Somewhere back in the early ‘80s, I wrote an essay asserting that the cultural disequilibrium caused by the civil war was not finally worked out until the voting rights act of a hundred years later. At the same time, I opined that the cultural upheaval of the Vietnam Era might take almost as long to work itself out. It was during that period when long trusted symbols and institutions of American cultural stability were challenged by all and rejected by many, but nothing was offered in their place.
The roles of the church, women, sex, marriage, fraternal organizations, business and government were called into question. If no one over thirty could be trusted, then no one could be trusted. Almost forty years have gone by, and I don’t think we’ve got it worked out yet. The current media driven popularity of Tea Party type politics and the hard right wing turn in Congress, is, in my opinion, the death throes of a time gone by, a time recalled in heavily filtered memories of the 1950s. They accuse the president of having no new ideas, but all of theirs are relics of a former age that have never been successful in promoting economic or social well being. Their only achievement has been to make the rich richer, the middle class poorer, and the poor locked in the prison of their poverty. The Horatio Alger rags to riches yardstick for what anyone can do with a little pluck and hard work is true mostly in romantic fiction, seeing reality in a few well known cases where pluck and hard work were aided by extraordinary circumstances of good luck frequently abetted by ethically challenged cunning.
However, the current dominance of that kind of so called conservatism raises an interesting question. What happened to all the hippie radicals of former decades? There weren’t that many of them to begin with. They just made a lot of noise, not unlike the hard right wingers of today. Moreover, someone once said that today’s radicals are tomorrow’s stuffed shirts. So who knows? What about all the ordinary liberals? The left wing, hard nosed community organizer Saul Alinsky (Rules for Radicals) had no love for rank and file liberals whom he considered to be weak kneed, bumbling, incompetent do-gooders lacking the courage to do the hard work of political change. Maybe he was right. In any case, it is today’s right wingers who have learned how to apply Alinsky’s methods to their brand of politics.
The point is that the national consciousness, if there is such a thing, has not yet figured out what it means to be an American in a way that the country can more or less agree to. Anxiety surrounding the aftermath of 9/11 has not helped. It has only fertilized the ground for seeds of unwarranted fear and xenophobic hysteria aided and abetted by the worst of yellow journalism. One possible outcome could be the election of a right wing government in 2012. That would drive the nation into the nether world of an even deeper recession accompanied by attempts to restrict civil liberties while unleashing opportunities for greater domestic violence and environmental degradation. If elected, it would be the government we deserve. It might also be the bitter medicine we need to swallow so that we can come to more stable national consensus of who we want to be as classically liberal Americans.