The 1972 election was, in most respects, not very interesting. The Democrats, after a hectic primary season and convention, nominated George McGovern, an estimable and good man (and a genuine war hero), who was also likely the most liberal presidential candidate ever, calling for a ‘national minimum income,’ and of course, the immediate end to the war in Vietnam. By ’72, though, the war seemed to be winding down. Nixon’s ‘Vietnamization’ policy (training up the South Vietnamese army, letting them do the fighting) turned into a catastrophe, but electorally, it played. His expansion of the war into Cambodia was trumpeted by McGovern; middle America yawned. Nixon’s China breakthrough was a huge achievement. The economy was humming along. McGovern botched his vice-Presidential nomination, and his campaign never did get any traction. Nixon won 49 states, 60% of the popular vote.
But ’72 was the first in which 18-year olds were allowed to vote, following the passage of the 26th Amendment. And it was thought that those votes might make a difference. 18-year olds, after all, were the ones who might be drafted, might actually have to go fight in Vietnam (or their brothers/friends/boyfriends might). In Barry McGuire’s 1965 hit, Eve of Destruction, the lyric ‘you’re old enough to kill, but not for votin” seemed particularly apt. Could this turn into a generational election, with young voters voting for the most aggressively anti-war candidate of my lifetime?
Not so much. Half of the new voters, the 18-22 crowd, didn’t vote at all. Of the ones who did, it went 52-48, Nixon. Tricky Dick won every demographic. Including the voters who might personally be voting to go fight in a war they didn’t want to fight in.
I’ve got a book on my library shelf; I’m looking at the cover as I write this: Mark Kurlansky’s 1968. Terrific book, all about the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Students for a Democratic Society, and Mario Savio and Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies and the ’68 Chicago convention. And the body blows–the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. It’s about the 60s as counter-culture, the first five minutes of Hair. It’s about my generation, man. Living idyllic hippie lives in Central Park, spontaneously breaking into Tywla Tharp choreography. Peace, love and understanding, man.
My generation. We ended the war in Vietnam. We ended racism and sexism. And we invented rock and roll. Pat ourselves on the back. Peace out.
That’s a popular and massively self-congratulatory narrative. And it isn’t particularly true. Hippies weren’t popular and they weren’t effective. Ronald Reagan had a put-down line for hippies; used it at every speech. Hippies, he said, ‘dressed like Tarzan, had hair like Jane, and smelled like Cheetah.’ It killed. And the arrogance of the 60s counter-culture remains an ugly and ineffective part of liberals’ rhetorical stance today. A sense of privilege and entitlement, an overweaning sense of moral superiority. ‘We have ideals, and that makes us better.’ It’s annoying. And untrue. And I can say that; I’m a liberal.
In ’72, of course a lot of voters voted for McGovern and against Nixon. But more supported Nixon. And that reflects what I remember from my friends in high school. There were a few folks who were adamantly and angrily political, opposed to Vietnam, liberal in all the ways we think of when we think of ‘the sixties.’ Most of my friends, though, were just trying to get through school. I was attracted to the anti-war activists, mostly because there was this one girl I had a huge crush on. But there were just as many kids in my school who were Christians and conservative, and loved the American flag; wore their hair short and kept their heads down.
And then we got to see how well Vietnamization worked, as we watched Saigon fall, condemning our former allies to death. A few months later, we all watched the President of the United States say, on national television, “I’m not a crook.” I watched it with my parents, and I remember the shock of it, thinking, ‘geez, he’s lying, he’s a crook, he’s the President and he’s a crook.’ Watergate, and the Ford pardon (the right thing to do, but it didn’t sit well at the time), and the humiliation of the hostage crisis. And how, even though I didn’t vote for him, the confidence and humor of Reagan felt. . . reassuring.
So that’s our history, me and my friends, our shared history together. This is purely speculative on my part. I have no proof, no evidence. But I’m wondering about the Tea Party movement. Is it possible that the current Tea Party movement has its roots in that era, in the late 60s/early 70s? That the 18-21 year-olds who voted for Nixon in ’72, Nixon’s ‘silent majority,’ the children of the people who thought Reagan’s Tarzan joke was hilarious, that those people in my high school who kept their hair short and their heads down, that those same people, now grown-ups, make up much of the Tea Party today?
Because we know the Tea Party democraphic. It skews white and it skews old and it skews married, and to some extent, it skews male. That’s not to say there aren’t young black single women in the Tea Party. But I have Tea Party friends, and a close Tea Party relative. Good folks, all of them. And they tend all to be older, male and white.
(It helps explain one of the odder Fox News attributes. Fox’s demographics are elderly, which makes sense. Older folks get their news from television; older folks also love email–it’s like the one computer-like thing they know how to use. Hence Fox News, also viral conservative emails.) So why are so many Fox News presenters young attractive blonde women? Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly, Martha MacCallum, Shannon Bream, Marianne Rafferty, et al. Is it maybe because the core Fox demographic is old white guys?
But, see, here’s the thing. Barack Obama campaigned on hope and change. That generation likes hope, but is scared of change. That’s why a reasonably pedestrian pro-business moderate like President Obama gets called a ‘socialist.’ In the election, he seemed to be calling for a radical transformation of society. That’s a scary thought for people who aren’t sure anyway about their pension plans, and who are desperately worried about their grandchildren.
My parents were just out visiting, and my Mom has this big project going that’s been driving us all a bit nuts. She bought green tee shirts for everyone, and wants us all to wear them and take pictures. She wants pictures of everyone, of all her grandchildren and great grandchildren, wearing our green tees. I noticed, this visit, how much of her conversation was about her grandchildren. This is, of course, both normal and desirable. Old folks talking about their grandkids–it’s awesome, isn’t it?
But for the Tea Party, old folks worrying about grandchildren has become a national political movement. And what’s driving it? Three things:
First, debt. George W. Bush, ‘fiscal conservative,’ feels now like the punch line to a joke. So start with an unprecedented amount of debt. Then came the financial crisis has left behind its residue of debt, and President Obama’s Keynesian advisors (and they’re not all neo-Keynesians) prescribed the standard macro-economic response to a demand-side recession–stimulus spending. So we had debt to start with, followed by a financial crisis that increased debt, plus a stagnant recessionary economy increasing debt, and a response that involved, yes, more debt. To my Dad’s generation, debt is bad, debt is to be avoided, debt is immoral and crippling. I can talk ’til I’m blue in the face about macro-economics and the value of stimulative spending–to my Dad, this government (and this president) are feckless over-spenders. We’re passing on mountains of debt to our grandkids! Our grandkids! The elimination of debt becomes an absolute moral imperative.
Second, taxes. No one likes paying taxes, but older folks especially despise it, because many are on fixed incomes. And so over-taxation becomes a huge political issue. The way to deal with debt is to cut spending, they think, and especially, to cut spending on worthless bums who won’t get a job and provide for their families. And that generation grew up during the Cold War, which means the most lavish and wasteful federal spending, defense spending, is sacrosanct. Tea Partiers are convinced that ending ‘welfare spending’ will balance the budget. It won’t, wouldn’t come close, but that doesn’t matter–nobody trusts fancy-pants egghead numbers-crunchers.
Third, health care. The very essence of the Tea Party has to be that picture from a rally of the woman holding up the sign that read ‘keep the government’s hands off my Medicare.’ Obamacare is exotic and complicated and therefore must be a complete disaster. And this is doctors we’re talking about! Our grandkids won’t be able to see good doctors!
I am trying, at least, to understand the Tea Party. It feels like an irrational movement, attracted to silly ideas like Mike Lee’s ‘shut-down-government-until-Congress-defunds-Obamacare initiative. Something as obvious and automatic as raising the debt ceiling becomes a political fight. It feels like the Republican party’s gone nuts. But Tea Partiers make sense when confronted on their own terms. And what no one seems to have been able to do is explain basic, sensible, positive, pro-growth policy in ways Tea Partiers can understand and appreciate.
Except for one person. My son is an economist, and is great at econometrics. He seems to be able to talk to my Tea Party Dad (who I adore) in a way that makes sense. That’s because he’s a grandchild. So that’s the way to deal with the Tea Party. Get their grandkids to explain policy to them.