The benefit of experience in judging the past vs. today


Marty Rochester


I recently passed the three-quarter century mark in my life. As one is wont to do at this age, I have spent considerable time lately reminiscing about what has transpired over the past 70-odd years, both the highs and the lows. 

I am struck by all the doom and gloom reports we hear today about the world, especially our own country. I have commented myself on “the madness of our political system” and other negative features of contemporary society. 

On the left, we hear constantly about the current “threat to democracy” on the heels of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and even the real possibility of another “civil war.” 

On the right, we hear about the growth of “American Marxism.” Worldwide, we worry about pandemics, the proliferation of authoritarian regimes, climate change, and World War III.  

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Granted, there are serious concerns domestically and internationally that we face. That said, humanity has never lacked for concerns. Are the concerns today any worse than in the past?

I would argue that we have seen far worse. I am not even talking about my parents’ generation, which, after all, spent half their lives, including the flower of their youth, experiencing in successive decades World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. Those who followed the “Greatest Generation” — from my own Baby Boomer generation to Gen Z — have experienced nothing close to such calamity. 

Indeed, many who are engaged in today’s hysteria about the imminent demise of democracy and onset of another civil war in America as well as the end of the earth apparently did not even experience — or do not recall — the more recent events of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, when things were considerably worse than at present. 

Allow me to offer the benefit of my still vivid recollections of what life a half-century or so ago was like and ask yourself if we have more daunting challenges today.

I can still recall the duck-and-cover drills in grade school during the 1950s, when the Cold War was raging between two ideologically opposed superpowers each equipped with thousands of nuclear weapons targeted at the enemy’s homeland. The peak Armageddon moment of the Cold War was during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when President John F. Kennedy estimated the odds of a nuclear war as “between one out of three and even.”

During the Cold War I would show my students annually a 1966 BBC film “The War Game,” which graphically depicted what a nuclear war would look like. At the end of the film, the narrator somberly predicted that by 1980 a dozen more nations would have nuclear weapons and the stockpile would grow from the 60,000 warheads then in existence. Thankfully, not only did the Cold War miraculously end without a shot being fired, but the nuclear club has remained below 10 members while the stockpile has been reduced six-fold.  

Yes, we currently have tensions with Russia over the Ukraine and with a rising superpower challenger China over Taiwan and other issues, along with coping with an unstable regime in North Korea, but the current international system is not more dangerous than the Cold War system, only more complex. 

As for the rise of authoritarianism in the world, even though Freedom House has noted that its annual count of democracies peaked 15 years ago as some countries have experienced reversals since, there are still more democracies today than there were during the Cold War (Freedom House, “Freedom in the World 2021: Democracy Under Siege”). 

Although the United States’ aggregate Freedom in the World score has declined by 11 points over the past decade, we are still listed as a “free” country, a status highly unlikely to change anytime soon. The much-decried threat to American democracy, posed by a reported decline in civil rights, rise in political violence, a new distrust of our institutions, and other such developments, has been exaggerated. To the contrary, things are arguably much improved from where they were earlier in my lifetime.  

We hear about “Jim Crow” laws now being passed by several states, but Jim Crow was largely eliminated with the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race and color, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices. Criticism of Georgia and other states recently passing voting reform legislation that is “racist” seems unwarranted; calling for voter ID hardly seems restrictive, given the fact that virtually every democracy on earth has voter ID requirements. There has never been greater access to the polls. 

Thanks to the omnipresent “diversity, inclusion and equity” movement, there has never been more effort to address not only racism but also sexism and other “isms.” 

We also lack perspective on the current state of political violence in the United States. As bad as the Jan. 6th  mob assault on the Capitol was, as well as the dozens of cities that experienced looting and arson during the summer of 2020 protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, we too easily forget the mass unrest that prevailed in the 1960s and 1970s. Recall the burning of more than 100 cities following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, the violent antiwar protests at Kent State, Syracuse University (witnessed by me and Ron “Born on the Fourth of July” Kovic) and other college campuses unlike anything we see today, and the 10,000 demonstrators who  disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago (attacked by over 20,000 Chicago police and national guardsmen).

Distrust of our institutions is nothing new. As The New York Times (July 3, 2015) reported, “Trust in government has steadily deteriorated over the past several decades. . . In 1958, 73% of adults said they trusted the government ‘most’ or ‘some’ of the time. By 2014, the percentage had dropped to 24%.” The biggest drop coincided with the Vietnam War and the Watergate cover-up in the 1970s, and trust in government never recovered, reflecting growing distrust of institutions generally.  

Worry about a new civil war is perhaps the most overblown concern. True, there is an ongoing culture war along with widening polarization between our political parties and red and blue states. Still, the majority of Americans, when polled on most issues (such as abortion, immigration, gay rights, and crime), tend to fall in the middle, supporting relatively moderate, centrist positions — if only our liberal and conservative elites were willing to provide that kind of reasonable leadership.  

No, Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler in waiting, and Joe Biden is not the second coming of Joe Stalin. Such comparisons by our disgraceful mass media are grossly inflated and only add to our problems. Trump and Biden are no more extreme than Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, although my guess is that the latter two would have made better presidents. 

If anything, rather than freedom suddenly being at risk, maybe our mass media are too free today — that is, along with social media, too easily able to disseminate misinformation, such as the impending collapse of America and the world. We would all do better to rely on our personal, lived experiences as a basis for judging progress or retrogression.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.