WASHINGTON — Forty years ago, American liberalism suffered a blow from which it has still not recovered. On April 4, 1968, a relatively brief but extraordinary moment of progressive reform ended, and a long period of conservative ascendancy began.

The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the ensuing riots that engulfed the nation’s capital and big cities across the country signaled the collapse of liberal hopes in a smoky haze of self-doubt and despair. Conservatives, on the run through much of the decade, found a broad new audience for their warnings against the disorders and disruptions bred by reform.

A shrewd politician named Richard Nixon sensed the direction of the political winds. When President Johnson’s commission on urban unrest released its report in early 1968 and blamed the previous year’s rioting on “white racism,” Nixon would have none of it. The commission, he said, “blames everybody for the riots except the perpetrators of the riots.” He urged “retaliation.”

Nixon knew that his call for law and order was drawing working-class whites away from their alliance with the New Deal and the Great Society. “I have found great audience response to this theme in all parts of the country,” Nixon wrote to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

It is easy to forget that the core themes of contemporary conservatism were born in response to the events of 1968. The attacks on “big government,” the defense of states’ rights, the scorn for “liberal judicial activism,” “liberal do-gooders,” “liberal elitists,” “liberal guilt” and “liberal permissiveness” were rooted in the reaction that gathered force as liberal optimism receded.

From the death of John F. Kennedy in November of 1963 until the congressional elections of November 1966, liberals were triumphant, and what they did changed the world. Civil rights and voting rights, Medicare and Medicaid, clean air and clean water legislation, Head Start, the Job Corps and federal aid to schools had their roots in the liberal wave that began to ebb when Lyndon Johnson’s Democrats suffered broad losses in the 1966 voting. The decline that 1966 signaled was sealed after April 4, 1968.

Liberals themselves share blame for the waning of their movement. Just because right-wing politicians used “law and order” as a code for race did not mean that concern about crime was illegitimate. On the contrary, the country was in the opening stages of a serious crime wave and had good reason to worry about rising violence.

Liberalism itself was cracking up in 1968. Liberals had turned on each other over Johnson’s Vietnam policy. The old civil rights coalition splintered as advocates of racial integration warred with the defenders of Black Power, a slogan voiced in 1966 by a young activist named Stokely Carmichael.

Martin Luther King left this Earth at a moment of gloom, at least about the short term. “I feel this summer will not only be as bad but worse than last time,” he said, four days before his death, in a sermon at Washington’s National Cathedral. He was referring to the urban riots of the previous summer. And then came the days of chaos that followed his assassination.

“For those who had dreamed the dreams of the New Frontier, and shared the hopes of a Great Society, this was perhaps the darkest moment of the entire decade,” wrote Godfrey Hodgson, a British journalist who stands as one of the wisest chroniclers of the 1960s.

Forty years on, is it possible to recapture the hope and energy of the days and years before that April 4th? Has liberalism spent enough time in purgatory for the country to revisit how much was accomplished in its name and to acknowledge that the nation is better off for what the liberals did?

In “The Liberal Hour,” an important new history of the 1960s that will be published in July, Colby College scholars G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert S. Weisbrot note that for all its deficiencies, the period of liberal sway “demonstrated what democratic politics can produce when public consensus crescendos, when coherent majorities prevail, and when skilled leaders provide direction, inspiration, and relentless energy.”

For decades before the 1960s, conservatism was held in contempt by large swaths of the intellectual and political class. It was one of the great achievements of William F. Buckley Jr., whose death we mourned a few weeks ago, to insist that respect be paid to the great tradition whose cause he championed.

Now is the moment to put an end to our contempt for liberalism. There was business left unfinished on that fateful day in 1968, and it is time to take it up again.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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