Jeremi and Zachary, with guest Dr. Vaneesa Cook, discuss the Port Huron Statement, and the shifting ideals of democracy in America.
Zachary sets the scene with his poem, “Port Huron Revisited.”
Vaneesa Cook received her PhD in US history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2015. She is the author of Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left. Her articles on the history of social movements and religious thought have appeared in The Washington Post, Dissent magazine, and Religion & Politics, among others. She is currently the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency historian in residence for the UW-Madison Missing in Action Project.
- Dr. Vanessa CookDefense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Historian for UW-Madison Missing in Action Project
[0:00:00 Speaker 2] This
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[0:00:13 Speaker 2] world’s most influential democracy.
[0:00:21 Speaker 1] Yeah, yeah, welcome to our new episode of This Is Democracy. Today’s episode examines the role of not just young people in American politics, but particular moments when young people make a difference moments when participation changes the nature of American society. We’re going to focus on the early 19 sixties, which has many analogous elements with the world we’re in today, a world of crisis and partisanship at a time when at least one group of young people stood up to make a difference in American politics. We’ll talk about what happened in that period and what we can learn for today, how participation among young people can and has transformed American politics in the past and how we can do the same, possibly for our democracy. Today we have with us the scholar who I think has written some of the most interesting work on these topics and the broader topic of participatory democracy. This is Dr Vanessa Cook. She is the author of a fantastic book, Spiritual, Socialist Religion and the American Left, a book she actually wrote as a dissertation under my direction. In most cases, she was directing me rather than the other way around. Venice has also written articles for The Washington Post, Dissent magazine and many other publications. Right now she is the defense P. O W. M. I. A accounting agency historian in residence at the University of Wisconsin. Madison is missing in action Project Vanessa, Thanks for joining us today.
[0:01:57 Speaker 0] Oh, thank you for having me.
[0:01:59 Speaker 1] It’s it’s really exciting to have you on. I’m looking forward to our conversation before we get into that conversation. We have, of course, Zachary Series scene setting poem. What is the title of your poem today? Zachary Port Huron Reasons that it Port Huron being the court hearing statement of 1962. Let’s hear your poem about its revisiting. We are people of this generation house now in we are people of this generation. Do not forget the oceans of intelligible transgressions and the mentally of the main millions. We are people of this generation house now, an absurdity and the phosphorescent orbs of radioactive civility. We are people of this generation standing by over list. We’re not sure make any sense to us now in the sea of so many sanctimonious automobiles mark them as the godly idols of our time. We are people of this generation. How is now in the black white haze of centuries of ambiguous certainty? We are people of this generation. Sleep, float Remember, we are people of this generation house now in absurdity and the wind flat deserts of parking lot dystopias. We are people of this generation standing now on a bluff overlooking the harbor, observes The Lady of Liberty. Wonder what oxidized horror she holds beneath the ground. Thus is the spirit of white giants in the reflecting pool, the names and white crawling along the black marble ball. I love the imagery. Zachary and I love openness and Finnish nature of that discussion. What is your home really about? My poem is really about revisiting the Port Huron statement of 1962 and the seminar First line. We are people of this generation, Um, and it’s really sort of about the experience of the 19 sixties and how relevant it still feels today, and some of the same statement still still seem to ring true. More than 50 years later. That’s a great place for us to start. Um, Vanessa, Why? In the early 19 sixties, now, almost 60 years ago. Why did a group of young people come together in the way they did too, right? This statement for the new generation give us the historical context for that.
[0:04:18 Speaker 0] So in 1962 the Students for a Democratic Society, which was a derivative organization from the League for Industrial Democracy. So a very old left type of organization that had a student branch they had just they were only two years old. So that students for a Democratic Society organization that started to spring up on campuses like the University of Michigan, uh, was only two years old when they decided we need some kind of statement for the public. We need some sort of. They avoided using the word manifesto but some sort of inspirational statement to really outline the problems that we have noticed in our upbringing that we noticed now that we’re on the verge of becoming adults and propose some solutions for those problems, a way to move forward and make the United States in particular, live up to the values that it espouses. And so some of those glaring problems were, you know, right on the heels of the McCarthy era and threats to civil liberties, freedom and democracy in that way. Also, war, World War Two and the Cold War that was starting to heat up more and more in the early 19 sixties was on the mind of these students. And I think you can read the fear of nuclear weapons on almost every page of this document as well. And so that was literally hanging over their heads as well that fear of possible possible nuclear warfare and another world war. But then, you know, they also had hope that they could see on the move. They could see the civil rights movement gaining momentum in the mid to late fifties and early sixties. And, um, you know, they could see students starting to become engaged again and not as apathetic or not. Just not just focused on career but also wanting to give back and, uh, inspired to make a difference in their country.
[0:06:15 Speaker 1] So one of the topics that comes up in this extraordinary statement is an attack upon or criticism of Southern Democrats. Can you say say a little more about that.
[0:06:27 Speaker 0] Yeah, So there was the two party system, you know, as we know it today, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. But at the time there was. I mean, obviously there’s overlap today as well. But there was a lot of overlap on certain issues, particularly civil rights, where there was a bit of a realignment going on in the early 19 sixties within the Democratic Party as a Democratic party became, um, came out as moron defensive civil rights, uh, the rights of African Americans, voting rights, desegregation issues. But there was a I don’t know if the faction is the right word, but a cohort within the Democratic Party called the Dixiecrats or the Southern Democrats, who you know because of geography and history in that area. Uh, we’re not as progressive on those issues of race relations and desegregation. And so there was this struggle within the Democratic Party, um, realigning around that issue in particular a brace and civil rights.
[0:07:29 Speaker 1] And in a sense, one of the criticisms of the students who wrote the Port Huron statement was that our society has become too partisan and partisanship was denying progress on many issues, issues where there was actually a strong consensus for change. Is that is that a fair, fair interpretation of what they were saying?
[0:07:48 Speaker 0] Yes. And I think the fact that if you read this document within the first couple of pages, they put values up near the top, not at the very beginning, but they’re section on values they really wanted to foreground that. And I think there was a strong belief that values could unite people, that we could agree on certain principles and values that had that American American, American American people supposedly stood for, would believe in and rally behind. And so I think the fact that they put that section on values and really hit that at the at the beginning of the statement showed that they were hoping to bring unity out of all this division. If we could agree on certain values that were that they thought of as more universal than I think we would today
[0:08:36 Speaker 1] and I think before we move on, we should probably also talk about who the students were, who were the authors of this document who were the main actors in students for a Democratic society at this
[0:08:48 Speaker 0] time. So, uh, students for a democratic society, like I said, had just been starting to get off the ground on campuses like Michigan, U. C, Berkeley, Wisconsin as well. Some of the bigger state schools like that. But at the University of Michigan, they took some time in the summer in June of 1962 to get together what they would think of as a conference at a campground, United Auto Workers campground or retreat. And they spent about a week. They’re trying to hash out these issues, trying to come up with this statement. So there were about 60 students, mostly from Michigan, uh, including Tom Hayden, who was picked to be the principal author. But even though he was the principal author, he was receiving input and feedback from all those 60 students. It was a mix of women and men, Um, but mostly white students as well. They came from different backgrounds. Some of them had grown up in very left radical households, but some of them this was new to them. This was new, and they had been inspired by the civil rights movement.
[0:09:50 Speaker 1] So what is this concept of participatory democracy that that is really almost originated in the Port Huron statement and why was it so radical for its time?
[0:09:59 Speaker 0] So that’s a good question, Zachary. And it’s something that since 1962 even the people who were involved in the Port Huron statement writing have had a hard time answering. Um, there’s a really good book called Democracy in the Streets by James Miller. And he has a whole chapter where he interviewed former members of Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, about what participatory democracy was supposed to mean. And there were such a variety of answers. And I thought I thought that that was very fascinating to see that even the people in the room who um came up with this phrase in this concept had very different ways of thinking about it. Basically, what it is is the idea that democracy isn’t just something that you do on voting day. It’s not something that you just pull a lever and vote for a certain politician, but democracy well, in that way, it’s important, and they wanted to expand it to African Americans who were being denied the right to vote. So in that way very directly. They were trying to expand democracy and in those terms. But then they wanted to go to the bigger picture of how democracy could be a part of life in general. That it was something that you thought about every day that you acted upon every day in your daily activities, in your neighborhood, in your community and so participatory democracy, as I have understood, it means getting engaged in your local political organizations, going to meetings and committee meetings and board hearings and public conferences so that you can voice your opinion or at least be informed about the issues that are going on and then to make connections between local issues and state national issues. So they’re not just stuck in a bubble, but you’re aware of how everything is connected politically and socially on those three tiers. And so that was radical because I think people thought of democracy is something that you do to vote for other people and like a Republican sense. But they wanted to make it much more of a cultural, uh, issue where it would permeate people’s lives.
[0:12:03 Speaker 1] That puts an excellent explanation you have given, and it really puts a lot of meat on the bones. I mean, in essence, it seems they’re saying that the obligations of a citizen are not subsumed in voting alone, that obviously one must vote. But there’s all kinds of continual daily activity that’s involved in supporting and promoting democracy in our communities and in our society. Was that vision put into action? What can we really see the Port Huron statement as a turning point of sorts? How would you,
[0:12:33 Speaker 0] to a certain extent, yes, I mean the people who wrote that statement and you know, the other STS branches that started popping up across the country. It became very popular document. There were hundreds of thousands of copies, or at least 10 thousands of copies distributed throughout the decade. But I think it did inspire people for direct action to get involved directly in either the civil rights movement or anti war activities or helping the poor in, you know, in inner cities or, um in their communities. So I think it was a call for direct action that you did see the flourishing of that. But of course, there were other trigger trigger issues like the Vietnam War that gave it more relevance.
[0:13:21 Speaker 1] How would you connect the story of direct action following the Port Huron statement with the civil rights movement? We’ll talk about Vietnam, too, But let’s start with the civil rights movement.
[0:13:30 Speaker 0] Well, a lot of the students first became aware if they hadn’t grown up in a household that was really well versed in politics and radical politics or if they lived in the North, and these issues, they felt like, weren’t as as relevant to their daily lives as you would in the South. But a lot of these Northern University students started to see some coverage on the news. They started to hear and read about things happening in the South, with African Americans starting to stand up for their rights march for their rights, petition legislatures for rights and that movement really got their attention. And so some students like Tom Hayden, for example, did go down to the South to report on these developments and to report back to the universities in the north. And this started, um, an awareness campaign for students in the north about what was going on. They saw that it was incompatible with the values of democracy and freedom and justice for all that Americans had supposedly lived up to, lived up to and fought for. And so they wanted to make a difference in that way by starting to get involved in the civil rights movement more directly. And so that was, I think, the first push for a lot of these young white students to get involved in politics and direct action.
[0:14:48 Speaker 1] So it made the civil rights movement more than just an issue on TV for them or something they read about in the newspaper and actually made it something that they felt they had to participate in one way or another.
[0:15:00 Speaker 0] And I think they were trying to put the civil rights movement in a larger context, which you can see in this document for the Port Huron statement where they were connecting it to corruption in politics. They were connecting it to apathy among the public. They were connecting it to race issues that were centuries old, problems with a disconnect between values and practice or theory and practice. So they were trying to reconcile all those things under the umbrella of the Cold War as well.
[0:15:29 Speaker 1] How would we talk about this in the context of the Vietnam War as well, because these are obviously interrelated phenomenon. The civil rights movement in the Vietnam War. Many of the authors of the Port Huron statement early opponents of the Vietnam War is that correct?
[0:15:42 Speaker 0] Correct. I think that because students were much more sensitive to issues of war than I think young people are today because because of the absence of the draft today, because war seems it’s never ending. But it’s just part of life. It’s not were not asked to contribute in a total war kind of way. We don’t see it on the news every day, like they were in the early sixties, in the infancy of television and news reporting in that way. But I think that young people on, particularly in STS, were very aware of war. Having grown up with World War two and then seeing this, you know, the Korean War and then the depending Cold war with the Soviet Union and the tensions, their nuclear weapons, like I mentioned before, the fear of another world world war breaking out and perhaps the draft occurring again and having to go fight for that So when Vietnam did occur, it was like the realization of their worst fears. With all of these things coming together with the threat of nuclear war, the threat of the draft, the threat of world peace, all those bundled together, I think, came together with the Vietnam War.
[0:16:49 Speaker 1] It seems to me that the Port hearing statement anticipates the intersection between the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War in its critique of militarized policy making and the emphasis it criticizes an American policy of placing perceived security interests and fear ahead of the possibilities for progressive change.
[0:17:10 Speaker 0] Yeah, I would say so. The military industrial complex, that phrase and concept comes up in the Port Huron statement. So they were very critical of that relationship between the U. S. Government, the military, the industrial complex complex of big business. And then they brought the university and that as well, where they also saw that the university was becoming another branch of this fight in the Cold War, where you know, winning against communism or being the best in the world’s strongest country in the world meant more than human values, whether it were black people in the United States or Asian people abroad in places like Vietnam.
[0:17:50 Speaker 1] Yeah. So how did that, uh, that sort of galvan ization around the Vietnam War translate into, like, domestic policy views and economic policy? It seems, reading the statement that a lot of their views on domestic economic issues tied back to foreign policy and nuclear nuclear issues.
[0:18:09 Speaker 0] So I think that, you know, obviously the Vietnam War wasn’t in 1962 wasn’t on their radar quite as much as it would, you know, just two or three years later. But I think they were already seeing that there was a threat of total war of the United States just transferring from one war economy to the next door, wanting to keep the war economy going because they felt like it was a strong economic momentum from World War Two that they wanted to keep going. You know, that threat of always going back to an economic crisis like had happened right before World War two? Of course. So I think that the Students for Democratic Society they were recognizing that maybe the government is somehow just perpetrating these wars for the sake of a strong economy For that military industrial complex, that relationship in the GDP that we could get from that. And so I see that relationship and in one way, to answering a question with that connection between foreign policy and domestic economy.
[0:19:12 Speaker 1] So a lot of what you’ve described so eloquently Vanessa would sound to some people like socialism or at least Democratic socialism. Um, is that is that accurate? And And if it is, why does it scare so many people? And why did it not scare the advocates of the Port Huron statement? And there, there soon hundreds of thousands of followers.
[0:19:35 Speaker 0] So the STS in this statement, they really shied away from using the term socialism because it was such a loaded term that really, in some ways had lost meaning because so many groups on the left were socialist to us to a different extent, or had a different twist to the point of nuance and detail about what socialism was or what communism was for that particular group and that theory and that dogma. So I think the Students for Democratic Society really wanted to get away from that dogma of traditional Marxist organizations, and so they wanted to present almost the same goals in the same values of as many Socialists had, but in a fresh perspective in a way that was not so tight. Adjusting economic, traditional economic issues but also culture and society in the broader sense. Like what could socialism mean? Not just for workers or your identity as a worker, but for your identity as an African American or a woman or a student? Um, And so they were recognizing that human beings are very complex and that socialism, really at its heart was about recognizing human beings as worthy as worthy subjects as people who are in need of help in different ways, not just in in the work environment and that we could make progress on human issues, uh, in in those variety of ways. So it was really about equality, which is a socialist value, but human values, not just the proletariat. And that was a big difference from their predecessors.
[0:21:06 Speaker 1] It’s a it’s a really powerful point you make and, um, your your research and writing have shown that, of course, there long traditions of American thinking around these issues and long a long history of activists working around these issues, bringing it up to the present of Vanessa. What do you think are the takeaways and lessons for today? We have many listeners who cared deeply about many of these same issues about civil rights, about building a more peaceful world, the world that’s more attentive to our needs through managing climate change and humanitarian issues. What what can we take? Is lessons from the experience of STS the experience of participatory democracy for today? And how do we today combat this? This label that is still used, this label of socialism that’s used to discredit those who are. You often push for reforms of these kinds.
[0:21:57 Speaker 0] So I think one of the biggest lessons is just the inspiration that the Port Huron Statement and STS can give to anyone, young or old, who feels overwhelmed by the issues or the problems that they have with politics today or society in general. All the things they would like to see and change, but feel almost helpless. I think that they can read this document even though it’s 60 years old, will feel hopefully inspired and more hopeful about the possibility for change. There are things that would be different if the Port Huron statement were written today, and we can talk about that if you would like. But I think there are so many issues that are still relevant, obviously, race relations, democracy with voting and elections. And, um, that’s very relevant to what we’re seeing right now. I am concerned, and I’ve been concerned in the last four years or so that Americans don’t hold up democracy as a value in a principle in the same way or to the same extent that they did back in the early sixties. I don’t think that there’s as much rhetoric, at least in general, discourse, about democracy as a as a concept of theory as a principle as a value that is worth defending and fighting for on every level, not just against a foreign threat but here at home as well. I think corruption in politics, even though it’s always existed in both parties and every party, I think it’s becoming more blatant and fragrant, flagrant and people are just, um, complete, more complacent about that. I think today you hear about defending the American way of life more than you do about defending democracy, and I know that goes back to FDR and the Four Freedoms to a certain extent. But I think the defending and the American way of life can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and it does not have to be democratic. So I just I hope that, you know, reading the Port Huron statement and learning about STDs would inspire people to really take up the mantle of democracy again. And really, um, put that forward as something worth talking about and reaffirming as a value
[0:24:07 Speaker 1] you’ve articulated so well. Then why we started this podcast two years ago, 126 episodes and now and why we wanted to talk to you about the Port Huron statement today because clearly at that moment 60 years ago, a group of relatively unknown young people came forward and opened what became a vibrant and enduring conversation about what democracy should mean in the United States in the late 20th century. How can we revitalize that conversation today to address the very issues you just brought up in your in your in your response?
[0:24:45 Speaker 0] Well, I think that people have to start really articulating what democracy means for this country what it means for everyone. You know the inclusivity of it. I think people need to start and you’re seeing this right now. You’re seeing a division between politicians who are representatives of this country and supposed to be defenders of democracy. You’re not speaking out against threats to democracy against flagrant abuses of the democratic process. In some ways, we can be, I think, confident that our institutions are still very strong and they will withstand this onslaught onslaught against democratic processes. But I think the American public needs to put pressure on this concept and and really start to talk about it more again. The rhetoric really means a lot. It’s what people here every day. It’s what they see on social media. Um, so I think that actually getting democracy into the conversation and breaking that down, unpacking that and reaffirming it is something we should believe in. Uh, that’s important.
[0:25:55 Speaker 1] How should How should young people do that today? I mean, you teach young people, as do I. Uh, there’s so much energy, so much talent. Um, they voted in larger numbers than they have before, but yet they seem so disenfranchised from our public discussion of these of these issues, and there’s still a lot of non participation. So how? How, how could we write or encourage the writing of another portrait statement for for 2021?
[0:26:24 Speaker 0] Well, we have to talk about this in coursework. We have to connect it to you know what’s going on in their daily life. But there are so many opportunities for young people to get involved either on campus or in the community around that campus, in the city or town that that campus is located. Uh, there are ways for young people to make a difference just by starting conversations with other family members who might not be on the same page or might not think of things the same way, even though it’s an uncomfortable and perhaps volatile thing to do. I think it’s important for people to stand up for those principles and to remind people, Hey, this is about democracy. It’s not about right or left. It’s not about Republican or Democrat. It’s not about this president or this president elect. It’s not about your religion or my religion. This is about democracy, and I think if we can use the Touchstone of democracy, which is very flexible, and that can be a problem, too. It’s a problem for Woodrow Wilson trying to get people rallied around that concept. It is a slippery concept, but I think that if people can bring our focus back to democracy, that’s at least a Touchstone that most Americans should believe in.
[0:27:34 Speaker 1] So make the conversation about democracy, not about a particular issue. That’s a subset of democracy.
[0:27:41 Speaker 0] Yeah, that’s I mean, I’m a failure at this, I think. But I’m That’s just my hope that people can bring that in the conversation and that it might unite people rather than divide them.
[0:27:51 Speaker 1] Well, that’s certainly what the Port Huron statement did. I mean, it became one of the most eloquent, inspirational and controversial and controversial in a productive way statements about what democracy should look like in a in a new moment in American history. Zachary, as someone who thinks about these issues of someone who’s read the Port Huron statement, as you have, um, do you see us entering a moment where it’s possible now again to return the discussion to kind of first principles and values? As Vanessa said so Well, yeah, I think that we’re at a moment in our history where all these conflicting values and and political ideologies and envisioning of democracy are coming into direct contact. There’s all sorts of friction, but at the same time, I think there’s also a lot of room to redefine those concepts for a huge swath of the population, in particular young people. So I think we’re really at one of those moments, like 1962 where we can redefine democracy and American society for a new generation when Lisa, are you similarly hopeful?
[0:28:56 Speaker 0] Yes, I do think that in this post truth sort of climate that we’re in today, it’s a very scary thing when you can’t even communicate with people who seem that they don’t live in the same reality that you do or, you know, they just they just put certain issues ahead of other issues that you believe in. So there doesn’t seem to be a lot of common ground today, and you can see that division in the polling and in the way people vote as well. But I don’t know. I’m really hopeful that democracy, even though it is such a broad concept, that it can be brought back to the forefront as a way to unite people that democracy is supposed to be inclusive. And if it’s inclusive, then it should be able to handle all opinions and all walks of life
[0:29:41 Speaker 1] well. And one of the points you make so well echoing, echoing the Port Huron statement, is that one of the strengths democracy has as a concept is that it can include more people. It can be more participatory and generally those who are trying to undermine or limit democracy. They’re usually trying to limit who votes and who participates and how they participate. And if we expand the range of participation, as the Port Huron statement encouraged, we offer an opportunity to bring in more voices and restore some attention to the realities and the values that are being intentionally neglected by those who want to narrow our discussion.
[0:30:20 Speaker 0] Exactly. And the fault lies on both sides of the aisle, with Democrats and Republicans at the national level. At the local level. You know, Jeremy Gerry, meandering at the local level and state level is an issue that needs to be addressed and has and has been addressed by some. But you know the court system is involved in allowing that to go on as well. So, yes, citizens need to really be aware of what their party is doing as well on the local level,
[0:30:48 Speaker 1] Right? Right. It seems to me, Benny, so that your your work and what you shared with us today shows that actually, in this partisan moment in this moment when we seem stuck, as we did in the late fifties early 19 sixties, there is an opportunity, a startling opportunity for hope and change, with more participation, participation that has to force its way in and with a vision that’s that’s not just inclusive, but also a vision that’s empowering for more for more groups. And it doesn’t have to be conservative or liberal Socialists or non socialist. It can be, as you say, Democratic Lower case D. Vanessa, thank you for sharing your insights and your inspiration with us today.
[0:31:29 Speaker 0] You’re welcome.
[0:31:30 Speaker 1] Zachary. Thank you for your poem on revisiting 14 right? And most of all, thank you to our audience that remains hopeful and engaged and is doing a real work of democracy. Thank you for joining us for this episode of this is democracy.
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