Opinion

Could TV's 'Mad Men' heal America's culture wars?

The popular TV series 'Mad Men' portrays the 'Young '60s' – an era between the conformism of the '50s and the rebellion of the '60s. Its broad appeal hints that Americans might be ready for middle ground in the red-blue wars, too.

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The extraordinary popularity of the television series "Mad Men," which recently won its third consecutive Emmy for Best Drama, suggests an interesting and important shift in Americans’ attitudes toward our culture and history. That shift may have profound, if so far subtle, political implications.

For the past four decades, the divide in America – call it the culture wars, red-blue or whatever – has been based on clashing views of the 1960s. Republicans have blamed The '60s for changing America for the worse. Others herald the decade as a liberation from the 1950s. But there was an era in between. "Mad Men" is set in that middle ground of the "Young '60s," and its broad appeal points to the possibility of cultural compromise.

In fact, what people usually think of as the '60s, is not the entire decade, but its second half. Between the supposed "Happy Days" of the '50s and the overstated "Purple Haze" of the later '60s there was a very significant period that has tended to be overlooked both by those who celebrate the '50s and castigate the later '60s and those who do the reverse.

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The good old days

For 40 years, from 1968 to 2008, Republicans ran against things associated in the popular mind with the the '60s. Most have found it politically expedient to vilify the decade as a time of extremism, drug addiction, "free love," and excess of all sorts. Those who disparage the '60s as the source of most of our problems in recent decades often indicate that things were much better before the '60s. To be anti-'60s is to be ante-'60s and so pro-'50s.

But the "good old days" before the '60s may not have looked so good to those who happened to have a high level of pigmentation or two X chromosomes.

Those who imply that Americans were better off in the '50s should realize that they indicate that the nation was better off at a time when African-Americans and women were "in their place," and there was no place at all outside the closet for homosexuals. Those who praise the '50s must be careful of all that decade includes: suggesting that the nation was better off with a strict conformity imposed on almost everyone, and intolerance for anyone who dared to deviate from the prescribed norms. Television sitcoms portrayed nothing but "perfect" upper-middle-class white families. Was the nation really better off with segregation and extreme racism, and with the specter of a mushroom cloud hanging over everything?

New freedoms

The Young '60s began to bring into question and seriously challenge those pillars of the "old order." “Freedom” was the thrilling word on most lips, but it meant very different things to different people. A large part of the story, tension, and conflict of the era can best be understood in terms of blacks on the outside looking in, seeking "white freedom" – political, economic, and social participation and power – and whites (especially among the young) on the inside looking out, yearning for what they imagined to be "black freedom," unencumbered by society’s mores (written in shorthand as "sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll").

The Young '60s was an exciting time, a time of hope. It was a period dominated by positive approaches. In 1964, 77 percent of Americans said they trusted the government. Lyndon Johnson perfectly summed up the time in a campaign speech that year: "I just want to tell you this—we’re in favor of a lot of things and we’re against mighty few." What a contrast to the politics of later years, which have so often been based on what a candidate was against.

The 'Good '60s'

But there clearly was a "Good '60s." It ran from the sit-ins that began in 1960, through the middle years of the decade, and centered on the civil rights movement. This Good '60s were defined by attempts at rebuilding community, optimism, integration, sacrifice, and confidence in the capacity of government to play a role in making people’s lives better.

As "Mad Men" actor Jon Hamm (who plays Don Draper) has said, "There’s a pretty big sea change that happens at a certain point in society, and I think that the reason "Mad Men" has been so successful is that it lives in this transitory period of the ’60s." That Young '60s deserves far more attention, and "Mad Men" is to be commended for bringing it back into our consciousness. And, just maybe, a focus on that period between the extremes of the highly fictionalized '50s and the greatly exaggerated later '60s – the Ficties and the Sicksties – could help us to reach an armistice in the red-blue culture wars.

Robert S. McElvaine, a professor of history at Millsaps College, is completing a book manuscript on “The Young Sixties.” His most recent book is a new edition of "The Great Depression."

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