I have been thinking about this. During the era of Vietnam protests, politics was quite heated. I would describe it as confrontational, with traces of violence. The tactics today strike me as milder (or subtler). However, I think we were better off back then in two ways.
1. The vast majority of the American people were repelled by confrontations with traces of violence, and they expressed this through voting for Richard Nixon, particularly his landslide re-election in 1972. I hate to give Nixon credit for anything, but he did provide a vehicle through which the silent majority got its message across. Today, it may be the case that most people are sick of partisanship, but it is less likely that they will find a vehicle with which to express that. Primaries being what they are, could we wind up in 2016 with Ted Cruz vs. Elizabeth Warren? Even if a centrist were elected, would the polarization in Congress remain too intense to be overcome?
2. Back then, elite individuals changed their minds and reversed course. A lot of prominent supporters of the Vietnam War, including Senators who voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, recanted and turned against the war. The economists who had enthusiastically supported “incomes policies” (meaning wage and price controls) and pooh-poohed monetary policy as an inflation-fighting tool recanted, based on experience. I don’t see that sort of mind-changing being possible today. If Obamacare ends up helping millions more people than it harms, will its opponents recant? If Obamacare ends up harming millions more people than it helps, will its supporters recant?
I am most worried about problem (2), the way that people are closing their minds. I have said that very few bloggers or newspaper columnists seek to communicate with people on the other side or to open minds of people on their own side. Instead, the goal seems to be to ensure the opposite–that people on your own side keep their minds closed. You reinforce mind closure by demonizing the other side, using ad hominem and straw-man arguments, and by working intensively to reinforce your side’s narrative through using spin, denial, and bullying.