Jul 172012
 

Well—this is thirsty work! Think I’ll have a nip of the bitter myself.

This is the last installment of a four-part post about how the experience of the Sixties Generation has led to a deep and ongoing divide in the American left. The first three parts are here, here, and here.

So: fast forward to today.

The sharpest divide within the Democratic Party since 2008 has been the about-face of left-end Obama voters who began to attack him as a betrayer almost from the moment he was inaugurated. In my experience, those voters tend to fall into two demographic groups: the very young and inexperienced, and those who were very young and inexperienced in the late 1960s, and then, disillusioned, went off to live their lives largely disengaged from real politics*.

Here, I must stipulate that there were plenty of politically active young people emerging from the Sixties Generation who remained engaged in their efforts despite long years of little yield. They populate the nonprofits and foundations who continue to work for progressive policies, and have made many advances at state and local levels and in the courts when they could not achieve them in federal policy.

Those folks stuck around to learn how the game works: about how real change is made. They do not dismiss the system as irretrievably corrupt, and do not see a single step forward as a failure if it isn’t a mile long. They do not embrace the airy claim that “there is no difference between the two parties”, or dismiss every forward step made by the Obama administration as weak tea or camouflage for corporate profit. I’m not saying they’re happy about every last thing the Administration has done, but how is that humanly possible, really?

Criticisms from sisters and brothers of their generation notwithstanding, this latter group holds values no less idealistic. But they have learned the ways of the world, rather than insisting that the world must be as they demanded when they were young. And unlike those who decry them as compromising sellouts, these seasoned progressive leaders and organizers are really in the game to make change, not just to feel righteous.

Again, to be clear: I’m not talking about those folks. I’m talking about that element of the coalition that elected Barack Obama which has proven impossible to satisfy since he took office.

Since the very first month of his term, this group has found nearly every positive step that President Obama has achieved to be inadequate. It has subscribed to conspiracy theories that he holds nefarious secret intentions and loyalties, and leaped to embrace suggestions that he is a right-wing wolf in sheep’s clothing. And disproportionately, in my experience, it just so happens to be heavily comprised of people who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I believe that this is because carrying unsatisfiable expectations—and then feeling vindicated when they are not met—has become the way the disillusioned former Sixties counterculture has learned to engage the political process. I think that by having finally successfully elected a smart, obviously caring, charismatic leader who articulated a progressive vision of America—and an African-American leader at that!—the Children of the Sixties allowed the idealistic rush of emotion of the moment to lull them back into the movie story where, in the final act, the struggle is over and the Better World is achieved. Where anything short of the ideal just isn’t good enough.

I’m not saying this is conscious, mind you. This is about psychology and emotion. When someone complains that they didn’t get enough “hope and change,” given the state of the country’s politics, it’s pretty clear that their expectations weren’t reasonable.

This isn’t a movie. It’s life. It isn’t as if the President could walk into the Oval Office, sign an order and turn the country into a Scandinavian socialism. He is neither a king nor a magician. He is constrained by his context, and he  must  contend with an opposition that has gone berserk in its hatred of him.

Nonetheless, he has delivered a remarkable amount of progress, which those in the group I’m discussing dismiss as shams and half measures.

Presented the list of the Obama Administration’s positive achievements, they wave them away and change the subject to their grievances, real or imagined. When he has been unable to deliver on a policy goal, they presume not that he wanted to, but circumstances would not allow it, but rather that he is intentionally and deceptively withholding advances which are in his power to bestow.

It isn’t a surprise that many of the Sixties generation have slumped into this state. Not since they were teenagers has a liberal been elected…and he, of course, was the one they hated for escalating the Vietnam War**. They cut their teeth on politics based in a deep cynicism about institutions and power. Having never before won, they have no idea how to be when they win.

That is why they turned on Obama so quickly. For more than three decades, the Sixties Generation has never experienced a world where the holder of power isn’t the enemy. The idea of giving The Man the benefit of the doubt is incomprehensible to them; it turns on its head their entire history as political opinion holders. Ironically, in this way they are much like the angry libertarians of the Tea Party: they despise and resent political institutions, yet seek power and influence in political institutions.

Barack Obama has managed to put one foot in front of the other on many of the very issues the Sixties Generation stood for, some of which have languished for decades. But he has done so in the fluid, strategic, many-routes-to-the-goal manner that his generation figured out is the only way to get anywhere in generally hostile territory.

The point wasn’t to pass single payer health insurance. The point was to take as big a step forward as possible to ensure that people had access to medical care and weren’t bankrupted when they got sick. Obama would have signed a single payer bill if it had reached his desk, but that was impossible. Rather than giving up, he ran the ball a different route. And when conventional-wisdom Democratic leaders declared the initiative dead, he refused to let that happen. Instead, he got a bill through that has already profoundly changed the landscape of health care in this country for the better, and will continue to do so for years to come. The same scenario played out again on finance reform and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Unless you’re living in an autocracy, any leader you might elect is constrained by limits to her or his power. But if you lack experience that brings you an understanding of how political change occurs that adds nuance and patience to the urge for a better world, you don’t understand or acknowledge these constraints. Every instance of not being delivered your wishes becomes not an unfortunate outcome, but a betrayal. And leaping to the conclusion that it has been betrayed by power—and feeling, therefore righteously martyred—has become an ingrained and destructive habit for the many of the progressives of the Sixties.

The 60s counterculture succeeded in transforming our culture in many ways. Those who emerged from that time still willing to believe that the system could work and our society can be improved remained engaged in public policy advocacy, gained seasoning and perspective, and have become the backbone of today’s environmental, labor, feminist, GLBT rights, civil liberties, peace and antiracism movements.

But in my experience, none are more voluble in attacking those who move the ball up the field on progressive causes than those who went to the sidelines, disillusioned, after their youth in the Sixties—the ones who never got that seasoning. The ones who still have a young person’s expectation that the world should bend to their wishes, and that if it does not, they’re being deliberately screwed.

Clearly, I pick a side here. I’m a politico, and in my own little way, I’ve gone through the sausage-making learning curve which shapes public policy in this country. And over the years, I’ve seen plenty of people ostensibly on my side grandstanding about the inadequacy of secured advances, when it was frankly miraculous that we had gotten as far as we did.

I have no problem with differences in strategy, a multi-pronged approach, or a broad coalition that encompasses difference. And I think it’s essential to keep the ideal goal in front of us, so we don’t forget where we’re going.

But let me say this: progress is progress. Making things better—even a little—is still making things better.

So if you’re one of those folks of that generation who invests as much or more effort attacking those generally on your side (at any level of politics, be it national, state or local) as you do the conservative opposition, let me ask you this:

For whose benefit, really, are you doing that? And how are you helping, exactly?

Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t do what he did so he could feel that he was right. He was a political animal. He did what he did so all people could have equality, and he knew that happens in steps. That was the whole point of the “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech.

It’s not about us. It’s not about what reinforces our world view, or confirms how rigged the system is, or how much The Man owns it all. It’s not about feeling righteous, or confirming to ourselves that we’re too smart to drink the Kool-Aid.

It’s about justice and equality and peace and sustainability and all that good stuff we good progressives all supposedly stand for.

Right?

At publication, the Dragon was:  FRANK

* …by which I mean not simply Belonging to Groups That Stand for Something, but election campaigns, legislative policy advocacy efforts, and other attempts to engage institutions which have the power to implement positive policies.

**No, I haven’t forgotten about Bill Clinton. Let’s just say that when your signature achievements are tax cuts, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, free trade agreements that devastate American manufacturing, and welfare “reform” that throws our most vulnerable citizens under the bus, you’re not really batting for the progressive side, whether you’re a Democrat or not.

Cartoon courtesy Bearman Cartoons.

Jul 152012
 

Next weekend, Petaluma will hold the annual Rivertown Revival, a celebration of Petaluma as a river city and a fundraiser for the David Yearsley River Heritage Center. This is a very cool event with a sort of family-friendly Burning Man ambiance—meaning, you’ll see people in lots of wild outfits, and amazingly decorated floating art boats, musical acts, etc.

But I have a very particular memory of the magnificently preserved antique downtown and riverfront of Petaluma, which is the glow of the short-lived paddlewheeler Petaluma Queen moored at the turning basin at dusk, her lights and bright stacks reflecting in the still water.

It was a moment from another time. Listening to the water lap at the hull, you’d swear that if you just stepped on board, she’d take you not on a dinner cruise, but down to New Orleans, and adventure.

To me, the attraction of the Rivertown Revival remains the original concept of the event–something along the lines of the dear departed Handcar Regatta, a somewhat whimsical, tongue-in-cheek but historically evocative journey back to when rivers and rails were our primary means of transport.

Though Petaluma wasn’t established yet, what that most brings to mind is the world of Mark Twain’s marvelous Life on the Mississippi. If you haven’t read it, do: it’s hilarious, and filled with the atmosphere of an era which—even when Twain wrote it—had already passed away.

So when I think of heading down to Petaluma next week, it’s not in Burning Man neons and faux fur or whatever all that is. It’s more along the lines of what you see here: working men toting bales on the levee in straw hats, sparks and coal smoke streaming into the sky from the bright columns of the the great steamboats’ stacks.

Think I’ll put on that yoked, blousy cotton shirt, and find me a broad-brimmed straw hat. Maybe stuff a burlap bag, hoist it onto my shoulder, and tote that bale for a day, down by the river side.

Jul 152012
 

Here’s part 3 of my psycho-socio-historical analysis of the impact of the experience of the Sixties Generation in helping to divide the current American left. Part 1 is here, Part 2 here. Last tomorrow!

As I was saying before that guy down at the end of the bar so rudely interrupted us…

After decades of seeing the nation regress, I believe that a sizable cohort of those who were once the young idealists of the Sixties, disillusioned, settled into a pattern where their political motivation is actually no longer to win. Throughout their adult lives, progress has been hopelessly out of reach: the country has been going backwards. Rather, this group’s primary political goal now is to derive a feeling of righteousness, and vindicate its beliefs about the world.

Having never experienced significant success—or respect—in the national policy arena, this element of the Sixties generation has learned to draw what positive experience it can from an emotional cocktail comprised of one part heroic martyrdom and two parts cynical satisfaction that they are too savvy to get fooled again.

In my experience, former Sixties Kids who fit this description make up a large and vocal chunk of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, as well as of leftist third parties such as Greens. Unable to change the world as they hoped, they settle for the moral satisfaction of telling themselves they have not sold out. They demand that leaders, likewise, hew to impractically pure positions, even if–especially if–it means they make no headway, because a good cause that fails is, in an odd way, a winner for them. It confirms they are fighting the Doomed Good Fight.

Their heroes are the likes of Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader, Bernie Sanders and Barbara Lee and Jesse Jackson and Noam Chomsky and Jim Hightower, all of whom give impassioned speeches that repeat their admirers’ beliefs back to them, and help them feel they matter.

Realistically, of course, all of these are voices in the wilderness: none possesses significant political influence. But that very outsider status—the fact that they, too, like the stymied youth of the Sixties, go unheeded and ignored—makes them more credible to their supporters, not less.

It is important to note that to achieve a good feeling about having Remained Pure and Kept the Faith, people who orient to politics this way must draw a distinction between those who qualify for their noble status and those who do not. So they attack real advances towards their ostensible political goals as inadequate, and castigate those who accomplish these advances as corrupt and weak.

And the key thing to understand about this phenomenon is that the main motivation involved in engaging with politics under these terms is not to achieve policy goals.

It is self-gratification.

Let me be clear: the frustrated True Believers of the Sixties Generation got to this state for a reason. It’s not their fault. History has been thumping their cherished values and political ideals for their entire adult lives. It is no surprise that many have responded in this way.

But there is definitely something here, and we need to talk about it.

A recent example of this phenomenon in my area provoked this long series. We just went through a primary cycle for an open Congressional seat in which the two top contenders on the Democratic side were a state legislator with a superb 20-year record of effective progressive voting and leadership, and a somewhat well-known Sixties generation author without any prior policy making experience. There wasn’t a single major policy issue on which they disagreed.

From a progressive standpoint, by any objective measure this was a no-brainer. When someone proves able to deliver passage of progressive legislation many times over, that’s the guy you want to send to Congress. As it turned out, voters agreed by a wide margin.

However, the writer was heavily supported by graying left-end veterans of Sixties activism, many of whom cited—often in caustic terms—that the legislator’s experience was not a credential, but a stain. To them, the very fact that he had served in office—even though his record entirely supported the causes they claimed to care about—rendered him suspect.

He had become part of The Establishment.

Yes, someone actually used that term in discussing this election with me.

Technically, I’m a very late Baby Boomer. I was born in the early 60s, and I have memories from the time I was two. I actually remember the climate of assumed progress and enthusiasm for the future of the mid 1960s.

But by the time I came into political awareness, it wasn’t possible to be a bright-eyed idealist any longer. My earliest political memories are the murders of King and RFK, the riots, Cronkite with the body counts from Vietnam, My Lai, the Napalm Girl, and then Watergate.

Those gravitating to politics who came of age in the late 1970s already knew how bad it was, and our college years under Reagan reinforced the point. Opportunities were shriveling and the political values of the country curdled into poison. We never had a moment of we-can-do-it optimism about the future. If we chose to advocate for change, we knew the odds were long, and that sudden, sweeping social transformation only happens in fiction. If we were going to win at all, it was going to be a yard at a time, threading our way through a minefield of powerful opposition.

I explain this because mine is Barack Obama’s generation. He, too, came of age in the era of America in Conservative Decline. And as a black kid, he knew far better than I how steep it was going to be, and how much work it was going to be, step by step, to get anywhere.

My generation’s experience made clear that the righteousness of a cause did not imply any inevitability that it would succeed, and that losing is losing. There’s no nobility in it; it just means the world gets worse.

In my experience, few activists of my generation believe that being on the side of the angels has any inherent power. We know that love and belief alone are not enough to change the world. To do that, you need power—and the status quo does not surrender power willingly.

As I said: yard by yard.

[NEXT and FINAL:  What Are You In This For?]

At publication, the Dragon was:  AFFABLE

NOTE: I do not own the peace sign image, and I couldn’t find out who does. If it’s yours and you want credit or a takedown, please contact me.

Jul 132012
 

Yesterday, I wrote about the American left’s long sojourn in the wilderness, ignored and reviled in national politics since McGovern’s walloping in 1972.

Before I go into that, can I top you off? That stein is looking unhappily air-filled.

So…as I was saying…

As the country veered rightward and the Democratic Party flailed about trying to decide what to be in the context of the take-no-prisoners conservative onslaught, an entire generation of the American left–one of the largest such generations in history–has been left in the political weeds from college to collecting Social Security. Its values have been derided as hippie lunacy—”hippie” having become a comedic insult—its opinions have gone unsolicited, and its votes have been taken for granted as a small but reliable (and therefore uncourted) slice of the larger Democratic pie.

As many of its members have grown financially comfortable, this generation has founded and become the funding base for a constellation of well-intentioned advocacy organizations, foundations, the Democratic Party, and alternative efforts such as the Green Party. But for all the noble missions they help to promote, none of the big things they really cared about–nothing they believed in, back in the day–has come about at the national scale. Prior to 2009, the last major progressive achievements had occurred in the early 1970s. American society in its economic policies, its social policies, and its foreign policy has moved steadily away from the peaceful, kind and egalitarian world that was the vision of Sixties youth. With the exception of issues where the federal government has not been the primary driver–such as the evolving values of the culture itself on issues like gay rights and racial and women’s equality–none of the changes they hoped for has come to pass. Quite the contrary: instead, it’s been the Hyde Amendment and the war on Affirmative Action and the ongoing siege against EPA and the Endangered Species Act, the demolition of federal housing and safety net programs, and the wholesale shift of federal priorities to the interests of the very rich.

After years of the ugly parade of Nixon and Kent State, assassinations and Watergate and Reagan, the Bushes, Cheney, Gingrich, DeLay, Falwell, Robertson, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld–of helplessly watching the conservative movement rule nearly unchecked, senseless wars,  climbing poverty, shocking Supreme Court rulings, shriveling civil liberties, the incursion of religious fanaticism into schools, terrible regress on racial and gender equality–the leftist children of the Sixties inevitably became accustomed to feeling powerless.

For the once-counterculture, activist Baby Boomers, the political history of the past four decades must be simply heartbreaking. Many of them poured years into Sisyphean efforts to end militarism and achieve full nuclear disarmament. They saw conscripted friends killed or scarred forever, or were drafted themselves; their comrades were shot by government troops at Kent State and beaten in places like Chicago and Watts…and what they ended up with was still Nixon, still more years of war. And then Reagan. And so on.

In their youthful idealism and the lingering can-do optimism of their Baby Boom upbringing, they had expected to reach the end of the American movie, where Good triumphs after struggle. But the world is colder and less certain than that.

So…what is the impact of this? What happens when those who were idealistic activists in their youth spend their entire adulthood watching national politics move farther and farther away from the policies they support?

Well, for one thing, those who don’t have much political success don’t gain experience in what leads to political success. Policy advocacy is a skills-based discipline like any other: you get better by learning what works. If the climate is such that nothing works, you don’t have an opportunity to learn. You don’t learn the nuances of how things work. You do not have an opportunity to learn the strategic, incremental and often inevitably compromising nature of policy making in a democracy, because you’re not in the room when it happens.

Secondly, if your team has been largely shut out of policy deliberations on your issues, you do get a lot of experience with banging on the door and shouting to be heard. That’s what the kids of the 1960s counterculture were doing, by and large. Tellingly, this dynamic mimics a child-to-parent power relationship, and it’s easy for those whose first experiences in politics occur in reaction to their parents’ generation to fall into an understanding of political activism in those terms. The Sixties generation’s reflexive attraction to marches and public protests is an example of one manifestation of this effect: largely ineffective as a tactic now, street protest feels right to people who feel powerless and ignored, but righteous in their cause.

Unsurprisingly, as people will, they have found a way to take what cold comfort they can from the times they live in: they have come to experience their powerlessness and defeat itself as a badge of heroic honor and sacrifice. As martyrdom.

 [NEXT: Obama’s Generation]

At publication, the Dragon was AFFABLE