Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Boomers Have an Unrelenting Death Grip on America

Published in The Week on August 2, 2016


Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are, in many ways, polar opposites on the political, philosophical, and temperamental spectrums. But in others, they are two sides of the same coin.

Yes, it’s easy to point to all the things that are different about them. One is a paragon of cosmopolitan liberal internationalism. The other openly flirts with fascism and white nationalism. One is overly cautious and calculating. The other seems incapable of even thinking before speaking.

But there is an important way in which Clinton and Trump are almost mirror images, and the first clue is their birth dates. Donald Trump was born in 1946. Hillary Clinton was born in 1947. And as a result, the candidates, and their campaigns, are reflections of the same Boomer anxieties.

Our culture still lives in the shadow of the Boomers. As the conservative intellectual Yuval Levin wrote in his book Our Fractured Republic, our self-representation of the latter half of the 20th century basically mirrors the average Boomer’s memory of his own life. In the 1950s, a Boomer would have been a child, and this is the decade we look at through rose-tinted glasses — simpler times, albeit wonderful ones. The 1960s we look at as a decade of trouble but also boundless possibility and fun, just like teenage years. Like young adulthood, we mostly remember the 1970s as a struggle, with high oil prices, unemployment, and inflation — the struggle of getting set up and making your way in the world. By the 1980s, a roaring decade for many, the average Boomer would be in the flower of life, with a young family. And the prosperous 1990s would be when the Boomer’s savings are finally starting to pile up.

But now we are in the age of early retirement. The age where the world now seems hard to understand. The age of hazy nostalgia, or the age of fear.

To the Clinton campaign, it seems, it’s always 1964. Her agenda is a retread of the Great Society, promising exactly the same vision as the post-war Western ideas of a cradle-to-grave welfare state. It’s a startling winding back of the clock to the same ideas and the same debates as those that animated the Boomers’ generation. Compare Hillary’s rhetoric to Bill Clinton’s economic vision in the 1990s of embracing globalization while investing in education to empower people to take advantage of it. Say what you will of this vision’s merits or its track record; at least it was a vision from the 1990s for the 1990s, not a vision from the 1960s for the 21st century.

While her husband sought to reach social-democratic goals while embracing technological change and economic realities, Hillary Clinton wants to simply turn back the clock to the mythical time of the 1950s steady union job.

Hillary Clinton’s other big cause seems to be identity politics. It’s always 1964, and the scenario is always the same, with the old white male patriarchy holding women and minorities down. While it would indeed be an important milestone to have a woman president of the United States, it’s ludicrous to suggest that any but a vanishingly small portion of the electorate thinks that a woman would be unqualified or unfit to be president.

Of course, the reason why that aspect of Clinton’s message works so well is because Trump is such a perfect foil for it. If Hillary is the Boomers’ nostalgia-filled ego trip, Trump is the Boomers’ fear of impending doom and insecurity. Trump is often compared to George Wallace and Richard Nixon. And indeed, Trump’s obsession with crime and minorities upsetting the social order is also straight out of the Mad Men era, as is his macho persona. (Unfortunately, neither are his fashion sense nor his grammar.)

Boomers hold our cultural imagination in a vise grip. Hipsters — a word that became popular in the 1950s — make a fetish out of retro aesthetic. An awful lot of popular music today gets its rhythms from resampling and modifying popular music from the 1960s and 1970s. And most importantly, our two political parties are obsessed with fighting the battles from those eras. The argument they are engaged in is how to return to which misremembered fantasy of the 1950s and 1960s.

The painful irony is that the challenges we face are categorically different. The main changes to economic life today come from automation and artificial intelligence, which are completely different from the issues we faced in the 1950s. While the world will always have great-power politics, the most prominent geopolitical threat, ISIS, is so virulent precisely because it is an avatar of a new kind of network-centric warfare that is only imaginable in the 21st century.

It’s precisely at the time when our challenges are most unlike those we faced in the old days that we are at our most subconsciously obsessed with replaying our imagined fantasy of those days. It’s time for both Clinton and Trump to give it a rest.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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