In 1967, it was the last year on the pinnacle for an old order. The Ballade of the Green Berets was the number one song for the year, and the campus of Berkeley, as seen in the background of The Graduate, resembled a high school or a college of a decade earlier, with slightly more mop topish men's hair styles. The movie makes a good ending of that older era, where an arranged marriage, and a younger man with an older woman would still fly. People forget that the Great Depression and the War, meaning World War II, had put a generation of marriage on hold, and so the styles of the 1950's were intended, deliberately, to disguise a woman's age, as were rules of culture.
Then came Tet, and the flowering of the Baby Boom on college campuses, not just in America, but Europe as well. They did not want to be fuel for the fire of their parents' generation war. Their slightly older breathren, the silent generation, which they were not yet separated from by so wide a gap, or so deep a gouge, wanted to get on with their lives. Many people who we think of as "boomers" were, in fact, at the tail end of the generation before. It was they who supplied the West Point classes that bled in Vietnam.
It was a set of decisions made in the 1960's, when it seemed as if liberal technocracy could solve all problems, that would destroy the faith in that system, and split those of liberal feeling, from those of technocratic mind, creating a dysfunctionality in the leadership of the left. This is an important concept, and allow me to explain it in more detail.
For the democratic political spectrum, as opposed to the totalitarian one, the left and the right are, and always have been, divided by their sense of the nature of human material, and the human condition. The left sees individuals as largely products of their nature and their nurture, where as the right sees people as largely products of their genesis – race, culture, religion – and both inadaptable, and infinitely malleable in the hands of power. From this comes the most important distinction between the fundamental political ideal of the left, and of the right: the left believes that on should treat people well as the default, and the right believes that one should instill fear in people as the default. While few hold the absolute allegiance of many people, the fundamental indicator is whether someone would first kick, or pet, a dog that barks.
The old modern liberal order came of age when universality, of labor, of market, both contributed to the welfare of the State. Everyone had to participate in building the new capital, in purchasing the products, and in fighting the wars. Even elites could see that they were leaders of men, and saw themselves that way. While elites will always be of the right in that they got to be elites by screwing over other people out of just rewwards, the mentality became that the game was the game, and the reality came first. Fighting for a share of the spoils, came after winning the spoils.
This view was enforced by crisis: World War I, World War II, and the intervening economic turbulence. The mass state required, on one hand, a concern for the welfare of that mass: "The people." The mass state also required direction above the cut and thrust of daily life, this is because that cut and thrust was the only self-organizing force known to work. The people were players, and the elites made sure the game ran. Thus people focused on their immediate good, but were directed by law, and by custom, towards a higher series of ends. This worked as long as the public trusted the leadership to lead.
The years from the Tet Offensive through the failed rescue in Iran, broke that sense. In between there was inflation just as the first of the GI generation wanted to retire, social liberation, and a conflict in the streets that offended the sensibilities of a very Kantian generation: one where categories of race, creed, gender, and age, were important important indicators. It was an age when even people who though of themselves as liberal could tell ethnic jokes, jokes about women drivers, an use the "n" word in a disparaging way. The rebellion of youth was, to their eye, upsetting clear categorical imperatives which they thought of as traditional, but, in the way of many national traditions, were in fact created as way stations. The same had been true in the 19th century. The "traditions" of a lockstep to early marriage within a defined ethnic community were creations of a moment, in a nation where the average age of first marriage dropped by nearly 3 years in the space for men, and 2 for women, in the space of the previous half century. Half of that came in the previous 10 years. The young newlywed image of the 1950's, was a creation.
The marriage statistics show why there was such a sense of threat to this neo-traditionalism: the rate at which a conception outside of marriage resulted in a marriage was dropping form its peak in the early 1960's, a trend that has continued to this day. To give a picture of how much marriage oriented the present is, black teenagers married after a conception at a higher rate than white women in their 30's do today. Whites, as a whole, have an out of wedlock birth rate comparable to African-Americans in the 1930's.
This snapshot, among many, shows the social backdrop that neo-traditionalists were facing, they could feel the created garden of early marriage and social stability crumbling. It had not been a long time in existence, but it was their lifetime, they knew no other.
Iconic of the moment were the demonstrations and riots of the time, which were economically and socially driven by a long period of stasis in wage gaps, as well as the unequal treatment. It is worth remembering that the incident that touched off the Watts Riots, was a party for returning Vietnam Veterans. While these riots are, incorrectly often blamed for depressed property values in the inner city, the more important clue is the radical drop in African-American men engaged in full time work, and the redlining tactics that would continue until the 1990's of banks. White flight, was economic policy.
Into this vortex stepped Richard Millhouse Nixon as President. Nixon was, as most members of the GI generation were, trained in technocratic methods, particularly in the way that the Navy must be, and was far more willing to be liberal, even if not personally, often for conservative reasons. For example, he supported broad abortion rights, but because he disdained inter-racial babies. His own paranoid world envisioned good white girls getting pregnant by untethered black males , and hence the need for abortion. This isn't me talking, it's Nixon on his own tapes.
Nixon's liberal record is interesting when compared to our own. Nixon's universal health care plan was to the left of Obama's. Nixon created the EPA and expanded the power of the FDA. He was an economic Keynesian in a debased sense. But what Nixon did in the landslide of 1972, was create a political coalition. That political coalition would serve as the basis of the three landslide Republican victories of 1980, 1984, and 1988. The Republicans have not had one since, and are not likely to get one this year.
Nixon's hallmark is made by a foreign policy gesture: traveling to what was then called "Red China," or the regime in Beijing, which, not to put to fine a point on it, was the fact on the ground. This had not been a conservative goal, to put it mildly. The UK had extended full recognition in 1950. While full recognition would not occur until 1979 under Carter, it was the first step.
So what does this have to do with Bush and Obama? A great deal.