WHAT THESE '68ers originally demanded was that America fulfill its own democratic promise, not that it take up a new revolutionary mission. The temple of the American democratic ideal had to be cleansed. A ritual cleansing began with the civil rights movement and resistance to the war, and was finished . . .
. . . once Richard Nixon resigned and the troops came home. Yet it was these very successes that fedd the American left's passion for greater purification, for an extension of the '68 spirit from the strictly political sphere to the whole of American culture.
Aspects of American life that hitherto had been spared the exacting scrutiny of pure democratic principles -- family, marriage, the regulation of moral, the authority of law, even the authority of learning -- now seemed somehow suspect, if not illegitimate. For the '68ers, it was perfectly obvious that the struggle begun in the streets of Selma and Chicago's Grant Park should be followed by new campaigns in the classrooms and bedrooms of America. The line between politics and culture looked absurd to them for the simple reason that they did not take the democratic idea to be a merely political principle. It was, so to speak, an existential one that deserved to be applied to every aspect of our lives.
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The American Founders had a strong sense of the passions to which democratic politics is subject, which is why they placed such a high value on moderating and canalizing them in the system of government they fashioned. What they did not anticipate was that the American conception of democracy would become an existential one progressively chipping away at the distinction between politics and culture that they took for granted. . . .
It is little wonder that since the 60's we have become such a "sensitive" nation, in every sense of the term, for we have extended the democratic project into extremely intimate areas of life: sexual identity, marital relations, authority in the family and moral education, not to mention the external complications of race and ethnicity. This conception of democracy as an all-encompassing way of life is utterly foreign to European society . . . .
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All revolutions inevitably face the same crisis: how to bring themselves to a close. This is because revolutionary success depends on stirring up passions that subsequently prove difficult to cool. . . .
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Yet the reason this revolution continues to haunt us is that by breaking down the last fences between democratic politics and culture, it entered unexplored territory. And there it has begun to lose its bearings and cause some harm -- to our families, our schools, our cultural institutions, our public life and, indeed, to our psychological well-being. These harms are real, not the figment of the conservative imagination. But they are virtually impossible for pro- and anti-'68 partisans to consider dispassionately, so strong is the grip of the democratic idea on us all. . . . .
(Mark Lilla, "Still Living With '68," New York Times Magazine, August 16, 2010)