By Pauline Dyson
It was 1960, the newly inaugurated president was John F. Kennedy and the Cold War was in full bloom. I taught social studies to high school seniors in suburban Connecticut. The prescribed curriculum listed a unit on ideologies – the tenets of communism, fascism, Nazism. The question of the day was: Would, or could, America become one of those extreme political ideologies?
Twelfth-grade civics students put forth their opinions on this question, supporting their points of view with evidence. While meant to be an open-ended question, we teachers were expected to reassure our perhaps fearful pupils that extreme ideologies would probably never take hold in America for the following reasons: the U.S. had no tradition of authoritarianism or dictatorships. Besides, socialism or communism, or their counterparts, fascism/Nazism, were anathema to our democratic institutions developed over time through evolutionary, gradual reform and advancements such as enlightened child-labor laws, workers rights in a society where rank and tradition mattered less than opportunity, achievement and social class mobility.
We were protected by a written Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, and a Declaration of Independence.
Unlike many European nations, we had not suffered the ravages of military conflict (World War I and World War II) and thus seemed prepared for world leadership in the post-war Pax Americana. Both the Democratic and Republican parties were viewed as “umbrella” organizations that encompassed both liberal and conservative, left and right, moderates and independents. Neither major political party was dominated by a particular wing of ideological thought. Consensus and cooperation was the essence of politics. Congress, the executive branch and the courts were equal partners in governance.
A free press, known as the Fourth Estate, was to report the news clearly and objectively. Its role was to shine a light on the government and its decision-making powers on both domestic and foreign issues.
Imagine a teacher today with the same lesson plan I taught in the 1960s. To the ideologies of the past must be added religious fundamentalism, neo-conservatism, neo-Nazism, neo-liberalism and identity politics.
America today with its polarization, stalemated government and multiple sources of news and analysis, plus social media, would make such an instructor’s assurance that American was a stable democracy virtually impossible.
Tragically for us, descent into hardened ideological positions, tribal politics, cyber scams, foreign interference in our elections, a gridlocked Congress and an incompetent president has turned the answer to the 1960 question, would or could America become ideologically extreme, to an arguable yes.
The disturbing Charlottesville events followed by a weak condemnation from the president have only added support in answering that existential question of extremism posed over 50 years ago in American classrooms.
Pauline Dyson, of Williamsville, is a retired high school social studies teacher and a member of the League of Women Voters.