Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Great American Taboo

The partisan acrimony inherent in current American politics leaves little unsaid between the two sides. Just about any charge, regardless of the level or even existence of evidence, is likely to be levied by either side on their opposite, up to and including the willful, deliberate sabotage of American society. This says nothing about whether those charges are true; we'll set that aside. This is not about that, at least not here, today.

There is, however, one thing that does largely remain unsaid. This is not to say that it does not seem to drive emotions, or that it's not hinted at, or that it's even all that unknown. Deep down, it appears that a lot of people think it, on some level, but very few are willing to come out and say it, at least, not on the level it's meant.

We'll get to that later.

There's a more socially-acceptable version of saying it: a generational conflict; a dividing line between the Baby Boomers and Generation X. The Baby Boomers' general reputation among Gen X and Gen Y is essentially one of lifelong entitlement: the Greatest Generation did all the hard work in setting up modern society, making sure the Baby Boomers didn't have to have it as hard as they did. They didn't want their kids suffering through a Great Depression of their own. They did deny their kids things, but hardships inflicted were largely borne out of wanting them to know how to handle a depression if and when it did come. The Baby Boomers, as observation tells, got overused to the relative prosperity, and took away the lesson that they needed to accumulate as much as they could, which over the years corrupted into a sense that not only did they need as much money and stuff as possible, but as the world their parents built flourished and was subsequently handed to them, they started thinking that they, not their parents, were the cause, and they didn't just need a lot of stuff, but they in fact deserved it for the great job they did.

Gen X and Gen Y, meanwhile, as the Baby Boomers appear to see it, are punk kids who haven't earned their keep and should wait their turn to run the world. When the younger generations grow up, they'll understand. Or at least, that's the more benign antagonism towards Gen X and Gen Y.

The Tea Party is a faction that, in addition to being Republican is disproportionally old, white and male- as of this survey in April 2010, it was 59% male (49% in the general population), 89% white (77% in the general population), and 75% age 45 and above, with 29% age 65 and above (50% and 16% in the general population). This Harris Poll from 11 months later concurred with the profile. It sits squarely in Baby Boomer territory.

A fairly common rallying cry among Tea Party supporters is 'If not us, who? If not now, when?' Reconcile that with the demographic profile. While you're at it, reconcile it with the iconic cry of their 2010 campaign, 'Take Our Country Back'. Times change. Generations float in and then out of influence, with the older generations seeing a way of life that they had spent their entire existence working towards changed away from their vision by the next generations in line. It's a pretty tough thing to take. The world's becoming less recognizable to you- less good- and your window of time to hold back the tide becomes smaller and smaller and more difficult to keep open, before it inevitably closes. And when it does, the world becomes a progressively more alien place to someone set in their ways, and they begin lamenting 'the way things used to be', through rose-colored glasses that filter out all the bad parts and/or inconvenient facts about the way things used to be- such as the uglier parts of the culture of the time, or the part where their parents paid for things and they got an allowance every week for doing next to squat- and this process becomes more and more acute for the rest of their lives. The world moves further and further away from them, and will continue to do so, inexorably, forever.

The Tea Party's primary demographic currently sits in this uneasy generational twilight. Some people, when in this position, accept this and try to adapt along with the times. Others hang on to their old ways, but try to steer the younger generation to a decent compromise and, using their past experience, try to instruct them as to how to avoid past mistakes. Others rage against the dying light and dig in their heels, forcing change to happen over their dead body. Still others go further, and fight tooth and nail to force the world to conform- or reconform- to their old ways, not only within their lifetime but long after it's over.

The generational conflict at hand is happening in those last two categories. The Tea Party- the old, white males of the Tea Party- grew up in the 50's and 60's, an age sepia-toned as a Leave-It-To-Beaveresque landscape of suburbs, milkmen, pies on the windowsill, the brand-spanking-new Interstate System, and nuclear families with two-point-something-or-other children, and conveniently forgetting McCarthyism, the Korean and Vietnam Wars (and accompanying draft protests), pre-Women's Liberation sentiments, assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement, complete with the Ku Klux Klan, George Wallace, and Orval Faubus, known best for his quote "Segregation now, segregation forever". That uglier half was also how the Baby Boomers grew up; the part that they or any generation tends to grow up liking to prefer never happened and certainly didn't affect their worldview any but clearly did.

Some of the people that took part in the Civil Rights Movement are still around, most notably Representative John Lewis of Georgia. What is often forgotten is that some of the people that fought on the other side of the Civil Rights Movement are also still around. Don't think that they've just melted into the shadows. They, and the typical Tea Partier proper, have been campaigned to on pet issues for years- let's use abortion as a key example; ever since the Roe v. Wade decision, Republicans have run on getting it overturned- but time after time, they've seen no action on many of these issues. Decades passed, until finally, in the 2010 elections, the hand was forced. They couldn't wait around any longer. They were getting old, they were starting to see their peers show up in the obituaries, and they had to move on these things, now. If not now, when. And while they're at it, they had to keep the country that they remember growing up with from changing away from them.

A change that was made as stark as it could possibly appear in 2008, when Barack Obama became President. On one side of things, you had former civil rights leaders who mad marched and were sometimes beaten way back in the 1960's crying with joy into each other's arms as they had busted the racial glass ceiling in the most dramatic way possible, by putting one of their own into the White House. But elsewhere, the people who had beaten those people were watching their comfortable worldview vanishing right before their eyes. They'd never say it now, not in public, not openly, and if someone accused them of it they'd deny it, but deep down, they felt that the Soviets might as well be taking over. A black man in the White House just plain did not fit.

They wouldn't claim it as a racial thing. Racism is bad, after all. But after a childhood of Orval Faubus and George Wallace, deep down it was ingrained as such. They just wouldn't register it in those words. (Well, sometimes they would, given an  ABC News poll from a little after the 2008 election we mentioned here a long time back.) They'd register it as 'their way of life', internally and externally.

And this Obama guy was threatening their way of life. It's not that they were racist. They just hated everything he liked, everything he was, didn't think he was actually American, couldn't believe that people might actually like him of their own free will, started 'accidentally' using racist epithets, caused the Secret Service to investigate assassination threats at a fourfold rate, and adopted a policy of making him a one-term President by any means necessary before everyone had even gotten around to pulling up their lawn signs, to the point where they would start changing their own views on issues solely because they found out Obama was going to use them himself.

But they're not racist. They just want to take their country back. In the CBS/New York Times survey from 2010 cited earlier, when asked "Regardless of your overall opinion, what do you like least about Barack Obama?", 24 different specific reasons were cited in the results (three of which- "Trying to be too bipartisan", "Education policy" and "Plans for Guantanamo Bay"- were cited by the general population but not the Tea Party), along with 'everything', 'nothing' and 'other'. None of those 24 reasons were explicitly racial. However, 19% of the respondents answered "Don't like him (general)", which was, in fact, the most popular response. Which is separate from "Don't like his policies (general)", answered by 5%. ("Everything" got 1%, as did "He's Muslim".) They just... don't like him. Something just ain't right about him. Don't ask what. Just... something. Something that by some strange coincidence they can't quite put their finger on despite it driving them to take any measure possible to defeat him.

Deep down, the reasons are there. They just don't want to say them, because the world's shifted to the point where they can no longer verbalize those things. It has shifted to the point where they now feel they have to fight with every fiber of their being to not only prevent any further changes, but revert the nation to how, in their minds, things used to be. There can be no compromise. After all, they have to get everything they want, right now, because they might not be around the next time the issue comes up, and even if they are, they know they'll get steamrolled because the demographics will have changed too much. Partially due to changing ethnic and racial makeup, but mainly because they'll have died off and in so doing left the voting pool.

And they've seen what happens after people die too many times to like what they know: things they don't want done get done, quickly, over their dead body. Everyone's seen houses get torn down the second their owner dies. That's not an attractive thing to think about. They don't want that happening to them. So while they're moving to put things back to The Good Old Days, the Baby Boomer Tea Partiers move to make things stay in The Good Old Days for as long as possible after they're gone.

Meanwhile, Gens X and Y look at this and see something far different. They see cultural advancements that they were born into being taken away. They see their chance to move the world forward being delayed or denied outright. They see the prospect of having to spend most if not all of the rest of their lives trying to undo what is being done. And this comes right at the point where they figure they ought to be asserting generational control. They don't want to go through the same cultural hardships as their parents, especially not when they've identified cultural hardships of their own to confront, such as gay rights and global warming. They thought the last generation's cultural issues had been mostly settled already and they were just coming in to clean up. They want the Baby Boomers to step aside so they can get to work. And they definitely don't need another Depression on their hands while they do it.

And therein lies the taboo: for the Baby Boomers to step aside, they more or less have to start dying off. There's just no nice way to say that. It's really rather ghoulish to bring up openly, and if you say it too bluntly, it sounds like you're advocating something. And besides, the Baby Boomers are the parents of Gen X and Gen Y, and, well... they're your parents. You don't wish that on your own parents. You love your parents. At least I hope you do. But at the same time, you really can't get away from it. The ticking clock is a factor. In fact, it's not just a factor. It's the entire game mechanic. Every day that passes sees a few more older voters die and leave the voting pool, and every day also sees a few more younger people become eligible to vote, and sees a few more people register to vote. Every day, things move a little more in the direction of Gen X and Y, and a little further away from the Baby Boomers.

The Supreme Court runs on this. Once on the Court, justices don't get kicked off. There's a procedure, but really, they don't get kicked off. There are only two ways a justice leaves. They can retire, but that typically only happens when the justice knows the President in office will replace them with someone believed to be similar. If you want a real shift in the Court, that generally requires the only other way to get someone off the bench: they have to die.

It's not as if the specter of projecting someone's death is totally undone. It's brought up all the time when Presidential running mates are selected. If one side thinks the opposing running mate is particularly subpar, they will mention that said running mate would be 'a heartbeat away'. Which is a nicer way of saying 'well, if the President were to die for some reason...' It also happens when someone is entrenched in a given office and isn't moving for anything despite having become a living anachronism. Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond and Ted Stevens have in the last couple decades found themselves in that position. It's just not a thing that a lot of people want to talk about in the open, or admit that they're talking about. It's not cool to openly root for someone's death.

But below the surface, that's exactly what's happening.

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