What events caused voters to lose faith in the political system and the nation's leaders in the late 1960s and 1970s?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The assassination of John F. Kennedy in late 1963 and the conspiracy theories that almost immediately began to swirl around the official version of events (and which have never gone away) planted the first seed of what became wholesale unrest and disillusion in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

The assassination of John F. Kennedy in late 1963 and the conspiracy theories that almost immediately began to swirl around the official version of events (and which have never gone away) planted the first seed of what became wholesale unrest and disillusion in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But the single great cause of loss of faith in leadership was the government's handling of the war in Vietnam.

As it became increasingly evident that top officials were blatantly lying about the progress of the war and that US troops were being unnecessarily killed in a conflict that was being badly mishandled, citizens became increasingly restive. People simply don't like to die or have their sons sent to die for reasons they don't understand in a war that seems to be managed by immoral incompetents. Added to this, the way the draft was handled seemed arbitrary and unfair.

What added a great deal of fuel to the fire was the almost back to back assassination of two admired leaders, the Reverend Martin Luther King in April of 1968 and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in June of the same year. People were suspicious about these killings, and the very fact that they happened at all caused people to feel the society they lived in was being upended. Police violence against protesters at the Democratic Convention that year, and the National Guard firing on and killing four students nonviolently protesting the Vietnam War two years later at Kent State also added to feelings of mistrust toward the government.

All of this boiled over into the Watergate scandal that broke in 1972. Nixon was not by any stretch of the imagination a good guy, and burglarizing the Democratic National Headquarters and then lying about it were criminal acts, but the country also needed a scapegoat for everything that had gone wrong and was continuing to go wrong in Vietnam, and Nixon was that person.

Underlying all this was an increasingly well-educated populace that was willing to ask questions and challenge authority in ways they had not in the past. Idealism was also part of the national character at that time. People expected leaders to conform to ethical norms of behavior and were shocked, disillusioned, and outraged when they did not.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Many events caused people to lose faith in the political system in the late 1960s and 1970s; among them, were the following:

  • The ongoing Vietnam War, which President Nixon had promised to end but continued. The publication of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 showed that the U.S. had not only failed to end the war but had conducted a secret, enlarged war in Laos and Cambodia. In 1975, Saigon fell to the Communists, and the entire Vietnam War had been a failure. 
  • The Watergate scandal, in which Nixon had been found guilty of covering up the break-in that occurred in the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972, also caused disillusionment. Nixon resigned before he could be impeached, but his actions caused widespread distrust of the government. He had been secretly wiretapping and bugging his opponents and activists, causing people to distrust authority.
  • The failure of the Civil Rights movement to deliver on some of its promises. The movement had been effective at achieving desegregation of schools and public places, as well as voting rights. However, when the movement turned to more intractable problems such as poverty and educational opportunities for African Americans, many people became disillusioned with the government and Civil Rights leaders for failing to deliver on their promises.
  • The deaths of many national leaders at the hands of assassinations, including John F. Kennedy (which occurred in the early 1960s but continued to effect people), Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy made people feel insecure and that the government could not protect them and their leaders. 
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There were several factors that led to voters losing faith in the political system and in our nation’s leaders in the late 1960s and the 1970s. The Vietnam War was a major factor why this occurred. The government had been telling the public that the war was going well and would end soon. However, the images that the public was seeing on television showed a very different story. Additionally, when North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive in 1968, the public began to doubt the government. This led to the development of a credibility gap between the government and the public.

When President Nixon got elected in 1968, he promised to end the Vietnam War. However, the conflict was still going on as the election of 1972 approached. In fact, the conflict expanded into Cambodia, leading to some violent protests on college campuses, such as the one at Kent State University.

There also was much civil unrest in the late 1960s. Riots broke out in many cities as people protested against poverty, discrimination, and the continuation of the Vietnam War. It appeared as if the government was not able to resolve these issues.

After the election of 1972, people learned of the Watergate scandal. President Nixon said he had no connection with any event associated with the burglary at the Watergate building. However, evidence was found that proved President Nixon was involved in the cover-up of the event. This led to his resignation in 1974. Public confidence in our political system and in our leaders, which had been declining, took another hit with this event. Some people were further disillusioned when President Ford pardoned President Nixon.

There were several reasons for the decline in public confidence in our political system and in our elected officials in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Several events contributed to a decline in popular faith in the nation's political system and leader during this period. These included:

  • The deteriorating situation in Vietnam. More and more lives were being lost, and government assurances that the war was winnable seemed at odds with the situation seen on television by millions of Americans. By the end of the 1960s, the war's approval rating had declined to very low levels. This caused what has been called a "credibility gap" for the Johnson administration. 
  • The appearance of public disorder, especially in the cities. Americans witnessed urban riots, frequently violent antiwar protests, takeovers of administration buildings by campus demonstrators and other events that raised questions about the ability of the political system to address the needs of Americans.
  • Watergate. The depth and scale of the corruption revealed in this scandal scarred the American psyche in ways that perhaps nothing had before. The Watergate hearings and Nixon's subsequent resignation marked a low point in American faith in their political system.

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team