The End of the 1960's?
by Chris Bowers, Thu Dec 14, 2006 at 02:42:27 PM EST
Consider this piece of public opinion data, courtesy of the National Election Studies carried out every two years since 1952 by the University of Michigan. One of the NES questions asks respondents how liberal or conservative they think the candidates running for president are. The ratings given to Bill Clinton by people calling themselves conservatives would have made him the most liberal presidential candidate of the last half-century--more liberal than Hubert Humphrey, or Walter Mondale, or Michael Dukakis or even George McGovern. Now if you think Bill Clinton is more liberal than George McGovern, you're living in a strange fantasy world. But the conservatives of 1992 and 1996 rated him as more liberal than the conservatives of 1972 rated McGovern.
Why? Consider that avid culture warrior Newt Gingrich once called Bill and Hillary Clinton `counter-culture McGoverniks,' as though they spent the Summer of Love driving to Haight-Ashbury in their VW Microbus, dropping acid all along the way. Anyone who has seen photos of Hillary from that time knows that she was more than a few steps from `counter-culture.' As for Bill, he didn't even know how to inhale. In fairness, the two did work for George McGovern in 1972--but Bill, the recent law school grad, was in charge of McGovern's Texas campaign, a staff position that probably necessitated the wearing of a tie.
The facts of their not-so-misspent youth are beside the point. The Clintons came to embody everything that conservatives hate about the '60s. For better or worse (and there's a case to be made for each), a general election in which Hillary is matched up against a Republican will almost inevitably see one more smackdown between the hippies and the squares. (And if you think which Republican it is matters at all, consider the drubbing war hero John Kerry took from draft-dodgers Bush and Cheney over Vietnam.) Waldman goes on to note that for the first time in history, Americans of voting age born post-Boom now outnumber Americans born during or before the Baby Boom. Of course, post-Boomers only made up 36-40% of the electorate in 2006, largely because of the different tendencies of Americans of different ages to actually vote. While there is a potential for a post-boomer, post-culture wars age to begin, it probably will not actually take place until at least 2012.
Now let me explain what I think this has to do with Obama. The "culture wars" are simply another front in long-standing struggle over identity that has dominated American politics for some time. Identity remains by far a greater determining factor of how people will vote than other demographic indicators. Along with the struggles of Latino and Asian immigrants, and although to this point it is little understood, one of the great post-1960's fronts in the culture wars has become the values and posited identities of the "creative class" versus other classes. I believe that it is this division that largely explains the generally wealthy, Generation X heavy, white and highly-educated demographics of the netroots, for example. It also explains the gulf online when it comes to old political arguments about competing in the south, moving to the left, right or center, and why we seem more willing to build new institutions than work with existing ones. Those were all the big fights in the Democratic Party back in the 1960's and 1970's, with the move toward ideological coalitions, the development of single-issue advocacy infrastructure, and with the success of the Republican "Southern Strategy." Those are the political battles of the past, from the days before the "Creative Class" began to take over. We don't see those old arguments as central, and we want to get past them.
I think Obama, simply in terms of his demeanor and his biography, strongly appeals to politicos from a new generation and a new socioeconomic class because he strikes them in some sort of gut, intuitive level as being from that class. Multi-ethnic, post-Vietnam, highly educated, raised in a major urban center--these are many of the cosmopolitan, self-creating, forward looking aspects of life for many younger professionals. As much as we may or may not like Bill Clinton, coming from a little town in Arkansas is not a story many Americans can relate to anymore, because we just didn't grow up that way. Even John Edwards's story of growing up in a mill town when the mill closed seems very, very rustic for a northeasterner such as myself, since our mills closed down sixty years ago to move to places like North Carolina. These rustic visions of America simply are not where people are at these days, especially news junkies and activists within the Democratic Party and the bluer parts of America. Those people instead look to places like Harlem, where Bill Clinton now keeps his offices. People moving into the gentrifying areas of Harlem probably like Barack Obama quite a bit, and probably feel some sort of gut-level, identity-based connection with him that they can't even quite put their finger on at this point.
I can't quite put my finger on it either, but the rise of Obama, I believe, is largely based on a new vision of personal identity that will inevitably come to impact our national political discourse. Whether or not his speeches and policy ideas continue to live up to that identity remains to be seen, but it does give him an edge on the rest of older, predominately Baby Boomer field that, generally speaking, will not trumpet their urban or multi-ethnic roots. If he can continue to tap into this new identity and socio-economic wave, his campaign will be difficult to defeat, especially if it is combined with strong African-American support. A coalition of African-Americans and the professional, creative class (both within the netroots and the party establishment), would be a devastating coalition in a Democratic primary that I am not sure anyone could defeat.
I am not endorsing Obama with this post--I actually voted for Edwards in the most recent Dailykos straw poll--but I have to admit a powerful, internal hunger to see the ground shift within the "culture wars" away from the long-standing paradigm of the 1960's. As someone born in 1974, as is probably the case with everyone in Generation X and forward, I just can't identify with all of that. As we have seen from 1992-2006, every single Baby Boomer based election will probably continue to be about Vietnam, the "counter-culture," the south as a distinct region, single-issue advocacy, "electability," and old, linear and single-issue based discussions of ideology. Enough already! If I have to suffer through one more campaign about "draft-dodging" my brain is going to implode. I also like how the latest version of race-baiting in elections backfired so horribly for Republicans in 2006, that we may not see quite as much of it in the future. Good, because I like the idea of a future where we are de-moored from fixed identities, and pluralism reigns supreme. Obama undeniably represents that future, at least in biography if not yet in policy and, more debateably, in speech. As someone who is only a Senator for two years, he also represents the new values of the Creative Class in that gaining institutional "experience," and slowly working your way up the ladder just isn't how many people's careers function anymore. Who cares if he didn't toil away as a Senate underling for another decade? That doesn't mean he can't do the job as well--if not better--than people who actually completed the "requisite" apprenticeships. I actually like the idea of changing jobs and even careers every once and a while as a healthy means of preventing mental complacency and institutional dependency from sinking in. Hell, I jumped ship on English academia in favor of politics for good just three years ago, and I actually think I would be worse off in politics than I am now had I started right out of college.
Expect lines of thought such as this to begin to have a real impact on American political discourse in the coming years and decades. There will be a paradigm shift in identity, and it will cause real generational conflict. I have no crosstabs to either prove or disprove this, but I would bet all of the money in my pocket right now that the biggest obstacle for Obama to overcome in winning the nomination will be older voters, especially those over 60, among whom I am quite confident he will not strike a major cord. I would love to see some crosstabs on national primary polls by age, because I bet they would support this position.
This is a very crude outline of what I believe is a coming generational conflict. If it starts to become apparent nationwide in the 2008, 2012 or 2016 elections, it will finally mean the end of he 1960's-style culture wars, and therefore also the end of the Great Backlash Narrative against so-called "liberal elites." When it does arrive, it will mean that national politics will finally start to discuss culture in ways that people in my generation and younger generations can relate to, and thus you can also expect voter participation among the currently younger generations to increase significantly. Count on it.