Are You Feeling Like It’s 1961?

by Liz Anderson on August 31, 2023

(This is another post in my series on Michigan politics, broadly construed.)

Why am I thinking about 1961? Because that was one year before University of Michigan students published the Port Huron Statement, a pivotal document that laid out the intellectual foundations of New Left student activism. (Excellent UM exhibit on the statement here.)  I am wondering whether UM students today, and U.S. university students more generally, are on the cusp of a generation-shaping leftist activist mobilization that will fundamentally transform U.S. politics, as UM students and university students more broadly were in 1961.

In 2012, I participated in UM’s speaker series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement.  I didn’t think my students were poised for a great wave of activism at that time.  But things are starting to feel different now. 

It’s been a long time coming.  I attended Swarthmore College starting in 1977, when the last few student activists from the Vietnam War era were finishing up their degrees.  Although activism had declined, I still recall how idealistic my college peers were, how interested they were in justice and making a better society.  Humanities majors as a percentage of U.S. college students peaked around then.  The philosophy major at Swarthmore was very popular.  Economics courses in radical political economy were still routinely offered.  All that changed when I started teaching in graduate school in the 1980s.  I returned to Swarthmore to teach as a visitor in 1985-6.  I asked my students about their life goals. Some told me they wanted to make as much money as they could.  My classmates would not have said that in 1977.  The Reagan era had really changed students’ perspectives.  Since I started teaching at UM in 1987, I have witnessed a steady increase in professionalism among my students.  Their resumes today, at both undergraduate and graduate levels, are much more impressive from a professional point of view than in my student days or even in the 1990s, when good jobs were still abundant.  I sense that since the financial crisis, much of my students’ professional activity has been driven more by anxiety and a sense of increasing competition for fewer opportunities than by optimistic greed, as in the 1980s.

The 2016 election was a wake-up call.  The day after, my students and much of the faculty were in shock.  Only my Black colleagues saw this coming.  They shook their heads over how naive the rest of us could be. 

Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes out of 4.8 million cast.  To get some perspective on this margin, consider that in 2016, there were just short of 500,000 students enrolled in Michigan colleges and universities.  Overall voter turnout in Michigan that election was 63% of the voting age population. Great Lakes college student turnout was 48.7% (I couldn’t find Michigan college turnout data).  Young voters nationally favored Clinton over Trump by 57% to 34%.  Had Michigan college students turned out at the same rate as Michigan voters overall and voted for the candidates in the same ratio as their national age group, that would be 71,500 more votes, 40,755 for Clinton and 24,310 for Trump, or a 16,445 swing toward Clinton–enough to have swung the entire state.  (Of course this calculation is rough.  International students could not vote, and some out-of-state students voted in their home states.  Counterbalancing that is the likely fact that college voters lean left relative to their non-college peers.)

Perhaps recognizing that they had failed to utilize the voting power they had to swing the election their way, Michigan college students started to organize voting registration and turnout drives after 2016.  This activity accelerated after the 2018 youth-driven March for Our Lives protests.  Michigan’s 15 public universities joined a nonpartisan campaign to inform students about how to register and vote. 

The results were dramatic.  At UM, student turnout jumped from 60% to 78% between 2016 and 2020.  In the 2022 election, Michigan’s youth voter turnout was the highest of all states (37%, a non-presidential year).  The line at the campus voting site was 4-5 hours long on election night.  One of my students sent me photos.  He kept up voter morale by distributing donations of pizza, water, and blankets, and playing party music for those in line.

Of course, there is a lot more to activism than voting.  Since 2016 Michigan students have been rallying for Black Lives Matter, March for Our Lives, and action on climate change.  And I can feel a new enthusiasm among my students for discussing big ideas about justice and changing the world in the classroom.  Even at UM’s Ross School of Business, students are showing up for Andy Hoffman’s Reexamining Capitalism.

One thing is clear: just like in the 1960s, a huge generation gap is opening.  Students are angry at how older generations–Boomers in particular, my generation–have left them with weighty problems they’ll have to solve.  Some of the concerns of today’s youth are the same as in the 1960s: racism, police violence, poverty, inequality. Some of the issues are different.  Today climate change, gun violence, LGBTQ rights, and abortion rights are prominent. 

It’s hard for me to tell from my perch in Michigan how widespread these trends are among college students and young adults more generally.  Are you feeling like it’s 1961? I welcome your feedback in comments. 



Robert Jennings 09.01.23 at 1:49 am

Perhaps, this time we should be looking for a group other than college students to reinvigorate democracy.


nastywoman 09.01.23 at 7:56 am

‘Perhaps, this time we should be looking for a group other than college students

How about
everybody else is joining the students to reinvigorate democracy?

We could start with everybody on Crooked Timber?
(Kant and Engels FIRST!)


J 09.01.23 at 3:36 pm

The Port Huron Steatement is now just over 60 years old.
Twenty some years ago I had an undergrad comp class read it.
It was a challenge to get them to read it (TL:DR), but I reminded them they were reading a statement written by students like them, and that the authors were probably about the same age as their parents were in 2002….
Overwhelming response was not to content or quality of the argument. They just couldn’t engage with it.
The statement is hyperlinked here…print it out and read it.
The “Liberal Papers” is free in Internet Archives if you can’t find it in your local library system.
These were good ideas then and remain good ideas now. But now there is no place to consider, discuss and develop them for any implementation.


Peter Dorman 09.01.23 at 5:10 pm

I have a pet theory about the long 60s. For those born around the time I was (1949), by the time I was becoming politically aware (late 50s), the trend was toward greater openness and possibility. Every year saw a little more dissent, a little more loosening of sexual mores, a little more cultural and political adventurousness. I felt as though I were part of a wave that would grow larger and stronger and crest with some sort of revolution. At least, it seemed possible.

At first, the 68 election felt like a hiccup, but by the early 70s it felt like the wave had already crested and started to recede. In retrospect, the period from the late 50s to the early 70s seems unique and unrepeatable. I doubt that a young idealist today would have the same feeling of open-ended possibility. (Which may be a good thing, since much of the utopianism of my 60s-70s self was not very helpful.)


Ebenezer Scrooge 09.01.23 at 6:40 pm

I’ll believe that the yut’ are different when I start seeing a relative decline in business, economics, and communications majors, and a relative increase in humanities majors. (STEM people are a lot less vocational than you might think.)


Roxana 09.01.23 at 7:35 pm

Hmm… the Port Huron Statement? What about


Roxana 09.01.23 at 7:37 pm

Hmm… the Port Huron Statement? What about the original Port Huron Statement. Not the compromised second draft:


Seekonk 09.01.23 at 9:56 pm

“The 2016 election was a wake-up call. The day after, my students and much of the faculty were in shock. Only my Black colleagues saw this coming. They shook their heads over how naive the rest of us could be.”

A Saturday Night Live skit at the time captured the un-astounded black take:

(5 min 37 sec)


EB 09.01.23 at 11:35 pm

SDS had a fairly important effect on the early days of the antiwar movement, but faded later as it became too extreme for the rest of the antiwar movement. It had no effect at all on various economic justice efforts. So, good at early messaging, not important after that.


engels 09.02.23 at 9:47 am

two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation

Communism is stakeholder capitalism, workfare and the Twitterfication of the whole country.

Be careful what you wish for…


engels 09.02.23 at 11:58 am

Maybe I’m in a bad mood but it seems like a lot of the problems are still with us while a lot of the “solutions” have been completely coopted. Eg

the cumbersome academic bureaucracy extending throughout the academic as well as the extracurricular structures, contributing to the sense of outer complexity and inner powerlessness that transforms the honest searching of many students to a ratification of convention and, worse, to a numbness to present and future catastrophes. The size and financing systems of the university enhance the permanent trusteeship of the administrative bureaucracy, their power leading to a shift within the university toward the value standards of business and the administrative mentality


work should involve incentives worthier than money or survival. It should be educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; self-directed, not manipulated, encouraging independence, a respect for others, a sense of dignity and a willingness to accept social responsibility


Z 09.02.23 at 5:04 pm

Considering the main political divide in the US is urban/rural, and philosophy students are a particular demographic, it might be interesting to compare the attitudes of your students to residents of Ann Arbor (and especially outside Ann Arbor) of similar age, or maybe ask your students about the attitudes of their non-university attending friends back home.


dneus 09.02.23 at 6:34 pm

There’s no doubt that college students are more politically activated today than they were under Obama, and they are pissed off. However, SDS is not a good analogy: means and ends are both dramatically different.

The SDS generation was a mostly white cohort that was under the influence of postwar existentialism; it looked to politics as a way to discover a more “authentic” existence. It was a context when the economic existence of the average white American seemed secure, and students had the luxury of worrying about the country’s moral spirit rather than just self-interest. Today’s students have vastly more pragmatic concerns.


JBL 09.03.23 at 12:07 am

“In retrospect, the period from the late 50s to the early 70s seems unique and unrepeatable.” Indeed, you will never be a teenager again.


Dr. Hilarius 09.03.23 at 4:54 am

I find generational level comparisons rarely useful. Aside from the obvious, that generational cohorts are not uniform, these cohorts themselves change within their own generational period.

SDS in the infancy of the Port Huron statement had little in common with SDS of 1966 onward much less with the Weatherman faction post 1969. And SDS was a tiny organization with a presence magnified by the popular press. The anti-war movement as a mass movement was motivated by a pragmatic concern; not being drafted to fight in Vietnam. The movement dwindled away following Nixon’s Vietnamizaton policy and the last draft induction at the end of 1972.


nastywoman 09.03.23 at 6:28 am

‘I used to float, now I just fall down
I used to know but I’m not sure now
What I was made for
What was I made for?’


LFC 09.03.23 at 2:31 pm

The first quoted passage by engels @11 (from the Port Huron Statement, I assume) has a very contemporary ring, esp since most would probably say that the power and size of “the administrative bureaucracy” in universities has increased since 1962.

While the Port Huron Statement was a collective document, its main author was Tom Hayden, who was influenced by, among others, Arnold Kaufman. CT contributor Eric Schliesser wrote a blog post about Kaufman last year (see also a 1984 piece on Kaufman by Kevin Mattson in Dissent):


oldster 09.03.23 at 11:51 pm

Dr. Anderson —
Do you think that the Port Huron statement had any significant impact on events that followed? Or was it merely epiphenomenal, a manifestation of the real underlying drivers of the 60’s cultural changes? It gave one particular form of expression to widely-felt desires and dissatisfactions — did it do any more than that?
Surely it was a less significant causal factor than, e.g., oral contraception. Less than the demographic bulge of young people caused by the Baby Boom. Less than Dr. King’s strategic leadership of the Civil Rights movement.
Had it never been written, would not the 60’s have played out more or less as they did?


mw 09.04.23 at 10:06 am

I think it’s worth noting that the political landscape in Michigan completely transformed after 2016. On the ‘strength’ of Trump’s razor-thin victory, Trump allies took control of and effectively killed off the long-standing centrist, business-oriented Republican Party in Michigan and made the new version of the party politically irrelevant. Democrats in Michigan now control everything — not just the governorship, but all of the statewide offices. And the supreme court. And both houses of the legislature. The abortion rights referendum passed by a wide margin. Democrats, who completed their takeover last year with the capture of the legislature, have been steadily ticking off longstanding progressive goals, one after another. Next up in the new session are mandatory paid family leave and 100% renewable power.

The problem for progressives in Michigan now isn’t taking control, but rather making a success of what they have won. One worrying early sign is that the state’s population has begun shrinking again following some slow growth during the 2010s. I wonder — would a form of student activism be possible that includes sticking around after graduation and maybe even procreating? That seems more appropriate for the current situation than a new Port Huron statement.


Doug M. 09.04.23 at 2:17 pm

It baffled me for years — decades — how much attention the Port Huron Statement got. One one hand, it represented the views and concerns of a small minority of (almost entirely upper middle class white) college students. On the other, it had basically zero influence on anything that came after.

All I could think was that it became iconic because it was the first Statement from America’s College Youth, right at the beginning of The Sixties. The first tentative throat-clearing before the shouting started, if you like.

But looking at it today? I don’t think it even reaches “meh”.

Doug M.


LFC 09.04.23 at 4:15 pm

@ oldster

Istm you’re setting a very high bar for something to escape the category of “epiphenomenal.”

Apart perhaps from Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique(1963), whose impact took a while to show up fully in the culture, is there any piece of writing from “the sixties” of which one could not say that events and trends would have unfolded in much the same way if it had never been written?


LFC 09.04.23 at 4:24 pm

P.s. I’ll put Harrington’s The Other America in the same category as The Feminine Mystique as books that had a definite impact on real-world events. I’m hard pressed to think of many others from that era. Chomsky’s antiwar essays were important but there wd have been an antiwar mvt without them.


Fake Dave 09.05.23 at 5:30 am

“I wonder — would a form of student activism be possible that includes sticking around after graduation and maybe even procreating? That seems more appropriate for the current situation than a new Port Huron statement.”

I don’t think the current generation is in any hurry to settle into domestic complacency and start pumping out kids straight out of college like so many 60s students (even the “radicals”) did. That lifestyle was premised on a whole freight of class assumptions (easy credit/affluent parents, low student debt, access to professional jobs without work experience, a stable housing market, etc.) that no longer apply and in many cases haven’t applied for decades so even students’ parents (if they went to college) had their “college experiences” end with a whimper of stagflation, Reaganomics, and the hollowing out of the middle class. Too many parents and role models became convinced that their superior education was what allowed them to ride out the wave of de-industrialization and pushed that model on the next generations without realizing that everyone else’s kid got the same message (what were the alternatives?) while the schools just weren’t what they used to be.

Students in this century are a vastly larger segment of the population. More people are going the “some college” route with state school and community college enrollment exploding and iconic SLACs like Swarthmore becoming increasingly irrelevant to the conversation except as prestige tokens for competitive grad school admissions. The “grad school coccoon,” meanwhile, has also sprawled out to be something of a lifestyle for people who’ve been spooked or wounded by a brutal job market, scarce housing, and the self-esteem shattering shock of going from being a bright kid at a good school to an underemployed gig worker or the junior employee barely trusted to get coffee. That sort of crash landing is hard enough to take at 20 with a good career ahead of you, but if you’re over 30 amd struggling to support yourself and avoid the social stigma of “boomeranging” back to the family home, and feel as likely to be downsized as promoted, “settling down” starts to sound like a poverty trap.

So we stumble on as best we can amidst patronising narratives of “failure to launch” and “milennial angst” and and a disempowering discourse of crisis, fragility, precarity, extended adolescence and grief for the coddled and overstimulated lost souls of the smartphone generation who don’t even know how to have unprotected sex anymore. Not that the “leave them kids alone” side of things is much better. We’re well into our second decade of being told (and telling each other) how screwed the younger generations are and how much better the (affluent, white) older generations had it and I don’t think that’s been good for us either. Everyone from shut-in screen addicts to the superannuated grad students shamebragging about being “too busy to date” seems to have some generational narrative for why it’s not worth trying to escape their suffocating comfort zone.

The aspirational Instagram yoga and scented candles stuff and the Business Insider hustle culture fantasies about house flipping 20-something millionaires with three jobs and no expenses aren’t any better (and don’t help with the feelings of inadequacy), but I get pretty sick of the clickbait about how we’re all having mental health crises because of climate change and mass extinction and the imminent collapse of democracy and there’s nothing we can do about it because capitalism and racist old people screwed us and are killing the planet and refuse to die.

We’re told being “childfree” isn’t just a personal choice but a political one and that it’s selfish to want to bring kids into a world of precarity, overpopulation, and climate collapse and how our overconsumption and addiction to growth is dooming the planet. We’re also told how selfish and solipsistic it is not to have kids and sustain the population and subjected to endless, breathless warnings about “graying” populations and the looming demographic crisis.

It’s all a lot to take, especially when most of us are our own people with our own problems that aren’t obviously related to big picture zeitgeist stuff or really that different from previous generations. If “Boomers” (a group that apparently includes people born more than a decade after the Baby Boom) had our problems, they’d probably complain the same way, and if we had theirs, we’d be pretty annoyed at being unappreciated and blamed for everything. We are all a product of our circumstances, but our own people as well and are generally doing our best and should try to understand each other. Or at least that’s how I feel before some silly out-of-touch person tells us that the real concern of the consciencious young student activist should be “sticking around” and “procreating” without the slightest acknowledgement of why that isn’t happening or how it might relate to the raft of issues conscientious young people are currently talking about.


engels 09.05.23 at 11:51 am

Thanks for the reference to Kaufman (who I had to look up).

Another interesting point is that there is only one mention of the term “working class” in the whole document, and that is to the “organized working class” as a privileged group that excludes among others “lower-middle class person[s]”.

very limited “poverty-solving” which is designed for the organized working class but not the shut-out, poverty-stricken migrants, farm workers, the indigent unaware of medical care or the lower-middle class person riddled with medical bills, the “unhireables” of minority groups or workers over 45 years of age, etc.


dneus 09.05.23 at 3:25 pm

Doug M. @20 –

I think the Port Huron Statement is most influential on the Right. Its impact on leftist movements was modest, but right-wingers have spent the last half-century acting as if SDS was synonymous with the Democratic Party. If we didn’t have Port Huron, would we have Chris Rufo?


Liz Anderson 09.08.23 at 10:47 pm

I am not so sure that the Port Huron Statement had little influence. The authors laid out an agenda for the New Left to reform the Democratic Party so that it could be an agent for progressive change, particularly on civil rights issues. This required pushing the white supremacists out of the party. And indeed, New Left student activists did quite a lot to drive them out! Of course, that opened up a huge opportunity for the GOP to appeal to them. Although the process took decades and involved multiple causes, it seems to me that the New Left can take some credit for the massive partisan realignment that resulted. The authors of the PHS went wrong, however, in supposing that kicking out the racists would turn the Democrats into an agent of progressive change. The main civil rights and antipoverty initiatives of the 20th century were enacted by LBJ just a few years after the PHS, by a party that still included lots of racists. And the Reagan backlash, combined with the end of the Cold War and the decline of organized labor, pushed the Democrats to the right, into a bipartisan neoliberal consensus. Not what the New Left wanted! We are still reckoning with the partisan realignment 60 years later.


oldster 09.09.23 at 9:01 am

Dear Dr. Anderson,
Thanks for your reply concerning the role of the PHS in reducing the Democratic Party’s tolerance for racists.


Peter T 09.09.23 at 11:02 am

I don;t think the current socio-political climate is greatly influenced by leftist of progressive aspirations, so it’s not 1961. It’s more driven by rightist and reactionary fears. The assertiveness of women and sub-classes threatens millennia-old patterns of order, just as working class political assertiveness from the late C19 threatened the ancien regimes of upper-class privilege. The costs of going backwards are huge, socially, economically and in human terms – but I doubt that will be deterrence enough.


mw 09.12.23 at 1:40 am

@Fake Dave “That lifestyle was premised on a whole freight of class assumptions (easy credit/affluent parents, low student debt, access to professional jobs without work experience, a stable housing market, etc.) that no longer apply”

I don’t know — the millennials I’m acquainted with who’ve been most likely to marry and have kids (and stick around) are the more working class and religious ones who somehow do this despite (or because of?) their lower-status and lower-paid jobs. The ones I know with affluent, high-educated parents have nearly all left (and not gotten very far on settling down even when they have good professional jobs in their adopted coastal cities). This category includes my own kids and nearly all of their high-school and university friends. Perhaps the church-going, blue-collar millennials who are sticking around and having kids are too dumb or deluded to realize the end of the planet is inevitable?

I do think you’re right that young people (especially the conscientious ones) may have been scared into thinking they should not procreate because the planet is doomed, but they should remember that this is the same kind of overactive conscientiousness that once approved of ZPG and the China one-child policy. Before unchecked climate change, it was ‘the population bomb’ that was going to kills us all. Or peak resources.
Or nuclear winter. Or some combination of soil erosion, acid rain, aquifer exhaustion, and over fishing. Not to say that none of these threats were real, but there is some good reason to suspect that muddling through will get us through.

If your political ‘tribe’ specializes in convincing its young members that the future is so dark that having children is irresponsible, isn’t that almost a guarantee of eventual failure (not least if the ‘other tribe’ is somewhat more resistant to such ideas)?

Could we be getting to the point where optimism for the future is a radical stance?


engels 09.12.23 at 9:38 am

the millennials I’m acquainted with who’ve been most likely to marry and have kids (and stick around) are the more working class and religious ones who somehow do this despite (or because of?) their lower-status and lower-paid jobs

Iirc statistically this is a blip: marriage is much more common among higher earners.

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