
Don’t trust anyone over 30 became a mantra for many of my fellow Baby Boomers—those of us born in the years immediately following WWII. Don’t trust anyone over 30 went hand in hand with its sister mantras, Make love, not war and Hell no, we won’t go, referring to the West’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
It would seem that the social activism that came of age in the 1960s would have spawned a generation of movers and shakers…and in addition to the storied civil rights activists of the twentieth century, certainly many of the early protest leaders, like Weinberg himself, as well as Cesar Chavez, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Huey Newton, Mark Rudd, Mario Savio, and Bobby Seale to name just a few, went on to make their marks in a variety of social causes.
Yet by 1969, the same year that 400,000 Woodstock concert-goers enjoyed “3 Days of Peace and Music” on Bob Yasgur’s dairy farm, Richard Nixon seemed to have his finger on the pulse of another large swath of the population—the Silent Majority—who ultimately gave Nixon a landslide victory in the 1972 presidential election.
How could this have happened? How could a generation that marched for peace, equal rights, environmentalism, and social justice have veered so far to the right? Was it that once we finished our formal schooling we settled into lives of armchair liberalism? Interestingly, there is no correlative for conservatives. An armchair liberal is defined as someone of liberal ideals who takes no action to realize them. So do conservatives just sit aside hoping their ideals will be realized?
If the success of the Silent Majority is any indication, that may have been the case. By silently taking their convictions to the ballot box, their restraint resounded in landslide victories for Republican presidential candidates Richard Nixon (1972), Ronald Reagan (1980 and 1984), and George H.W. Bush (1988).
Meanwhile, those of us who marched and protested in the 60s were turning our energies elsewhere: now elbow deep in our careers, we were taking out mortgages, encouraging our children to scale the ivy walls, and squirreling away our savings in 401Ks. Were those armchairs so alluring—constricting—that we no longer had the time or energy to venture beyond the boundaries of our suburban homes?
This indeed may have been the case. And when our armchairs slid ever so slowly into silence, the result was a boisterous MAGA revolution.
The defeat of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, herself a Baby Boomer, may have been the ultimate slap in the face for the Woodstock generation. While winning the popular vote by nearly three million votes, Clinton lost the Electoral College to Donald Trump by 306 to 232. Stunned, the women of the Sixties, accompanied by their daughters, took to the streets once again in the January 2017 Women’s March to protest the inauguration of Trump. An estimated five million marched throughout the United States, making it the largest protest march in US history (with the DC estimates triple the estimates at the Trump inaugural the previous day).
Nonetheless, he persisted. The Titian-complected leader of the free world capitalized on the belief that the America of yore was no longer “great” and he took it upon himself to Make America Great Again. Brandishing MAGA emblazoned baseball caps, he ignited the imagination of the Silent Majority. Silent no more, they proclaimed their allegiance to their leader at rallies and the ballot box.
Did this finally light the fire under the Woodstock generation? Were we finally catapulted into action by the thought that our beliefs were being challenged? Possibly. And that may have resulted in a decidedly lukewarm Democratic presidential candidate upending the brash Republican in November 2020.
Now the tables had turned: while the Woodstock generation tepidly embraced Joe Biden, the no-longer-Silent Majority bristled. MAGAs moved on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 in an attempt to block the certification of Biden’s election. After an hours-long siege, resulting in several deaths and scores of arrests, Biden was certified the victor, and Trump, believed to have instigated the insurrection, faced impeachment for a record second time.
With the midterm elections fast approaching, and the January 6 Committee voting to subpoena Trump, the challenge for the Woodstock generation remains. Will we sit by silently? Or, like Trump’s MAGAs, will we let our voices be heard at the ballot box? Historically, midterm elections generate lower voter turnout than presidential elections. But this year, the balance of power in both houses of Congress is at stake.
How will we react to this challenge? Now, it is not our futures that are in question. It is the todays of our children and the tomorrows of our grandchildren that hang in the balance.
The armchair may beckon, but clearly the ballot box must take precedence.