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Parting shot

"Parting shot" Continued...

Issue: "Giving thanks," Nov. 24, 2007

WORLD: You note that in 1963 leftist radicals were preoccupied with cultural politics-the transformation of education, the family, relations between the sexes, etc.-but liberals saw the radicals as sentimental, ineffective, utopian, and contemptuous of the beliefs and attitudes of the common man. How did the Kennedy assassination affect the relationship of those two groups within the Democratic Party?

PIERESON: During the post-war period and up until Kennedy's death, liberals (like JFK) tried to maintain a separation from leftists and radicals. Many of the radicals criticized capitalism as an exploitative economic institution; others criticized American life from a cultural standpoint, viewing our cultural institutions (the family, school, and church) as the main source of repression. Liberals sought to improve the economic security of the working and middle classes-not to upset their moral or religious outlooks. With Kennedy's assassination and the upheavals of the 1960s, the walls between the radicals and liberals crumbled, and cultural radicalism entered into the mainstream of liberal thought-where it remains today. The Democratic Party, overtaken by these forces, began to lose support among the working and middle classes, who defected to the Republicans. In this way, the Democratic Party lost its majority status in the 1970s and the liberal era, which began with FDR in the 1930s, came to an end.

WORLD: If blame for the Kennedy assassination had been properly assigned to a communist acting out of ideological motives, what would have been the effect on the development of radicalism over the subsequent 10 years?

PIERESON: This is a difficult question to answer because it involves a counter-factual. If JFK's death had been properly interpreted at the time as an event in the Cold War, it may have provided something of a barrier to the rise of the radical left in the later 1960s and a further reason for liberals to resist the advances of the cultural radicals. After all, their hero had been killed by a communist. How could they have any sympathy for the doctrines of his assassin? The misinterpretation of Kennedy's death opened the floodgates to the rise of the radical left in the 1960s.

WORLD: Which political grouping today emphasizes the themes and concepts that dominated John F. Kennedy's rhetoric?

PIERESON: This is another paradox: Kennedy, representing the liberal convictions of his time, was an optimist about the future and saw the American past as a tale of progress. Following Kennedy's death, liberals were overcome by a wave of pessimism about America and our institutions. Our abundance was based on greed and selfishness; our democratic institutions were based on the oppression of minorities; our conquest of the continent on genocide of indigenous peoples. The nation deserved punishment more than praise. When liberals abandoned their progressive narrative, it was eventually picked up by conservatives in the person of Ronald Reagan-who memorably said that America's best days are still ahead of us. Reagan was determined, like Kennedy, to win the Cold War, and he turned conservatism into the governing doctrine that liberalism represented in Kennedy's day.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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