A Generation Divided

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Klatch, Rebecca E. A Generation Divided: The New Left, The New Right, and the 1960s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.


In A Generation Divided, sociologist Rebecca Klatch argues that while most know of the activist movements on the Left in the 1960s, the period was also a time of an explosion of activism on the political Right. She studies members of the Leftist SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and the Right's YAF (Young Americans for Freedom), exploring their personal backgrounds, experiences in activism, and subsequent lives to try to explain what type of person became an activist and what they felt about their experiences.

Klatch selected a set of 74 former activists, who composed what she believes to be a demographically representative sample from both the Left and the Right. After conducting extensive interviews with each activist, focusing on demographic background of the activist, political involvement and organizational experiences, interpretation of key events of the 1960s, and activists' lives since the 1960s (11). She then "coded" the interviews to find patterns in experience. The majority of the book is told through quotations from these interviews. she also uses archival data on the organizations, though she cites this material far less than the interviews.

Klatch begins her book with the acknowledgment of two important facts: these activists, by the sheer fact of their strong activism, are not typical people, but are much more politically aware and involved than others had been at the time, and that experiences within an organization are not necessarily similar--there were certainly political ranges within the SDS, especially between early and later years, and there was a definite split in the YAF between traditionalists and libertarians. However, Klatch also sees a lot of similarities within the SDS and the YAF, and similarities between activists from each group. Activists tended to be raised within privileged families in which both parents were educated. Klatch finds that YAF mothers were more likely to be homemakers after their children were born, while SDS mothers tended to work outside the home. YAF families were more religious, though religion played a role in SDS homes as well. Many activists carried on their parents' political involvement and personal politics, with only a few adopting different political views.

Many activists saw themselves as always politically aware, with most joining the SDS/YAF in college. For SDS members, the civil rights movement and later the war in Vietnam were important catalysts for involvement, while YAF members saw anti-communism and Barry Goldwater's 1964 election campaign as turning points for involvement. Political involvement solidified political beliefs and tended to isolate the members from those with opposing beliefs (though she notes that YAF members were more likely to have friends outside of the organization). As activists became more radicalized on the Left, they made choices that had lasting impact on their lives much more so than activists on the Right, as Leftist activists were more likely to be arrested for their protests.

SDS activists and libertarian members of the YAF were more likely to be involved in the counterculture movement. Indeed, the counterculture was one of the reasons for the libertarian-traditionalist split within the YAF, as it became very obvious who belonged in which camp. Drug use also split the camps, while for the SDS, splits were formed due to increased militancy and the belief (or not) in violence. Involvement with violent acts and groups such as the Weathermen and the Black Panthers caused some Leftist activists to go underground for a period of years.

Klatch concludes with the observation that most activists have remained politically aware to varying degrees, with former YAF members more likely to be involved in politics by working within the system (as lawyers, political appointees, etc), while former SDS members are more likely to be involved with charitable organizations and fighting for various causes. Most are also teaching their children to be politically aware.

Becky Erbelding, Spring 2010

Rebecca Klatch is convincing in her argument that activism in the SDS and the YAF rose almost simultaneously, and that there were many similarities between those who participated in the two groups. Her argument that activism on the right is a neglected part of the story of the 1960s is equally compelling.

However, I am not convinced by Klatch's methodology. She bases much of her analysis on interviews with 74 members of the SDS or YAF, intended a demographic and experiential sample. I feel this sampling is far too small for some of her larger comparisons. For instance, she notes that YAF women were more likely to have mothers who were homemakers--25% vs. 53% of SDS women. With men, the percentages are 39% vs. 33%. With such a small sample size, I do not feel this argument is convincing, though she brings it up throughout the book. Likewise, her arguments regarding whether women felt gender discrimination is unconvincing due to the small size. While I do not doubt the truth of individual statements, it is the generalizations Klatch then draws which are problematic to me.

It was interesting to see an exploration of activism on the Right, as well as first-person accounts of activism on the Left. However, since the book is so strongly based on individual memory and experience as well as the generalizations Klatch makes based on her sampling of activism, the fact that I found her methodology problematic made her conclusions problematic for me as well.

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