-by Danny Goldberg
Last week, Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, compared truckers who were blocking streets in Canada to “hippies.” It was both an ahistorical use of the word “hippie” and an unhelpful frame in the context of efforts to keep the anti-Trump coalition together for the mid-terms.
The former conservative Republican Congressman has moved to the ideological center in the years since he took over MSNBC's morning slot after Don Imus was fired in 2007. Scarborough and his wife and co-host Mika Brzezinski opposed Trump during the 2016 campaign and were subsequently frequent targets of Trump’s vitriol, but Scarborough, (whose show is soon to expand to four hours every weekday morning) is not as progressive as night-time MSNBC hosts Rachel Maddow, Ari Melber, Joy Reid or Chris Hayes.
Nevertheless, Morning Joe showcases progressive views on race and economics from regular guests like Anand Giriharadas, Randi Weingarten, Al Sharpton, Eddie Glaude Jr. and Heather McGhee. (Alas, there is no such ideological diversity on the morning show about foreign policy).
Scarborough hijacked the word “hippie” to accuse Canadian trucker sympathizers like Tucker Carlson and Rand Paul of betraying the conservative ideals embodied by the sainted Ronald Reagan. (Reagan’s campaign for Governor of California in 1966 featured repeated attacks on political protestors at the University of California at Berkeley and a stump speech that featured the quip, “A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah.”)
The word “hippie” first circulated in the media in 1966 when the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco (home to The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and the Jefferson Airplane) became the epicenter of the American counterculture. By the end of 1967 the word “hippie” had been so distorted by the mass media, Hollywood, fashion designers, advertisers and head-shop owners that a group of Haight-Ashbury elders staged a “death of hippie” march to signal their disgust at the cooption of the word by the mainstream culture.
However, for millions of teenagers, “hippie” still had a deeper meaning and even Time Magazine took note. On July 7,1967 the newsweekly, which in those days defined middle of the road political culture as Morning Joe does now, did a cover story headlined “The Hippies: Philosophy of a Subculture.” Time told their readers, “Hippies preach altruism and mysticism, honesty, joy and non-violence.”
Although virtually all factions of the counterculture were opposed to the war in Vietnam, there was a schism among rebellious baby-boomers between hippies and radicals. Jerry Garcia said that after seeing radical Jerry Rubin speak at a seminal San Francisco gathering called “The Human Be-In” in early 1967 “All of the sudden it was like everyone who had ever harangued a crowd. It was every asshole who told people what to do. It was that angry tone… It made me sick to my stomach.” John Lennon’s song “Revolution,” mocked radicals who were calling for a revolution in the late sixties with the pointed lyric “we’d all love to see the plan.”
However, comparing the anti-vax truckers and their Fox News enablers to the anti-war movement writ large is also wrong. The Democrats who opposed the war such as Senators Wayne Morse, William Fulbright, George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy were never associated with violence or disruption. The highest profile anti-war figure in 1967, the year of the “summer of love” was Dr. Martin Luther King who, like many of the leaders of the antiwar movement, was committed to non-violence.
Scarborough seems to have conflated hippies with the Weather Underground, a small but storied group of a few hundred of anti-war radicals who included violence among their tactics, but the analogy is morally obtuse. Anti-vax mythology is wrong based on science and data. The anti-war movement of the sixties was vindicated by history. As Abbie Hoffman later reflected “We were young, we were reckless, arrogant, silly, headstrong … and we were right!”
The choice of “hippie” as a pejorative has echoes for Democrats too. More than one member of the Obama administration used it to delegitimize progressives who disagreed with the administration’s neo-liberal policies that triggered the Occupy Wall Street chant “Wall Street got bailed out, we got sold out.”
Shortly before the 2010 mid-terms (an election which would be disastrous for the Democrats), Susan Madrak of Crooks and Liars addressed Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod, "You want us to help you, the first thing I would suggest is enough of the hippie punching. We're the girl you'll take under the bleachers, but you won't be seen with in the light of day.”
Tensions and mistrust between progressives and neo-liberals are an even bigger problem for Democrats as they face the 2022 mid-terms with the threat of American fascism looming. Scarborough is not the only mainstream media pundit who is laboring under the delusion that Democrats can win the mid-terms by appealing to the small number of voters who swing back and forth between voting Republican or Democrat while ignoring the need to maximize turnout among people of color, and young people who vote overwhelmingly for Democrats.
On Sunday Chuck Todd opined on Meet The Press that the recall of school board members in San Francisco was symptomatic of a “wedge between progressives and pragmatists in the Democratic party.” But the most well-known leaders of progressive Democrats such as Bernie Sanders and AOC had no connection to the San Francisco recall battle. Real-life progressives prioritize a higher minimum wage, forgiveness of student debt, and lowering prescription drug prices, positions which more than 60% of all Americans support. What is “pragmatic” about opposing such popular proposals?
In Sunday’s New York Times, Maureen Dowd approvingly referred to former Bill Clinton campaign manager James Carville’s view that “Democrats should not be defined by their left wing or condone nutty slogans like ‘Defund the police.’ They should work not to seem like an urban, coastal, arrogant party indulging in faculty lounge politics that appeal to reason rather than emotion and use ‘woke’ words like ‘Latinx.’”
Carville is fighting straw men. The issues that actually animate the “left wing” of the Democratic party are disparity of wealth and climate change which effect people in all fifty states and with all levels of education. And what’s with the use of the word “urban” as a pejorative?
The Biden campaign of 2020 understood the need to speak to both the center and the left. That’s why Biden hugged Bernie Sanders on a Democratic debate stage and why he reached out to Sanders supporters like Cardi B. That inclusive attitude was one of the main reasons why the combined Green and Libertarian party vote total declined from 5.7% in 2016 to 1.7% in 2020, a four point differential which was far more than Biden’s margin in the swing states.
I don't expect The New York Times or Morning Joe to be a voice of the political left. That’s not their role. But if they are defining their moral center as opposition to fascism, they shouldn’t perpetuate a cartoon caricatures of progressives who are vital to the coalition required to prevail against the Trumpist Republican party.
One of the things I like best about Morning Joe is Scarborough’s love of classic rock and roll, particularly The Beatles. (The show broadcast several segments celebrating the recent Peter Jackson documentary.) But The Beatles weren’t just defined by “Get Back,” and “Yesterday.” They also gave the world “I Am The Walrus,” “Across the Universe,” “Within You and Without You” and “Yellow Submarine.” And the montage on the album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band included pictures of, Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs, Paramahansa Yogananda, George Bernard Shaw and Karl Marx.
Danny Goldberg is the author of the books In Search Of The Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea and Crossroads 2020: Art, Entertainment and Resistance to Trump)