Gil Troy is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. He is Professor of History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy
Three weeks from today, Americans finally will have a chance to vote for president of the United States — hundreds of other offices on ballots across the country. As a presidential historian who has written histories of presidential campaigning, of various presidents, of First Ladies, including Hillary Clinton when she was in that symbolic role, and, most recently, of the Clintons and the 1990s in The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, every day until Election Day I will post an article putting this election in historical context, trying to explain this wild and wacky race using history as our guide. So here it goes, with hashtag #2016incontext
Even though Barack Obama’s triumph over Hillary Clinton and John McCain in 2008 was supposed to empower the Gen-Xers, the Baby Boomer generation set the agenda in 2016, once again. But despite impressions that Boomers think, act, and vote alike from the left side of the aisle, this campaign pivots around two inner civil wars that have repeatedly divided this obnoxiously-influential generation, born between 1946 and 1960.
The clash between 68-year-old Hillary Rodham Clinton and 74-year-old Bernie Sanders pitted radicals who wanted to provoke change from the outside versus more pragmatic liberals who wanted to foster change from within. And the even greater divide between the two leading Democrats and 70-year-old Donald Trump highlights that generation’s true hidden fault line. With his demagogic instincts, Trump is exploiting half-a-century’s worth of resentments built up by the silent majority who in the 1960s and 1970s were more likely to be washing their cars, worshiping Elvis, and voting for Richard Nixon, then burning their draft cards, listening to Bob Dylan, and voting for George McGovern.
Bernie Sanders’ attack on Hillary Clinton as a pragmatic sell-out showed how much she and the country have changed. In her youth, Hillary Rodham broke with her college senior thesis subject, the subversive community organizer Saul Alinsky. In her memoirs she described their “fundamental disagreement. He believed you could change the system only from the outside. I didn’t.
Even while attending Yale Law School, moving to Arkansas, marrying Bill Clinton, and becoming the reluctant First Lady of Arkansas, Hillary Clinton generated a more radical vibe than her husband. In the 1992 campaign, Republicans attacked her as the family fanatic, the true believer who revealed the real, militant, Bill Clinton hiding behind his New Democrat, Good ole’ boy mask. Republicans’ caricaturing of her as “The Winnie Mandela of Little Rock,” both shrewish and extremist, forced the Clinton campaign to sideline her and repackage her.
In fact, Hillary Clinton was doing what she had been doing since she broke with Alinsky: remaining a liberal while functioning in a newly Reaganized America. Still, this Methodist feminist, this moralistic hippie preaching a gospel of individual accountability and governmental social responsibility, has consistently synthesized two American ideological archetypes, the Puritan and the Progressive. At her best, she combines the Puritan’s sobriety, self-control, and social discipline with the Progressive’s generosity, idealism, and social engineering. Today, she champions that balance by calling herself “a progressive who gets things done.”
By contrast, Sanders is the purist who refused to “sell out.” Of course, he was never as radical as the Weathermen, nor as drugged out as some hippies. He went mainstream enough to get elected repeatedly, albeit in the People’s Republic of Vermont. Still, he has always been more gadfly than gladhander, more independent than insider. His tradition is that of a Populist purist like William Jennings Bryan rather than centrist Democrats like William Jefferson Clinton – or Franklin D. Roosevelt, who knew how to compromise. To speak Sixties-speak, Sanders is still yelling “Power to the people,” as the Clintons became the people wielding power.
For all their differences, and despite Sanders’ pre-Boomer birth in 1941, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders fit the usual political profile of Baby Boomers as “movement” liberals who forged their progressive ideology fighting for civil rights and against Vietnam. With their characteristic arrogance, they and their allies universalized their elite minority “counterculture” assault on tradition as generational. This narrative ignores the other side of the Sixties. Through the 1970s, less than 27 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds even enrolled in degree-granting institutions. On campus, more students had their lives defined by parietals – dormitory restrictions on coed visitation – than protests, and were more likely to sing “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies, then “We Shall Overcome.” Ugly moments like the Kent State shootings in May 1970, pitted Baby Boomer marchers against Baby Boomer National Guardsman. In 1972, 52 percent of voters under 30 voted for Richard Nixon; only 48 percent voted for George McGovern.
Today, conservative Baby Boomers like Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump are not recovering radicals; they were of the mainstream culture the counter-culture countered. Even if some “turned on,” they never “tuned in” or “dropped out.” Trump, for one, cashed in and cashed out. And it wasn’t only old Archie Bunker types yelling “America: Love it or Leave it,” millions of Baby Boomers yelled that too.
Culturally, all these politicians, except perhaps Sanders, were considered “Yuppies” by the 1980s, with that characteristic mix of Baby Boomer self-involvement even when they were being selfless, and self-promotion even when doing the most mundane things. But politically, the counterculture types might be best understood as “Adversarial Insiders.” When the literary critic Lionel Trilling described the “adversary culture” in 1965 as the “legitimization of the subversive,” or three years later, when he spoke of “modernism in the streets,” these Guerilla Careerists seemed unlikely to become America’s new establishment. By conquering the academy, the media, the courts, and the Democratic Party, they transformed America. Building on the 1960s’ rebellions, the 1970s’ implosions, and the 1980s’ recalibrations, these Adversarial Insiders — including Mayor, Congressman, then, Senator Sanders — made American democracy more horizontal, more accessible, less hierarchical, more informal, less bigoted. Their opponents, Provincial Outsiders, more rooted in their local contexts, preferred America’s solid, traditional, provincial past to its liquid, ever-changing, cosmopolitan present.
The generational fissures continued even as the Sixties and Seventies ended. In 1992, only 41 percent of Bill Clinton’s generational cohort – the 30-to-49 year olds — voted for him, two percent less than his 43 percent of the overall popular vote. Polls found that only 41 percent of the women Hillary Clinton’s age felt closer to her lifestyle and values; 47 percent of those born between 1943 and 1962 did not. In the 1990s and the 1960s, like today, class identity proved more powerful than a media-generated fantasy about a cohesive generation of lefties arising.
The Sixties’ liberating revolutions assailed consensus-building structures like family, community, and country. The pace of technological, demographic, ideological, and economic change accelerated wildly in the 1990s. The digital revolution connected computers to the Internet but disconnected millions from real contact with one another. The rainbowing of America had the country absorbing millions of different immigrants. The mass gender bender transformed sex roles and family relations. The Information Age boom prized individuality and indulgence. The contingency carnival celebrated all this choice and change. The tablets had been smashed—traditional scripts trashed—frequently replaced with much shopping and mass confusion
In liquid America, flexibility, fluidity, immediacy, impulse, individuality, and consumerism trump solidity, tradition, patience, responsibility, and communalism.
Today, America risks becoming a Republic of Nothing, with everything up for grabs, few core assumptions accepted, and family, responsibility, community, tradition weakened. Nevertheless, Clinton and company in the 1990s also pioneered a new, more embracing, world, a Republic of Everything, a kinder, gentler, pluralistic place welcoming people who deviated from once rigid norms. This new openness would be apparent under the conservative George W. Bush, whose Cabinet “looked like America” less self-consciously than Clinton’s, including Colin Powell as America’s first African-American secretary of state. This new world emerged most dramatically on Election Night, 2008, when many Republicans joined Democrats in cheering Barack Obama’s election as a national redemptive moment.
In many ways, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are Borderline candidates, flouting rules, juggling identities, shifting moods. Today, fewer American know what we stand for in our Republic of Nothing – even as many appreciate our new, open, pluralistic Republic of Everything. Our mainstream media tells us what we are not – against racism, sexism, authority. But these new nihilists encourage cynicism not idealism, as our technologies encourage individuation not cooperation. Being tolerant is a foreign policy not a national mission statement. Clinton and Trump must help this increasingly diverse America, this wonderful, welcoming Republic of Everything, rebuild a consensus around core values, key ideals, so ours once again is a Republic of Something not Nothing, passing the “Richard Stands” test, the schoolkid’s misstatement of the Pledge of Allegiance line, “for which it stands.” As the model liberal nationalist venture, a country founded on core ideals, America has long stood for something, even if imperfectly implemented. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” were meaningful guideposts in the McGuffey Readers era, when nineteenth-century students memorized defining American texts to try fulfilling American ideals.
In a complicated, multi-dimensional, pluralistic democracy like America’s, individual voters balance conflicting generational, social, economic, ethnic, geographic, ideological strains. It helps to be sensitive to the generational dynamic in politics. The Constitution itself was written by what one historian called “the young men of the Revolution,” those more defined by the frustrations of fighting the Revolutionary War with limited national power than their elders who initiated the rebellion against King George’s executive power. The 1860 election had young men post-revolution, proud Americans born after Thomas Jefferson’s presidency like Abraham Lincoln who defeated the older, staid, don’t rock the boat, statesman John Bell, born during George Washington’s tenure in 1796. In 1896, even though he didn’t win, the 36-year-old William Jennings Bryan triggered a changing of the guard from Civil War veterans like Brigadier General Benjamin Harrison and Major William McKinley, who grew up with a weaker central government and campaigned by repeatedly “waving the bloody shirt” of war. By growing up in a post-Civil War America that was more united and more powerful, Bryan and his rivals Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson all agreed on the need for a more powerful presidency. And in both 1960 and 1992, John Kennedy, then Bill Clinton, fashioned their campaigns as crusades to unseat an older generation and seize the torch of leadership for their more dynamic, forward-looking peers.
Then as now, it helps to track generational tensions without conjuring a generational straitjacket. Yet, predictably, whoever wins, Baby Boomers on the Left will continue debating whether insiders or outsiders can best advance their progressive agenda. And whoever wins, the media will continuing defining Boomers as lefties, thus feeding the ever-growing resentments of those from the Other Side of the 60s, whose fury against the “McGoverniks” intensifies the more they are ignored – an anger Donald Trump, as one of them, stokes brilliantly.