Hayden’s legacy of small-d democracy

Tom Hayden, 1939-2016.
Tom Hayden, 1939-2016. City Lights Publishers

In the spring of 1962, as war mounted in Vietnam and the civil rights movement bitterly gathered, a clean-cut 22-year-old huddled in Michigan with a few dozen sleep-deprived activists and college students, and scribbled one of the most poignant, yet influential white papers in modern times.

“We are people of this generation,” the young Tom Hayden wrote, “bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit ...” Looking back, he would later recall, he sensed that the Port Huron Statement might be mocked for its call to children of American privilege. That it was perhaps overly hopeful in its challenge to question authority, to act individually against war and injustice, to realize that democracy required more than mere voting.

But Hayden, the student activist and writer – and later, the California politician, public intellectual and author – also sensed, even then, that each voice has within it a potentially pivotal contribution. Though the words he wrote went on to herald the New Left and the student movement, as Hayden put it in a later memoir, what mattered most was that “we asserted our role in the coming history of our times.”

Hayden’s death on Sunday at 76 should feel, in theory, like the end of an era. From his founding of the Students for a Democratic Society to his role in the Chicago 7 to his marriage and activist partnership with Jane Fonda, his place in the political firmament of the ’60s is as iconic as they come.

But somehow, his passing instead just underscores the enduring importance of the ideas he championed: Authenticity. Grass roots. Participation. Political systems made to serve people, not the other way around.

Long after the Vietnam War ended, Hayden made it his business to assert a role in whatever history he saw coming. In the 1970s, his and Fonda’s political organization helped fuel a wave of progressive candidates and causes: rent control, solar energy, no-nukes, environmentalism. In the 1980s and 1990s, he served as a state lawmaker, pushing small-d democracy in a period of rising plutocracy.

He acted globally, speaking at World Trade Organization protests; he acted locally, running for mayor of Los Angeles and advocating for restorative justice for juveniles in that then-gang-ravaged city. He was even an early exemplar for gender equity, pointedly sharing child rearing duties with Fonda and, after that marriage ended, with Barbara Williams, his third wife.

His critics on the right liked to associate him with phony limousine-liberal excess. But here in California, he’ll be remembered as a hardworking public citizen. He rolled up his sleeves and walked the talk long after the rhetoric of revolution had faded. He saw democracy as a serious commitment, requiring vigilance and every American’s participation. Radical ideas, perhaps, as this historic election grinds to its bitter end.