Barack Obama is all about moving beyond. Take transportation policy: “Barack Obama believes that we must move beyond our simple fixation of investing so many of our transportation dollars in serving drivers,” his campaign website declares. Or his views on education: “We need new vision for education in America--one where we move past ideology to experiment with the latest reforms.” And, of course, the Middle East: “It's time to move beyond Iraq so that we can move forward together,” the Illinois Senator declared recently in Iowa.
But the policies Obama wants to move past have lately drawn less attention than the demographic group he’d consign to our national rearview mirror: the Vietnam generation, which just so happens to include his leading rivals for the Democratic nomination and, should he win it, the White House. “When you watch Clinton versus Gingrich or Gore versus Bush or Kerry versus Bush, you feel like these are fights that were taking place back in dorm rooms in the sixties,” he told New York magazine in 2006, continuing, “I think people sort of feel like, OK, let’s not re-litigate the sixties 40 years later.”
The same theme has gotten considerable attention again this month thanks to a thoughtful Atlantic Monthly cover story, entitled “Goodbye to All That,” by Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan finds many things to like about Obama’s candidacy, but the sharpest part of his essay comes down to a generational argument: that only Obama, 46, represents an escape from the self-defeating culture wars of his baby boomer elders.
Obama made that same point himself just a few days after the piece ran. “I think there’s no doubt that we represent the kind of change that Senator Clinton can’t deliver on, and part of it is generational,” he told Fox News. “Senator Clinton and others, they’ve been fighting some of the same fights since the ’60s and it makes it very difficult for them to bring the country together to get things done.”
So what if the boomers actually did vacate the scene? Would a political space shorn of its 1960s veterans really represent a move beyond today’s noxious landscape? I’m not so sure.
Obama asserts that his rivals have fought the same battles for 40 years. Unfortunately, his own cohort has been fighting similar ones for 25 years--the difference being a function of age, not generational pragmatism. True, their quarter century didn’t include the uniquely searing experience of the Vietnam War, with its built-in binaries around whether or not one fought and whether or not one protested. But the war remains a powerful object of retrospective fantasy-fulfillment. Young righties imagine doing their duty and in the process spiting the treacherous antiwar activists; young lefties grow up idealizing the movement as a signal example of popular democracy. (Such positions, needless to say, are a lot easier to hold when you don’t have to actually brave Vietcong bullets or police truncheons.)
No surprise, then, that the generations that came of age after Vietnam were hardly known for their conciliatory take on cultural-political matters. To be sure, fewer people concerned themselves with the issues that had a decade earlier torn the nation’s social fabric--things like the end of the draft or the unfettered distribution of Henry Miller novels have that effect. But whether they were arguing over apartheid or abortion, those who did maintained the same confrontational style as their elder siblings. Campus politics during the 1980s were torn between the uptight left of political correctness, with its efforts to politicize even the tiniest of semantic questions, and a caustic, minority-mocking right of publications like the Dartmouth Review. By the late 1990s, Mark Lilla described the state of American politics as “A Tale of Two Reactions,” with left and right alike retreating to the insular worlds of their own mythology. Today, the bloggers speaking of “Defeatocrats” and “Assclowns” are often too young to remember even Reagan.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to a guy who was born just six weeks before Obama, in the summer of 1961. “What Christians have got to do is take back this country, one precinct at a time, one neighborhood at a time, and one state at a time,” Ralph Reed has said. “I honestly believe that in my lifetime we will see a country once again governed by Christians.” 1961 also saw the births of such live-and-let-live types as Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, Sean Hannity, and John Podhoretz. Not to mention John Thune and David Vitter, both of whom joined the Senate the same year as Obama but spent their campaigns decrying gay marriage in nationally divisive terms. (“The Hollywood left is redefining the most basic institution in human history,” Vitter said while campaigning, in words that seem ironic in light of recent news. “We need a U.S. Senator who will stand up for Louisiana values, not Massachusetts’s values.”)
All of which is a long way from Obama’s celebrated riff at the 2004 Democratic Convention: “We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states.” Held up against the work of his contemporaries, his speech reads less like a statement of purpose for a reconciliation-minded cohort than like a specific political strategy—one that Obama’s Senatorial cogenerationists on the right disdain just as intensely as their elders did.
The generational fallacy, alas, is a common trait of idealists--whether they’re from the right, the left, or just that large sector of our country that would like less overheated shrieking in public life. They assume history is on their side, and that the next generation will prove it. It often doesn’t work out that way.
You don’t have to look very far back into political history to see earlier generational dreams come crashing down. When Bill Clinton became the first baby-boomer president, it was supposed to herald a cool White House. After three decades of the World War II generation, and four years of a flailing president who invoked the pledge of allegiance and flag burning whenever the going got tough, here was the guy to move beyond all that. The rock and roll generation, it was said, didn’t have their parents’ hang-ups.
Boomer boosters would have done better to examine the first of their cohort to reach national office: Vice President Dan Quayle, who spent that same campaign inveighing against the fictional illegitimate child of TV character Murphy Brown. A function of his generation? Alas, no: Quayle’s polarizing attacks weren’t so different from his vice presidential predecessor Spiro Agnew, a generation older, and they sound a lot like the kind of thing you might hear today from the likes of Hannity. And as Franklin Foer showed in a 2005 TNR story about the race for the leadership of the national College Republicans group, the next generation of the right has embraced their elders’ tactics with gusto.
Even the idea of seeking out Democratic candidates less likely to provoke the worst of it is nothing new. Southern moderates and decorated war heroes, once upon a time, were supposed to be inoculated. That didn’t turn out so well. Obama’s fans today cite his standing as a God-fearing family man. To suggest that reputation will head off culture-war attacks is to insult the grim skills of modern mudslinging.
This isn’t to say that Obama won’t be the guy to finally beat back the political polarizers. One point Sullivan makes in his essay is that, unlike previous Democratic nominees, Obama doesn’t seem embarrassed about who he is--a brainy, big city, Ivy League, constitutional law professor, among other things. No absurd didn’t-inhale declarations or contrived hunting trips here, and none of the resulting air of dishonest weakness that inspires so much right-wing loathing. Sullivan attributes this to generation as well. In fact, plenty of youngish Democrats practice the same kind of anxious cultural politics of the boomers. Take Harold Ford, born in 1970, a St. Albans-educated Ivy Leaguer who cast himself as an insular Bible Belter during his failed Senate run last year.
If it’s true that Obama is fearless and real where the others are phony and panic-stricken in the face of Middle America, the difference isn’t generation; it’s spine. He’s better equipped to call off our circular culture-war firing squad, in other words, because he’s a better culture warrior: a guy who can articulate the values and beliefs that several generations of right wingers have attacked, and do so without letting down his side the way philandering Bill Clinton did.
But that, of course, is a far less inclusive refrain out on the campaign trail. And a rather less optimistic notion for those of us who wish, as Obama does, that we could simply banish all those dorm-room debates.
Michael Currie Schaffer is working on a book about the pet industry.
By Michael Currie Schaffer