Like the Democrat convention, the Republican convention is mostly about the past, in that it is packaged and marketed to people who no longer exist. The Democrats put on a show that would have been great for their coalition of a generation ago. The Republicans are doing much of the same, tailoring their pitch to white civic nationalists, feeling generous in their prosperity. It’s a lot of happy warrior stuff, even though the warriors are too old now to be happy about anything.
American politics has been increasingly backward looking since the end of the Cold War and the rise of the Baby Boomer generation of politicians. No group has been as nostalgic, especially for their own past, as the Boomers, so it makes some sense that their politics would be backward looking. Clinton was supposed to be their generation’s Kennedy, while Obama was their Martin Luther King. Of course, every Republican has been one of their favorite bogeymen from their past.
The odd thing about Baby Boomer political nostalgia is it is both a longing for a past that never really existed, but also a nostalgia for a present that never occurred. On the Left, this manifests as fond memories for the 60’s revolution, of which they played no part, but also a sadness for it never living up to the promise. Most of the Boomer politicians lived normal middle-class lives. They were never street radicals. Then there is the fact that the cultural revolution was the work of their parents.
Conservatives have a similar thing going on. For them, the past starts in the 1980’s as the peak expression of post-war America. They don’t dream of going back to the fifties, because that would be racist. Instead it is the 80’s, when there was no racism, but it was still great to be white. On the other hand, there is the sadness that the Reagan revolution never amounted to much more than the conversion of America into a continent sized economic zone with an army.
There is more to the backward focus than generational nostalgia. The dynamic that emerged after the last industrial war has reached its end. The Left-Right political dialectic that rose up in the 1950’s was a product of the Cold War. It was a power sharing arrangement within the new ruling class of the new empire. The Left would hold sway over domestic issues, while the Right would run foreign policy. Economics was where they would hold mock battles during elections.
Once the Cold War ended, that dynamic stopped making sense. It is why the neocons are so desperate to revive tensions with Russia and continue the crusade against the Muslim world. They oppose a confrontation with China, because they have no cultural connection with the East and they see financial opportunities there. The people who finance their lifestyles are getting rich in China. The old dynamic was very good for the usual suspects, so they desperately want to revive it.
Something similar is happening on the Left. The stuff we are seeing with left-wing agitation and rioting is like a weird cargo cult. They are reenactors playing roles they heard their grandparents talk about at family gatherings. Those behind it are trying to conjure a familiar bogeyman from the past. They desperately want Bull Connor to show up with fire-hoses and attack dogs. They’ll settle for idiots in homemade armor, just so they can pretend it is yesterday.
It is common to call the 1960’s a cultural revolution. Some say it was the sexual revolution or maybe the youth revolution. Still others point out that the revolution started in the 1950’s with black civil rights. The great cultural upheavals that transformed the country started soon after the war and petered out in the 1980’s. The scene then shifted to the financial and technological revolutions that took America from the industrial age into the current age. The revolution never ended.
This is something the Bolsheviks figured out before anyone else. A society that moves from one static state to another is not revolutionary. It is merely adjusting in order to preserve the old order. A revolutionary society is one in which change is constant, because the revolution never ends. Of course, everything ends, but a real revolution never ends on its own. It must be extinguished. Otherwise, every change fuels the next change, which fuels a subsequent change.
This was the case with the Bolsheviks. The revolution carried on through the war and into the Cold War. Eventually, after Stalin and then Khrushchev, the people in charge had enough revolution and they entered a period of stasis. Despite all the rhetoric, Russia became a very conservative empire in the 1970’s and remained so until it collapsed in the 80’s and 90’s. Interestingly, the radicals were also right about what would happen once the revolutionary fires were extinguished.
Unlike Russia, America has remained in a revolutionary state. In fact, once could argue that the revolution started before the great industrial wars. You could probably date it to Gettysburg or maybe the Social Gospel movement. Some argue that the Civil War was a second founding of the nation, a rework of the first, but repairing the flaws in the original founding. This would then be the birth of the revolutionary America, the genuinely revolutionary America, that exists today.
In that context, the nostalgia and tumult we are seeing today is another chapter in the story of revolutionary America. As Fidel Castro said, revolutions are a fight between the past and the future. In present day America, the future is a land of different tribes with no shared history, language or culture. The past is the America both sides of the fading ruling class celebrate in their conventions. The thing that is certain in this fight is the future always wins, which is what we are witnessing.
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