Watergate Babies Out With the Bathwater

I finally managed to finish the 804-page masterpiece that is Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge, and I can say with conviction that it is one of the greatest books I have ever read. Perlstein manages to successfully blend political narrative with actual cultural historical anecdotes in a way that should be taught to every History teacher on the planet. If we had a Rick Perlstein in every class, History would be everyone’s favorite class.

…and I’m NOT just saying that because he emailed me back and said he liked my Great American Revival Tent column!

Not even a week after finishing the book, I stumbled across this article in The Atlantic, and here’s where I have to take a break from taking the piss out of Generation X and recognize one fighting the good fight and making stuff happen. According to The Atlantic, Matt Stoller is a budget analyst on the Senate Budget Committe, and you should all give him a Google or a Bing or a Yahoo or whatever and check out his work, or follow him over at @MattStoller on Twitter. His article, titled “How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul,” is the perfect after dinner cordial to complement Perlstein’s sumptuous 8-course feast. Between the two of them, we’ve managed to finally pinpoint, like some sort of isolated protein that causes all cancer, just where everything went so damn wrong in this country politically.

For the record, my parents are Boomers. They are not, however… usually, the Boomers who insist that their generation descended from Olympus on the wings of eagles to lead America to the Promised Land, despite doing more to usher in a New Gilded Age than almost anyone else. No, my Boomer parents were hardworking farmers who lost the family farm in the 1980s (thanks, conservatives and offensively-high interest rate hikes!) and ended up living lives, well, much like the current Millennial generation: multiple jobs, paycheck-to-paycheck, completely missing out on whatever it was some of the other Boomers cashed in on to trade in their Birkenstocks for Briefcases.

As such, my parents never gave up their liberal/independent roots, and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Bernie Sanders’ campaign sounded an awful lot like what was bandied about the dinner table every night during my childhood. But what of the other Boomers, the ones who decided to take us down this road into a neoliberal nightmare where a war hawk who talks about privatizing retirement in a is considered the liberal party’s standard-bearer? Well, if you’ve spent any time reading all of my malarkey here at GenExt, you’ll find what I’m about to say very familiar. It all boils down to one maxim that seems almost universal: children don’t want to be like their parents.

It sounds pat, I know, but the more I read about people the more I realize just how much we are at the mercy of our emotions. We have that primitive, snap-to, fight-or-flight section of our brain that pumps happy chemicals into our system when we indulge it, and in no better way to we like to indulge ourselves personally is through self-preservation. And when you convince yourself that you are right, good, and smart, and other people are not… that’s self-preservation. At the same time, we feel a need to make ourselves our own people and, after almost twenty years of being told by other people how to live our lives, we’re willing to strike out and show them that they were wrong and we were right and you just don’t understand, Mom and Dad!

So… what happens when this happens on a national scale?

Well, most recently you get the Millennial generation going, in some case, more than 80 percent for Bernie Sanders. But the Bernie movement is actually a refutation of a previous refutation, in a series of refutations that probably twists and bends itself back into a spiral for most of modern humanity. The last major Generational refutation has its genesis in those plucky little scamps known as the Watergate Babies.

After the Watergate scandal rocked America to its core, people wanted a change. They didn’t care how, or who, they just knew that Watergate was bad so the opposite of it was good. The only problem is, in their rush to judgement, the labeled the entirety of government as bad when it was, let’s be honest, only a majority of it. And so, in their rage the Boomers struck what they thought was the ultimate blow of rebellion, the culmination of the Summer of Love in utterly destroying what remained of American Progressivism in our national government. If it was government, it had to be destroyed… and people wonder why Reagan got elected twice.

The only problem with this zero-sum, lizard-brain thinking was, of course, that nuance keeps everything from being simple and easy. We lost a good number of good men in government in the post-Watergate massacre, but beyond that is the most insidious aspect. Before Watergate, liberals were New Deal liberals, vaguely socialist, strongly Progressive and committed to doing public good, whether they be liberal Democrats or Republicans. In responding the way they did, the Boomers put in office what they thought were liberals who would continue to carry the torch that had brought us so much prosperity, but instead began what became known as the New Democrats: socially liberal, but in most other cases actually quite conservative.

Because, y’know, being liberal in your policies reminded people too much of Nixon, who actually had a fairly liberal record. The Boomers cut off their nose to spite their face, and after nearly 40 years of festering that wound has not healed, and we have the sick, festering boil of a national government that currently occasionally enjoys an approval rating just below head lice. What’s worse is that New Democrats only fed into the idea that things were bad, so when things got worse we kept thinking we needed to elect more and more people like them who promised to fix the system but ultimately made it worse. In short, when the Boomers decided government was only for scumbags, we wound up with a government mostly full of scumbags.

It’s the same old story. Generation 1 does a thing, Generation 2 does the opposite, and then Generation 3 can then do the opposite of that, which actually becomes what Generation 1 did in the first place. Now, in the current case, we’ve got the wildcard of Generation X who sort of split the difference: some of them want to be Sanders-style Progressives, but some of them are still old enough to remember the cynicism of a Post-Watergate world. Millennials, in contrast, have no memory of the don’t-trust-government ethos of the Reagan years, and only know government is the only thing left that can keep them out of endless poverty. Only time will tell what will happen there, but the most hopeful thing to take out of this situation is that change is coming, and the light will soon dawn on a new birth of American Progressivism, if only because one generation doesn’t want to be anything like the generation that came before it.

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