Saturday, August 30, 2008

Bye bye; Boomers

For the past thirteen years, since I first encountered generational theory myself, I have managed to introduce several hundred students to it, become a major part of a network discussing it, and passed it along, with very mixed results, to family and old friends. I think perhaps now, for the first time, people are going to have to take it seriously. With the selections of Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, we find ourselves at an interesting historical juncture: for the first time in 24 years, since 1984, there will be no Boomer on either national ticket. I do not think that that is an accident.
Theodore White, the author of The Making of the President series, observed the Boom’s entry onto the national scene in 1968. Largely because White was himself such a typical GI and so committed to the values of his own youth, he saw what was happening, and put it in historical perspective, far more clearly than most people either then or since. Here, for instance, is how he described first-wave Boomer Sam Brown, Eugene McCarthy’s chief organizer in the New Hampshire primary.
“Such young people as Sam Brown are throwbacks—they come from a strain of American life that goes back probably to the Abolitionists, explosive with morality. [The abolitionists, of course, were Prophets like the Boomers, members of the Transcendental generation, born in the early constitutional era.] Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, twenty-three years earlier, Sam came of what anyone in Council Bluffs would consider a ‘best family.’ . . Sam had gone to Redlands University in Southern California, where first he was president of the Young Republicans, then president of the student body. His first reflex of rebellion had come when the university had banned Communist speakers from the campus and Sam, protesting the ban, was branded a Communist by the trustees. That summer—1964—Sam became involved in the National Students Association, thus meeting Al Lowenstein and becoming alert to politics. [White did not mention that the NSA had also turned out to be a CIA front in 1967.] The summer of 1964 was also the summer of the student crusade in Mississippi and Sam felt the Democratic convention in Atlantic City that year sold out the students’ cause by its compromise on seating the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.” Later Brown—ironically, like David Stockman—had spent several months at the Harvard Divinity School before joining the McCarthy campaign to stop the war. He did not go so far as Barack Obama’s notorious acquaintance William Ayers, however, and decide that the war was so immoral, and American society so corrupt, that anything could be justified as long as it helped bring the war to a close.
In another part, White described quite accurately the technique of student campus rebellion that had so far reached only two major campuses, but which in 1969 and 1970 would surface at literally hundreds of them.
“Democracy is a phoney word to be sneered at unless carefully modified by such phrases as democracy of the streets, democracy of direct action or participatory democracy. Otherwise, democracy is a trick played on the people by the establishment. Establishment is, of course, one of the most fashionable words in American politics today, and was to be heard as frequently from Barry Goldwater’s thinkers as from the Students for a Democratic Society. [White in his 1964 book had been smart enough not to write off Barry Goldwater as a fluke, but had grasped that Goldwater represented something authentic and powerful—exactly how powerful White himself did not live to see.] . . .The glossary becomes operational when it moves on to its action words. Action opens by insistence on dialogue. A dialogue is begun (usually be a self-appointed delegation meeting with an official) when demands (non-negotiable demands) are presented and communications channels opened. The best ambiance for communications is something called creative tension, which is designed to reveal buried hates and unspoken prejudice. The rhythm of dialogue, creative tension, and communications in what is called confrontation, a riot condition.” (I must stop here, but White continues in the same vein on pp. 213-4.)
Now when the Vietnam War came to an end the student movement died with it, and during the 1970s and 1980s Boomers struggled with inflation, began having children, and became Yuppies. But in the 1990s they came into power throughout our society, and the style of their youth began to dominate large areas of American life. The media is now almost completely dominated by the language of confrontation, invective, and rigid ideological camps. Economic institutions have adopted a take-no-prisoners attitude as well. And White never imagined, I suspect, as he described the confrontations on campus of the late 1960s, that 35 years later a Boomer President would bring exactly the same approach—non-negotiable demands, confrontation, war, and even torture—to the conduct of international affairs. But that is what happened.
Prophet generations have historically produced politicians whose belief in their own righteousness far outweighed their ability to get anything done—including Jefferson Davis and Robert Toombs of the South, William Lloyd Garrison, Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner in the North, and later, Herbert Hoover. (The Missionary generation of post-civil war Prophets was more rationalist than the Transcendentals or the Boom, and the country and the world benefited.) The exceptions, of course, were those two great politicians who became our greatest Presidents, Abraham Lincoln (who rose to prominence very late in life) and Franklin Roosevelt. Strauss and Howe always expected Boomers to produce some one similar. It seems that that is not going to happen.
The most successful Boomer politicians have tended to rely on a mixture of ideological rigidity and family connections. Bill Clinton was in a way the Lincoln of his generation—a self-made man with considerable political skill—but he came to office in relatively peaceful times and did as little as he could to rock the boat. George W. Bush combined family advantages and ideology; so did Hillary Rodham Clinton. But her sense of entitlement turned off too many voters this year. (Both Clintons in my opinion, however, did rise nobly to the occasion at the Democratic convention, for which I thank them. I expect them both to be major assets in the campaign.) As for the Republican Boomers—led by Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee—they were either too obviously self-centered (Giuliani and Romney) or too ideologically bizarre (Huckabee. Even in 2008, one can perhaps reject either evolution or the income tax—but not both.) John McCain won the Republican nomination, in my opinion, because he was the only Silent Republican with the stomach to have stuck around this long, and because his personality has broad appeal. He has now—wisely—decided not to elevate any of his Boomer adversaries to the Vice Presidency. (This could change if Sarah Palin’s state trooper scandal turns out to be serious in the next few days, but McCain’s decision seems to have been made.)
As for Barack Obama, he won because he is a terrific natural politician with an inspiring life story who appealed, above all, to young people—people who have seen Boomers close at hand, as parents. As he made clear the other night in his fine acceptance speech, he wants to move beyond the climate Boomers have created. He picked a Silent, Joe Biden, who in contrast to Sam Nunn, Warren Rudman, Alan Simpson, and other contemporaries decided, like McCain, to stick it out in Washington—and who has really improved with age. I wish Obama well but this is going to be extremely difficult—especially when he actually takes office. Democrats may be ready for this; Republicans, and the media, are not. Panic that they may not in fact be the wave of the future is driving Boomer Republicans crazy. David Brooks’s appalling column Friday, in which he tries to ridicule Obama with half a dozen factual inaccuracies, is a case in point.
The older generation’s cliché about Boomers 40 years ago was, I regret to say, true. We never had to earn everything; we thought everything was ours by right—including the right to rule the world. Such generations are above all destructive, and some one should write a book about the actual impact of the Boom on our national life. It is more important now, however, to move forward. McCain cannot—his Presidency would resemble James Buchanan’s and would probably lead to another war. Obama might. A series of events, beginning with the Vietnam War, has combined to throw American politics off the track for the last four decades. It is now time to find out whether Bismarck was right, and whether the “special Providence” he identified still looks after fools, drunks—and the United States of America.


Matthew E said...

Strauss and Howe always expected Boomers to produce some one similar. It seems that that is not going to happen.

Never say never. This Crisis era is going to take a while; I fully expect there to be Boom candidates four and eight years from now.

some one should write a book about the actual impact of the Boom on our national life.

Anybody I know?

Anonymous said...

As a Silent myself, and a former Hillary supporter, I have to say a lot of my cohort are (is?) fully behind Obama for all the media are trying to make a big deal of this PUMAs for McCain thing. When has it ever happened that seniors have backed a candidate contemporary with their own children? It's happening, folks.

Anonymous said...

McCain's choice of a states' right talkin', pistol-packin' mamma, Palin, is funny to the point of comic opera. (I am now convinced that they are so going down in flames!)

Biden totally surprised me in giving a righteous speech at the convention. He may be no Stephen Douglas, but give a good account of himself.

Steve Clark said...

I agree that Obama's appeal to Millenials is rooted in their problems with their younger Boomer generation parents. But he, himself, is an on-the-cusp GenXer and is surrounded by older Boomer advisors and supporters, and, more significantly, the movement that propels him is rooted in organizations that are generally Boomer-led (and will so be for another decade).

I think you miss Strauss and Howe's point by focusing only on the political representative of the "change" movement and not the movement, itself. Modern politics is different than in Lincoln's or, even, Roosevelt's time. Post-Carter, Presidents are the media spokespersons for a collective leadership. Obama is the spokesperson for a change movement that is led, propelled and organized by the progressive wing of the Boomer generation. That is why he is winning and can win. Like Lincoln and Roosevelt in the earlier crises, he has positioned himself with the more progressive, far-sighted wing of the elder generation, even if he's not actually one of them.

It is related matter that you fail to see how the culture wars of the 80s and 90s were not grudge match between two wings of the Boomer generation (the simplist view promoted by pundits and the media). Rather, they were the result of conscious efforts in 1980 of reactionary Civics to use the essentially correct critique of Boomer youth to recapture political power they had lost when their own progressive wing took power in 1960. The culture war was never a real war because the progressive Boomers were too consumed by familly and career demands (they were young adults at the time) to wage a real battle. As a result, the defense of progressive values was left to progressive Silents who were, essentially, mushy liberals. The reactionary Civics rallied the social conservative Silents, with some support from socially conservative Boomers (the relative few that there are) and that's how they ruled through the 80s and 90s.

Bush is a Boomer, but he rode to power on the same social and conservative forces that had been ruling for two decades. It was only after 9/11 (the onset of the Fourth Turning) that he embraced Boomer ideological leadership, now known as the Neoconservatives (he was not one of them, but their views coincided with (a) his and Cheney's interest in taking Iraq for the benefit of Big Oil and (b) his need to define his agenda in a sense of idealist urgency in order to capture the shifting tenor after 9/11).

The Neoconservatives, however, would never had come to power had Bush not needed them, because their views are so outside the mainstream of Boomer thinking.

Finally, with Obama, the mainsteam of Boomers, who are essentially wide open to their generation's progressive wing, are asserting themselves.

Steve Clark

Anonymous said...

It's good to see mention of Strauss and Howe's work. I read "Generations" years ago when it first came out and was struck by its prescience. However, in the intervening years it has been hard to find another person who has even heard of it, let alone read it.

According to the authors, Boomers will, as seniors, coach the twenty-somethings through their life-forming crisis. We will do that as grandparents, not parents.

Anonymous said...

I think the jury is still out on whether Obama will be considered a Boomer or 13er. He is right on the cusp. He certainly self-identifies as a 13er (or at least a non-Boomer) and his life story is convincingly Nomadic.

If he is elected President, events could demand that Obama become more of a Prophet-style leader, while retaining a good bit of 13er pragmatism. FDR and Lincoln were both more pragmatic than the average Prophet, but could also give a killer speech (sound familiar?)

Strauss and Howe have generally allowed for the passage of time before setting generational boundaries. I think it is quite possible that time and events could affect this one, even though as a member of the 1962 cohort myself, I agree with the 1961 boundary based on my own experience.

PaulaB62 (from The Fourth Turning forum)

Anonymous said...

Your generational analysis is ahistorical cant. I suggest that you read Eric Foner's essay about Thaddeus Stevens before you repeat your nonsense. Essentially, it allows you to ignore specific history and the context of that history. It is a sort of philosophical idealism masquerading as an empirical approach. Finally, it allows you to "analyze" a situation you do not understand while sparing yourself the effort to learn about it. In this respect, it is not that different from the neo-conservative "analysis" of Iraq that helped lead to the Iraq war.

LFC said...

Reading one or two of your posts led me to buy Strauss and Howe's 'The Fourth Turning,' which I had not heard of before and haven't had a chance to read carefully yet. But I must say I find the whole approach of drawing putative generational boundaries and affixing labels to them, indeed the idea of assuming that members of a generation share an identifiable collective persona, to be simplistic.
A glance at Strauss and Howe suggests that their description of the Boom generation is questionable even on its own terms. From 'The Fourth Turning' p.137: "From the Summer of Love to the Days of Rage, they came of age rebelling against worldly blueprints of their parents." It's common knowledge that the number of actual participants in the 60s rebellions was a tiny fraction of the total age cohort, and even assuming some spillover of similar attitudes to non-participants, there remain a substantial number of people born between 1945 and 1952, say, who had nothing to do in any way with the cultural-political rebellions of the 60s and who were not really influenced by them. And, perhaps more importantly, what of people born, say, between 1957 and 1960? S&H define them as Boomers, yet someone born in 1959 or even '57 is too young, for instance, to have been affected personally by the (Vietnam) draft, which was ended in '73 (when someone born in '57 was a sophomore or junior in high school).
While all historians rely on generalizations to one degree or another, I am skeptical of this approach b/c it insists on forcing phenomena into predetermined categories -- and not broad categories either, but fairly narrow ones.

Matthew E said...

[b]lfc[/b]: Strauss and Howe do address these points in their books. The value of the generational-cycle theory is that we can identify patterns and learn things from them, without it being necessary that every individual follows the pattern.