Students for a Democratic Society emerged in the 1960s as a coalition of students with a variety of interests, backgrounds, and agendas. In their attempt to create a “participatory democracy,” SDS was plagued by the flaws inherent in democracy since disputes and divisions in the organization marginalized the students' mission. SDS grew out of numerous movements with different ideals and goals as evidenced by the organization's factionalism which tore it apart. The organization sought to alter the United States policies fundamentally in order to create a more democratic society as its name implies, but these “radical” changes to the American way of life would find resistance within the mainstream of the country. While students joined SDS as idealists with ambitious agendas, the organization itself could not withstand internal divisions and outside resistance.
SDS initially emerged from League for Industrial Democracy which had a student chapter with the same name (Pekar 3). However, tensions eventually rose between the two over SDS contact with communists, which LID was staunchly against. In 1962, SDS released the Port Huron Statement written by Tom Hayden, a student at the University of Michigan, declaring their intention:
...the establishment of democracy of individual participation governed by 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 (4).
In putting “participatory democracy” into practice, SDS encompassed a large variety of goals. The main priority of the organization became its call to “end the invasion of Vietnam” and a call to end the draft (6). Members contributed many other ideas to the organization, including ending racism, legalizing drugs, ending sexism, organizing impoverished communities, and fighting corporate/capitalist exploitation.
Not everyone in SDS agreed with all of these goals and this created factionalism within the group. Organizing SDS democratically was difficult and created strong conflict among groups, especially in regard to local chapters and the national organization (13). Disagreements created different factions within the SDS. Black organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) distanced themselves from partners at SDS (18). Feminists left for women's groups to give women more power (38). Disputes arose between pro-communist and anti-communist factions within SDS. A large division came over the Progressive Labor Party to which many new SDS members belonged. The organization had “prided itself on its non-exclusionary stand” but others wanted the Progressive Labor members out of SDS (34). The anti-PL sentiment within SDS would culminate in the emergence of a splinter group, led by Bernadine Dohrn and other charismatic non-PL members of SDS, called the “Weathermen” which advocated a more violent approach to bring about revolution. The debate over what tactics to use to bring about a revolution was the fatal division within the organization.
SDS used a variety of tactics to spread their messages to the masses. Taking influence from the Civil Rights movement, SDS mastered the technique of manipulating the media to its benefit. The organization produced its own materials, from pamphlets to newspapers, to state its political goals. The organization managed to get thousands of SDS members to protest on at least fifty college campuses (31). The protests, both on college campuses and in the face of the establishment at locations like the Pentagon, The White House, and the 1968 Democratic National Convention, attracted a national audience. In this way, the organization succeeded in forcing the American people to think about the problems which SDS sought to address. Even with America's attention, SDS failed to persuade the majority of the country into changing its ways. An ongoing debate over the use of violence further fragmented SDS, pitting PL and Weatherman members against each other (46).
SDS was not a partisan group. One of most famous protests of the 60's was at the 1968 Democratic National Convention where a variety of protest groups picketed, nominated a pig for President, and confronted police (even a young Dan Rather got punched in the stomach by security). The riots captivated the American public's attention. Their message did not spread as well as their images however and frustration led some members of the organization to more drastic measures.
Violence seemed to contradict the message of peace promoted to combat the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, the Weatherman and SDS allies like the Black Panthers argued that violence was necessary in the face of the overtly violent United States policies. In the later part of the 1960s, radical SDS members bombed and burned university buildings. Taking influence from Malcolm X and other leaders associated with the international revolutionary movement (as covered in my first paper of the semester), members of SDS argued that such drastic action had to be taken to achieve true freedom “by any means necessary” (30). The American people and other SDS members were turned off by these violent tactics. Many believed that the violence senselessly created counterproductive chaos. The result was an unsympathetic public and a fractured organization rather than a strengthened revolution against United States' oppression.
The National Guard were called in to "keep the peace" at student protests on Kent State University. Four students were shot dead under circumstances that are still unclear today but certainly represents the tensions between students and the United States government.
In addition creating infighting, the violence of SDS met violent and nonviolent resistance from mainstream America. One of the flaws of democracy that strongly hindered Students for a Democratic Society's progress was the lack of efficacy inherent to traditional democratic politics. Members began to see little impact from their massive protests, complaining, “it doesn't seem to influence the government a bit” (24). This complaint has some legitimacy in that SDS protests did not change the policies of the United States government, especially with the election of the more conservative Richard Nixon in 1968. SDS influenced the government, just not in the way that they had intended. Government agencies including the FBI and the CIA sent spies to “infiltrate the organization.” J. Edgar Hoover called the organization, “one of the most militant organizations” in the United States (18). Some student organizations, such as the National Student Association and student magazines like the “Partisan Review” and the “New Leader” received funding from the CIA (23). More overtly, both violent and nonviolent student demonstrators had confrontations with police at protests. Protesters took beatings from cops as tensions among the groups heightened. In addition to resistance from government and law enforcement, radical students' lifestyles were rejected by their parents, fellow students, landlords, and employers. Their mission to change America's perspective on countless issues failed as “participatory democracy” faded into the background, become secondary to the counterculture caricature portrayed in the media. The radical nature of the movement created American demands for “law and order” as they saw their comfortable lives being “taken away from them before they had the chance to enjoy them” (Farber 210).
Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign promised the American people a restoration of "law and order" to the country amidst the contentious atmosphere of the 1960s. Needless to say, Nixon was not a fan of SDS, or anyone for that matter.
Despite the problems that plagued the goals of Students for a Democratic Society, the organization's actions were not totally in vain. Many of the ideals promoted by the group have gained traction even since the group's dissolution in 1969, especially with concern to civil rights, women's liberation, and global pacifism. Public opinion turned against the Vietnam War by the end of the 1960s, forcing Richard Nixon and Congress to end the war. Contrary to the assertions of those who beat the war drums to invade Iraq, the American people have learned that “protest is patriotic.” Student resistance in the 1960s taught them that the government can be wrong and should be questioned. The flaws that brought SDS to an end were problems inherent to democracy as a system of government. The United States can learn from the successes and failures of this organization as a model for creating a more responsive and participatory democracy in the modern era, reaffirming the American cliché of “united we stand, divided we fall."
Farber, David. The Age of Great Dreams. Hill and Wang, 1994.Pekar, Harvey. Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History. Hill and Wang, 2008.