In the 1960s it was the angry left, the student protesters and Vietnam War opponents who seethed at the Establishment and indignantly voiced their view that America had become a “sick society.” It was the Establishment that told them to tone it down, to restore sanity, to engage not in protests and campus shut-downs but in rational and civil discourse.
Today it’s the right that seethes.
Tea Party members and many conservatives project insidiousness onto every liberal and socialism onto every government initiative. They turn political disagreements into cultural donnybrooks, believing that generally benign and unexceptionable programs such as health care and financial reform are stealing away our liberty and destroying our country, and that government spending on roads, bridges, and alternative energy reeks of tyranny and dictatorship. So they’re determined to take America back.
And in the midst of all this anger is the comedic troubadour Jon Stewart and his rally to restore sanity, which drew upwards of a few hundred thousand liberals and moderates to Washington over the Halloween weekend.
So what does it say that liberals are the ones promoting civil discourse and conservatives are the ones wielding guns and rage?
When the Establishment scolded young student protesters in the Sixties, they were protecting their preeminence and authority from a new generation that was defying it. Young people back then spoke of challenging entrenched attitudes on race, religion, ethnicity, and gender – of breaking the hammerlock on power that the old elites held – and of empowering outsiders to have a voice in the critical decisions of society that they never had before. Little wonder the old power elite wanted young people to stop demanding and protesting.
What we have today is literally a mirror image of the Sixties – similar but backwards. The apocalyptic rhetoric, the rallies, and the anger that characterized the youth movement four decades ago are all a staple of the Tea Party today.
But in the Sixties, young people were angry because they wanted to break from the past, whereas conservatives today are angry because they want to restore the past – because the world has changed and largely passed them by and they’re not at all happy about it.
Like the nineteenth century Luddites in England who went around the countryside bashing machines for fear that industrialism would destroy their way of life, our current conservatives rage against a society that no longer resembles their Norman Rockwell image of what they think America ought to be.
In many ways President Obama personifies this new America against which conservatives recoil. He embodies diversity, he grew up internationally, he’s more comfortable in big cities than small towns, and his intellect and persona are urbane and global. Conservative anger at him is as much about what he represents as the policies he promotes.
And what he represents is a new America far different from the old.
It’s an America where ethnic and religious minorities aren’t told to keep their heads down and stay inconspicuous, where women aren’t told to stay home and keep silent, where gays aren’t told to live in the closet, where young people aren’t told to keep quiet and follow their elders, where communities aren’t told that business interests supersede the environment, where urbanites aren’t told they’re less authentically American than small town denizens, and where those who march to their own drum aren’t told to hide their passions and conform to some mythic mainstream. To conservatives and their apologists in the media, these are all elites out of touch with the mainstream. But the reality is that they’re simply the face of contemporary America.
Note that there was no Tea Party or conservative protest when President Bush expanded government through a prescription drug benefit, or when his tax cuts created the strapping deficits that burden us today, or when his administration initiated the TARP program to bail out banks and Wall Street financial institutions. Government programs and deficits didn’t seem to bother them then. But under President Obama they constitute treason.
Underlying today’s conservative political rage is really a larger cultural resentment they feel toward the path our country has traveled since the 1960s. The new American portrait is far different from the America they hold dear.
Imagine a Rip van Winkle waking from the Fifties and seeing 2010 America. He would see gay marriage legal in some states and moving toward acceptance nationwide, young people freely crossing racial and ethnic lines in their social lives and cultural tastes, women having choices to work or raise a family, liberal Jews constituting one-third of the Supreme Court, and a black man with an African name as president of the United States. Old Rip’s certain shock and surprise at this seemingly alien world is exactly what fuels the conservative rage against it.
So when Jon Stewart calls for sanity and civil dialogue, when he holds an Alice in Wonderland tea party on the national mall, what he’s really reflecting is the view of a new silent majority that is comfortable with the openness and inclusiveness and irreverence of contemporary America and doesn’t want to keep fighting the culture war battles of old. That war is now over, for the most part the new generation sensibility has won, and it’s time to accept and let go.
But conservatives refuse to accept this changed America. They believe the system is stacked against them and that a better tomorrow can be found in the social and political order of the 1950s. What they are is the wave of the past, not the future. That’s the source of their rage and why no march to restore sanity will ever assuage it.
A former speechwriter and strategist for causes, candidates, and members of Congress, Leonard Steinhorn has written on American politics and culture for major newspapers and magazines, and is currently the director of the Public Communications department at American University.