‘There’s Something Happening Here…But What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear…’
–Buffalo Springfield, 1967
JIM MCNIVEN: THOUGHTLINES
Forty-seven years ago in the United States, the Democrats found themselves going into their Presidential nomination process rather at sea. The incumbent Democratic President had said he would not run again and a number of potential candidates were vying to take his place. The most notable was someone who had broken with his party Establishment and opposed the party’s position on an unpopular war. On the Republican side was a candidate who had run 8 years before and lost, along with some potential opponents of his.
In the end, the Democratic ‘machine’, read: Establishment, prevailed in a Pyrrhic victory at the convention. It nominated the sitting Vice-President, all the while hearing the sounds of a furious opposition rioting outside. In the end, the Establishment’s candidate went down to defeat by the once-defeated Republican candidate.
Does this sound familiar? Does it look like a mirror image of today?
Today it is the Republicans who are in disarray, their party divided between the Establishment and a large group, estimated at being almost half of the Republican ‘base’, being unable to agree, not only on legislation, but on the very ability of the Government to manage itself. The party is divided over whether its major foreign policy initiative of the past 15 years, war in the Middle East, was right or wrong, and whether the legislative/executive processes devised in the Constitution should be disobeyed or upheld. A rump of the party in the House of Representatives has driven their Speaker out of office, and opposed his potential replacement, in part for trying to govern with minority Democratic support.
The three leading Republican candidates for President are all from outside the Establishment, have no prior political experience and they seem to be unconstrained in deviating from most of the standard policy positions put forward by the party. Those who are experienced candidates find themselves relegated to the sidelines in the polls.
Now, remember those ‘hippies and yippies’ running from the Chicago police in 1968, in opposition to the Vietnam War? Let’s pretend they averaged 22 years of age. Now, 47 years later, they are almost 70. Then and now, they were almost all white and mostly male. Then, the activists were to the left of their party; today’s activists, largely men and women of the same generation, are on the right. Then, the criticism was that democracy was being subverted by the military-industrial complex; today it is that democracy is being subverted by illegal immigrants, abortionists, the Supreme Court and a supine or dictatorial (depending on your view) President.
Barring some run of luck, the Republicans will end up nominating either a real maverick from outside the Establishment or will win a Pyrrhic victory and produce an experienced candidate. The Democrats will likely nominate a once-defeated female potential candidate, who should win the general election in 2016.
What is happening here?
First and foremost, this a story about the largest ‘generation’ of Americans in history. The Baby Boomers are people born between 1946 and 1964. They are 51-69 years old right now—let’s say 60 on average. As they have gone through life, this generation’s sheer size has affected everything in politics. Whether it is school overcrowding, housing demand, stock market performance or medical/ethical programs such as abortion rights (pro then; anti now), pressures on government have changed as they have aged.
Second, the country seemed to them to be going awry in both the 1960s and the 2000s. In one time, the tension with a strong and aggressive Soviet Union, a growing and frustrating war in Vietnam that was taking the young Boomer men away from the country and the signing of a couple of civil rights acts that fundamentally altered the voting preferences of the South, led to domestic conflict between Boomers who were promoting a ‘legal revolution’ to enfranchise blacks, keep themselves out of wartime service and expand their own freedoms and their elders who saw these as being ‘soft on communism’ and anti-patriotic.
Forty years later, a black is President. The long war in the Middle East, while consuming more treasure than soldiers, is facing doubt and opposition at home, including that of the President. The near-collapse of the economy in 2008 has seriously damaged Boomer homeowners and constricted retirees incomes.
Those Boomers who were leftist activists in the Sixties used their youth and energy to develop techniques on university campuses to get out the vote, which they transferred to the South. The march to Selma, the antiwar demonstrations all across the country, the Woodstock festival and the demonstration outside the Democratic convention in Chicago showed their power.
Forty years later, other Boomers, now older, reacted against economic and financial rescue policies either by opposing the temporary virtual nationalization of the financial commanding heights or by calls to prosecute the financial leadership of the country. Second, they were upset about the rise in importance of minority communities and their political leaders and had a fear that the country was slipping from their hands. The fighting in the Middle East continues into a second decade and is both confusing in its shifting political alliances and in its inconclusive quality. Its origins had to be defended, since they were tangled in the destruction of the World Trade towers in New York City, but its later prosecution by others could be scorned.
In the end, the rise of overlapping activist groups on the right; the Tea Party, the evangelical and other conservative Christians, the neocons who wanted justification for the war in the Middle East and those un-reconciled to the political rise of minority politicians and voters—amongst others—have come together to oppose compromise with their version of America. It has resulted in enthusiasm for hard-line aspirational candidates who promise to push their, and only their, agenda. I doubt this can lead to electoral victory, but, at the least, they can tie up the process just as effectively as did their other, younger selves (metaphorically speaking) in 1962-69.
Given that the young Boomers’ pressure in the late 1960s led to Nixon and the ‘end of the Sixties’ on the Kent State campus, the betting has to be that the revenge of the old Boomers in the middle 2010s will not be realized. How this frustration will play itself out will be the subject of a lot of action and reading material in the next few years.
Copyright Jim McNiven 2015
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Jim McNiven’s latest book is The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern America: www.theyankeeroad.com
James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis.
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