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.
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.