Blame it on the Boomers

November 13, 2005 | By Gregory Rodriguez

Since the 2000 presidential election, Americans have described the nation’s political polarization in many ways: red versus blue, religious versus secular, urban versus suburban, coasts versus heartland. But perhaps the most profound political division in the country is generational. No, not young versus old this time, but rather baby boomer versus baby boomer.

The issues that drive America’s culture wars today first emerged in the 1960s and early 1970s, when a growing number of Americans began to challenge not only governmental authority but traditional cultural norms and mores. While all Americans were affected by the forces of change during that period, no generation experienced them more intensely than the boomers, particularly those born in the years immediately following World War II. Indeed, whether as soldiers in Vietnam or protesters back home, it was they who could be found on the front lines.

While it is amusing to caricaturize all boomers as pot-smoking, free-loving veterans of Woodstock, one only needs to glance at Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s 1971 Princeton yearbook photo to recall that there were plenty of clean-cut young people who preferred to lead traditional lives.

As in any revolution, the values revolution of the 1960s propelled Americans into two different directions. While many embraced the new values of the era, just as many preferred the old ones. Then there were those, like President Bush, who indulged in the permissiveness of the times only to reverse course later and champion the virtues of tradition.

While the battle lines may have been drawn in the ‘60s, the war itself was not fully joined until the early 1990s, when boomers began to assume political power. It is no coincidence that Pat Buchanan first evoked a culture war in 1992, the year Bill Clinton, the first boomer president, was elected to office, or that the 1994 midterm elections—the first to be determined by boomer votes—resulted in what was to date the most severe ideological split in the history of polling.

Whereas the preceding generation—the World War II generation—preferred sober technocratic politics, boomers reintroduced an unhealthy dose of ideological fervor. In the 1988 election, the reverends Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson each won more votes from boomers than from any other generation. The nuts and bolts of the New Deal and the blandness of Eisenhower Republicanism gave way to the highly ideological “politics of meaning.” And battles over values and visions rarely lend themselves to compromise.

Clearly, the boomer generation is not the first to divide over conflicting political visions. But unlike others, boomers cannot look to a shared sacrifice or experience that provided them with a sense of common values and shared purpose. On the contrary, the political consciousness of the boomers was forged by terribly divisive battles over Vietnam, the civil rights movement and Watergate.

If the 2004 presidential election between John Kerry and George W. Bush taught us anything, it was that the wounds of Vietnam and the 1960s have still not healed. As a result, the 1960s generation has come to power remarkably split, and this division has paralyzed American politics.

Thirteen years ago, Neil Howe, co-author of “Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069,” predicted that “after midlife, boomers will take on a darker tone. They stigmatize what they don’t approve of…. They scream down those they don’t agree with.” He was right. We’re now halfway into the roughly 30 years that boomers are likely to hold power, and there is no indication that the politics of polarization is easing.

It would be difficult to find two more polarizing figures than the two presidents who came of age in the 1960s, Clinton and Bush. Now that boomers hold a majority of seats in the House of Representatives and a plurality in the Senate, Congress is more divided than at any time since the end of World War II, and political parties have become more ideologically pure.

The good news is that the generations waiting in the wings tend to be less partisan and ideologically devout than the boomers. Surveys indicate that younger adults are less likely to identify with either major political party or vote a straight party ticket. A disproportionately large percentage of Generation Xers, born roughly between 1961 and 1981, identify as political independents.

The bad news, however, is that Xers have been so turned off by boomer-era politics that they are the slowest generation in American history to acquire political power. As of 2004, Generation X held only 5% of national leadership posts. By contrast, the year the first wave of boomers turned 42, they already controlled 13%.

It is ironic that the political emergence of the Xers, a generation that is routinely maligned for not exhibiting boomer-like passion, might be the antidote to the politics of polarization. But what this nation needs now more than ever is to have the so-called slackers of Generation X run for office. Only when they dominate the ranks of political leaders will we be able to finally declare the 1960s officially over.