I just wrote about Corey Robin’s view that the conservative movement is inherently reactionary. I understand his point and I think it is valid, although I would tend to place it in a larger context (of history and psychology). At the moment, however, my mind is focused on a somewhat smaller context: culture wars. I was thinking that the culture wars fit into Robin’s framework of a reactionary conservatism.
Before I noticed Corey Robin’s book, I was having some discussions with a conservative. The issue of culture wars came up. It is an issue that is both very personal for me and for many others, on both sides of the spectrum. But it is personal for different reasons.
The Silent and Boomer generations were born before and in many cases grew up before the present culture wars even began (i.e., the 60s; and not really gaining full momentum until the late 60s). Also, they didn’t know the hardships and sacrifices previous generations made. They didn’t experience the oppression that led to the rise of working class movements during the Populist and Progressive Eras. They didn’t experience having to fight for basic rights and protections during an era when industrialism arose. They didn’t experience WWI, didn’t experience Prohibition and the Great Depression, didn’t even experience WWII to any great extent (although some Silents would have memories of it from childhood).
The era of the early lives of Silents and Boomers was a time of mostly peace and prosperity. It was a time when liberalism reigned without much challenge (progressive reform, high union membership, enactment of EPA, progressive taxation, building of infrastructure, the G.I. bill, etc), and this liberalism created a booming economy and growing middle class (along with increasing social mobility, career opportunities, and civil rights). Silents and Boomers, especially the latter, grew up in privilege and entitlement. They only knew the benefits of what previous generations had fought for but not the hardships and sacrifices. For this reason, they became in many ways selfish generations who dismantled much of what they had benefited from, pulling up the ladder behind them so that later generations would struggle and suffer (if you’ve paid attention, you’d notice that Boomer-dominated unions often are more protective of the rights of older workers than of newer workers who tend to be of the younger generations entering the workforce).
Silents and Boomers were those who started and fought the culture wars. Maybe they did so because they had life so good. Since they didn’t have to worry about survival, they could distract themselves with cultural issues of identity politics, abortion and abstract idealizations about family values. Silents played a particularly interesting role as the leaders of the culture wars and as the reactionaries to it (while the Boomers originally played the role of the troops on the ground in their protests and grassroots activism). It was the Silents like Reagan who were the great dismantlers of the Great Society and they justified it with the culture wars which was partly just a superficial facade placed on the old class wars of the previous generations. So, war on poverty became the war on the poor (on the welfare queens, on the drug addicts, on minorities, on immigrants, on anyone who was part of the lower class).
From my perspective as a GenXer, I feel like saying “Pox on both your houses!” The left and the right of the culture wars seemed to have lost any vision of what made America great and instead focused on winning battles, battles whose costs they didn’t understand (or else didn’t care about… in their correct assumption that future generations would be forced to deal with it). The Silents and the Boomers knew a world prior to the culture wars, but GenXers did not. The culture wars is the only America I’ve ever personally experienced in my life. The culture wars touches upon everything. When the culture wars started, the Silents and the Boomers all took sides. The 60s typically are portrayed as just a time of left-wing activism, but that isn’t the reality. It was the 60s that involved the renewal of evangelism and the rise of the religious right as a political force. Furthermore, the hippies and the police who beat them up, the veterans and the anti-war protesters, all of them were of the same generation(s), all of them responding to the conflict of the times that would form their entire worldview by which they would rule for the next half century.
There is a distinction to be made about how and when the culture wars played out on the right. By the time the culture wars came around, the militant right such as the KKK had been demolished as an effective political force (the KKK had been the culture warriors of the past in defending American ‘white’ culture, defending capitalism and the capitalist class, defending family values, etc). After the culture wars went into full gear, left-wing groups such as the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers took the place as the new militant radicals. Left-wingers, however, were radicalized for the very reason they weren’t in power and they became more radicalized as they lost ground. From Nixon to Reagan, the early culture wars involved the left-wing against the Establishment (which was being taken over by a new breed of reactionary conservatives along with a new breed of centrist ‘liberals’ who denied left-wing politics from having power in Washington). Many older conservatives remember this time as an eroding of cultural values, but what they don’t realize is that this erosion as much came from the top as it was a time of shifting from liberal leadership to conservative leadership and the struggle of power that happened during this shift.
To a liberal, it is no accident that the preceeding era of peace and social cohesion was during liberal leadership. The new conservative movement led by the likes of Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan was a reaction against the first half century of liberal reform, (starting with the Populist Era bringing working class politics into the mainstream, leading to the Progressive Era victories aligning the working class with the liberal class, and culminating in the Great Society). This liberal era ended with the liberal moment of the 60s and the conservative backlash that followed was dramatic. The liberal movement (along with American society in general) never fully recovered from the trauma of the assassinations of so many of their greatest leaders over such a short period of time. The left-wing became radicalized in response to an increasingly radicalized right-wing leadership and activism. It was at this time that liberals and moderates were being pushed out of the Republican Party (the very party, by the way, that began with anti-slavery abolitionists, working class free soil advocates, and those friendly to the then budding Marxist socialism).
As liberals see it, this new era was a dark period of the ending of the liberal reign and the beginning of the conservative reign. To conservatives (especially those of older generations), however, they only see the liberal reaction to this shift and not what liberals were reacting to. In losing political power, liberals turned to identity politics and cultural issues. Some were usurped into the academic fold or became yuppies seeking materialism and success. Others more cynically turned away from their naive youth toward Reagan neoconservatism and libertarian neoliberalism or else they got religion and joined the ranks of the religious right. Everything was translated into terms of the culture wars which undermined and suppressed the class awareness that was the foundation of the labor movement. The reason left-wingers made so much fuss at the time was because they were losing power, not because they were gaining it. Conservatives somehow managed to play the victim card for so many decades even as their power and influence increased, often making the argument that the privileged and well off were in some strange way being victimized by the poor and disenfranchised. The right-wing made the culture wars into a class war, denying their own classism while projecting it onto their opponents. When liberals and left-wingers pointed out this obvious class war, they were attacked for promoting class war. Those on the left couldn’t win for losing at that time.
Later on, the culture wars became a one-sided battle of the conservative movement against anything and everything. Conservatives wanted to “take back” America. After all, they saw themselves as the only “True Americans”, the heirs of the Founding Fathers (just ignore the radical left-wing criticisms of Paine and Jefferson). This second phase of the the culture wars began to gain momentum in the 1980s but didn’t fully manifest until the 1990s. This historical period is analyzed well by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas? and David Sirota in Back to Our Future. When I was growing up, I was largely ignorant of this conservative movement, although it was permanently in the background of the mainstream media world I was immersed in. It only became clear with two events: the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing and the 1998 Lewinsky Scandal in 1998. The right-wing was on the attack.
So, right-wing militants followed the previous left-wing militants. However, there was a difference. The previous left-wing militants were reacting against a conservative establishment, but when the right-wing militants came along there was no liberal establishment. At that point, the liberal class had long ago lost its privileged place in society (as described by Chris Hedges in Death of the Liberal Class) and had mostly retreated from activism into academia and non-profits (the only ‘liberals’ who maintained their political power and influence were those that shifted to a more neoliberal stance or else became progressive neoconservatives).
Anyway, all of that formed the background for Generation X. Many GenXers were pulled into this conservative movement, some even joining the far right anti-statists and culture warriors. On the opposite end, a particular segment of GenXers tried to slowly rebuild the broken foundations of the liberal movement. In the 1990s, the culture was blandly liberal in a general sense even as left-wingers were fighting a battle on two fronts, attacked by the Gingrich Republicans on one side and by the Clinton Democrats on the other side. It was the right that had captured the political narrative and the collective imagination. Liberals lacked strong visionary leadership. Even the most moderate of liberals were on the defensive. Centrist and corporatist ‘liberals’ like Clinton became quite talented at playing on the defense by way of triangulation and compromise, but they were constantly backing off from every new fight, playing it safe.
This is where my young adulthood comes in. I graduated from high school in 1994, the year Kurt Cobain died (the symbolic death of the alternative culture that began to erupt in the 1980s). I became aware of the right-wing at this time by my listening to the paranoid conspiracies on Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM and also by my occasionally catching some of the early right-wing radio shows such as Laura Schlessinger (her show was nationally syndicated in 1994). I even felt some affinity with elements of this right-wing, but 9/11 changed all of that. The right-wing pundits and activists went into overdrive. The only choice offered seemed to be between the right-wing fascist Bush administration and the right-wing anti-egalitarian Ron Paul libertarians. No liberal alternative (or even moderate conservative alternative) was being offered in the mainstream politics portrayed by the mainstream media. Left-wingers such as Nader and Chomsky only had relevance as nuisances and distractions. I voted for Nader and found myself attacked by ‘liberal’ Democrats.
As everyone knows, the 2000s (AKA the ‘Noughts’) was a depressing decade. I feel so tired out by the endless political conflict and I’ve grown to hate the culture wars, especially the right-wing version of it (“compassionate conservatism”). For some reason, right-wingers are trying to keep the culture wars alive, going so far as even to inject the religious right’s culture wars into the formerly libertarian-minded Tea Party movement. The culture wars makes me sick to my soul… and that is no exaggeration. I’m tired of it all. I wish everyone would just let the culture wars die. My generation has been hit the hardest by the culture wars and it hasn’t done us any good. It’s turned some of us into ranting pundits and lunatic clowns, the Becks and the Palins who are trying to push American society over the edge. The culture wars have come to fruition in a nihilistic fantasizing about societal decline and a cynical longing for Apocalypse. The right-wing is losing momentum in gradually losing support, but as they go into decline the right-wing just gets uglier in their antics.
For many Americans (moreso among the older generations), the class wars remain relevant because the past remains alive in their minds and hence in our collective consciousness. This particularly can be seen with Boomers. Their sense of identity was solidified with the culture wars of the 60s, whether as liberal progressives or conservative reactionaries. The culture wars are real to them because they’ve dominated society for a half century. The media made by and/or for them was often steeped in the culture wars ethos. The memories of the 60s keeps replaying in their heads, having almost become mythical at this point. In talking with the conservative I mentioned above, one thing became apparent. The culture wars was an apt metaphor. There are two distinct sides, both seeking to gain victory by forcing their enemy into defeat or retreat. One side has to win at the cost the other side losing. There is no win/win scenario. This is fueled by a mentality that there is an absolute right and wrong. There is something dualistic (almost to the point of Manichaeism) about the Boomers worldview with their utopian ideals and apocalyptic visions. Culture warriors just know they are right and others are wrong. Their entire identity is built on this demand to be righteous. They refuse to accept that differences exist and that the world won’t collapse just because they aren’t allowed to dominate. Both sides used the government as a pawn in their battles, and the real loser in this was democracy itself (along with the American citizenry that democracy is supposed to work for, rather than for special interest groups). Culture warriors were willing to try to win at almost any cost and that cost turned out to be very high.
As a GenXer, I grew up in the world made by the Boomers. Even as an adult from the mid 90s to the present, the impact of Boomers was mostly in the foreground and the impact of GenX was mostly in the background. If GenXers wanted to play in politics or the marketplace, we largely had to play according to the rules set down by the Boomers (the internet seemingly the only place where GenXers could operate on their own terms). I feel disappointed in my generation for having conceded so much to the Boomers. I know we were a small generation and couldn’t fairly compete with the Boomers, but still I wish we had been more of a thorn in the side of power. Instead, we in many ways just played along and made things even worse, embracing the Reagan era mantra of greed and self-centeredness (my generation playing no small part in helping to cause the economic problems), too many of us becoming politically cynical and apathetic in the process or else bitterly angry in our fight against such apathy. The closest most GenXers got to political involvement was to become anti-statists and anarchists fighting against the New World Order or against the the liberal elites (depending on one’s ideological persuasion), but it was a politics without vision or even much hope, just reactionary activism against Boomer’s society (Tea Party GenXers like Beck and Palin being the prime examples of this GenX style activism). I didn’t get a full doseage of Reagan rhetoric as I was on the younger end of GenX, but I’ve seen its impact on my generation.
Despite my emotional response, I’m still able to step back and look at all of this somewhat objectively. I’m fascinated by the close connection between culture war and class war. They seem to be two sides of the same coin. Generally speaking, both the left and right usually see the culture war of the other side as blatant class war, both sides agreeing that there is a culture war going on even while disagreeing about eachother’s motives, the difference being that the left is more likely to see culture war and class war as inherently linked. Most liberals probably don’t take as an insult the conservative allegation that they are pushing class war. The liberal agrees there is a class war, although they would simply add that the rich are winning. Conservatives often use rhetoric grounded in obvious class war, but for some reason they are unwilling to admit to it. I think it’s because there is no way to admit to the class issue without also admitting to the race issue, those two also being inherently linked (or so it seems to my liberal-biased mind).
I have some further thoughts on generations and activism.
For Boomers, activism is about the past. Old hippies romanticize about 60s activism. In conservative activism like the Tea Party, aging non-hippy Boomers likewise obsess over 60s activism but for different reasons (see the documentary ‘Generation Zero’, popular among Tea Party supporters, which essentially blames hippies for all the problems of society since). Boomers, on both the left and right, are motivated by the past, sometimes inspired and at other times one might say enlivened. As a GenXer, I intimately know Boomer nostalgia; I understand how it is embedded in our culture and how to an extent it has become internalized by many GenXers; however, it doesn’t usually bring out the best in GenXers. Corey Robin argues that conservatives are reactionary; to this I would add that GenXers are also reactionary which would explain why Reagan conservatism (the ultimate reactionary conservatism) was so appealing to my generation (GenXers literally having been the strongest supporters of Reagan’s presidency), although many of those GenXers have at this point turned away from their youthful conservatism or at least turned away from shamelessly idolizing capitalist greed and self-interest (some turning instead to the left and others going even further right into politicized religion).
How activism manifests among GenXers is apparent when one compares different protest movements.
I’ll begin with the Bush era anti-war movement since I was personally involved with it. As far as I can tell, the anti-war protests were mostly a youth movement consisting of lots of GenXers and the first wave of Millennials hitting adulthood. The anti-war protests seemed fairly positive and inclusive in unifying a diversity of veteran and new activists, from Ron Paul libertarians to pacifist liberals, from anarchists to socialists, from social justice Christians to social justice atheists.
The protest movement that followed was the Tea Party. It began with a righteous cause and had great potential. It could have followed the example of the grassroots populism of the anti-war protests, but was coopted by corporate interests and the religious right… and so became a more narrowly defined movement that was far to the right of even the average Republican. The Tea Party also included many GenXers, especially in the leaders that took over (i.e., Beck and Palin), but overall it was slanted toward an older demographic that included more Boomers and fewer Millennials. I was just now thinking that this is a key element. The higher percentage of Boomers seemingly either brought out the worst in the GenXers involved or brought out the worst GenXers (by worst, I mean righteous anger that increasingly shifted toward bitterness and divisiveness).
That now brings us to the present with the Occupy protest movement. It seems more similar to the anti-war protests with many GenXers involved but even more heavily weighted toward a Millennial demographic. Once again, the Millennial presence seems to bring out the best in GenXers or else, opposite of the Tea Party, seems to bring out the best (most positive and inclusive) GenXers. In spite of the 99% meme which could be interpreted as class war, it was the Tea Party that expressed a more strident message of class war (or so it seems, once again, to my liberal-biased mind)… after all, 99% of the population is pretty damn inclusive, especially considering that even some of the 1% supports their message (if you want to hear a clear promotion of class war, then check out the 53% message; and while you’re at it check out this respectful liberal response to that attempt at class war; it’s ironic that the 53% is intended to be a criticism of the 99% since, when one thinks about it rationally, it becomes obvious that the vast majority of the 53% are part of the 99% lol).
It’s a very strange time we live in. We are overdue for some massive social change of the likes not seen since the Progressive Era. For much of this past decade, I’ve been closely watching the polling and demographic data. It was obvious a shift was happening and my prediction was that it likely would be toward the left (eventually), but until now the mainstream media and politics managed to resist these changes that could be seen in the general population. According to Strauss and Howe’s generation theory (Fourth Turning), change was gound to come and they were right on the money with the predictions of theirs that I’m familiar with (such as their early 90s prediction of increasing security in schools). At the same time, the culture wars no longer have the influence they once had. Millennials simply don’t care about the culture wars. The Tea Party demonstrates the decline of the culture wars. As it was increasingly coopted by the religious right and their culture wars, the Tea Party movement increasingly lost public support to the point that the movement is now less popular than either the Republican or Democratic Parties (the parties themselves being very unpopular at present), less popular than even Muslims and atheists.
I don’t know where that leaves us as a society. I’ll be watching the Occupy movement closely in the hope that something will come of it. If the culture wars are finally dead (at least for the time being in their present form), then what will replace them?