Missing from most history books is a key moment leading to the culture wars now ripping through American politics.
In 1970, hundreds of construction workers pummeled around 1,000 student demonstrators in New York City — including two of my friends. The “Hard Hat Riot,” as it came to be known, ushered in an era of cynical fear-mongering aimed at dividing the nation.
The workers who attacked them carried American flags and chanted, “USA, All the way,” and “America, love it or leave it.” They chased the students through the streets — attacking those who looked like hippies with their hard hats and steel-toed boots.
When my friends in the anti-war movement called to tell me about the riot later that day, I was stunned. Student activists and union workers duking it out in the streets over the war? I mean for goodness’ sake, weren’t we on the same side?
According to reports, the police did little to stop the mayhem. Some even egged on the thuggery. When a group of hardhats moved menacingly toward the action, a patrolman apparently shouted: “Give ’em hell, boys. Give ’em one for me!”
The construction workers then marched toward a barely-protected City Hall. Why? Because the mayor’s staff had lowered the American flag in honor of the Kent State dead. In a scene eerily foreshadowing the January 6th Capitol Riots, they pushed their way towards the building.
Fearing the mob would break in, city officials raised the flag.
The hard hats also ripped down the Red Cross banner that was hanging at nearby Trinity Church. They stormed a Pace University building, smashing lobby windows with their tools and beating students and professors.
My friends escaped injury but they were traumatized.
The Hard Hat Riot had immediate political consequences. It was, in my opinion, a seminal moment in America’s culture wars.
Then President Richard Nixon exploited the riot for political advantage. His administration had been working on a “blue collar strategy” to shift white working-class voters to the Republican Party.
“Thank God for the hard hats,” Nixon exclaimed when he heard about the riot.
But rather than passing pro-labor policies to court workers, which would go against the values of the pro-business Republican Party, Nixon sought to use cultural issues like patriotism and support for the troops to drive a wedge between factions of the Democratic Party.
Nixon invited union leaders, some of whom were involved in the riot, to the White House. They presented Nixon with a hard hat inscribed with “Commander in Chief”and an American flag pin. Nixon praised the union workers as, “people from Middle America who still have character, and guts, and a bit of patriotism.”
Nixon’s strategy to use the Hard Hat Riot to appeal to blue collar voters paid off. In his 1972 re-election campaign against the anti-war Democrat George McGovern, he secured a victory with ease and gained the majority of votes from organized labor – the only time in modern history a Republican presidential candidate accomplished such a feat.
The Hard Hat Riot revealed a deep fracture in the coalition of workers and progressives that FDR had knitted together in the 1930s, and the later alliance of Black Americans, liberals, and blue-collar whites that led to Lyndon Johnson’s landslide re-election in 1964.
The mostly white construction workers who attacked the demonstrators had felt abandoned — and forgotten — as the Civil Rights movement rightfully took hold. They felt stiffed by the clever college kids with draft deferments, and burdened by an economy no longer guaranteeing upward mobility.
The class and race based tensions that Nixon exploited would worsen over the next half century.
I witnessed this when I was secretary of labor during the Clinton Administration. I spent much of my time in the Midwest and other parts of the country where blue-collar workers felt abandoned in an economy dominated by Wall Street. I saw their anger and resentment. I heard their frustrations.
Many Democrats, whether they will admit it or not, have not done enough to respond as Republicans have destroyed unions, exacerbated economic inequality through trickle-down nonsense, tried to gut just about every social safety net we have – and stood in the way of practically every effort to use the power of government to help working people.
Today, the right is trying to channel that same anger and violence against the Black Lives Matter movement, the LGBTQ+ community, particularly drag queens and transgender people, and whatever they consider “woke.”
It is the same cynical ploy to instill a fear of “the other” as a means to distract from the oppression and looting being done by the oligarchs who dominate so much of our economy and our politics.
As such, today we face the same questions we faced in 1970:
Will we finally recognize that we have more in common with each other than those who seek to divide us for political and economic gain?
Can we unite in solidarity, and build a future in which prosperity is widely shared by all?
I truly believe that we still can.
Read it on Robert Reich’s blog.