Thursday, February 28, 2008

Shattered Idealism

I believe I was once idealistic, though it's hard to remember for certain. My earliest political memory, and just a faint one, imprinted itself on November 22, 1963, and resulted in a childhood of speculation about whether presidents typically die at the hands of lone nuts or whether they are rubbed out by organized criminals, government agencies, or the two acting in concert. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were assassinated before I reached the age of ten. War, daily battle deaths, and sometimes gruesome film coverage of combat in Asia filled my family's living room each evening, narrated by deep-voiced newsmen who presented each story without betraying their own opinion of the slaughter.

In 1972, I worked in my first political campaign, George McGovern's hopeless quest for the presidency. By then, we knew that our previous president had been a liar, and we were fairly certain that the incumbent was a crook. Nevertheless, even as I leafleted my home town, usually to the accompaniment of cold stares or hostile comments, it never occurred to me that McGovern would actually win. Rather, my efforts felt more like a civic duty, a responsibility to bear witness to a population that needed, but did not want, to hear my message. (I have ever since that experience felt great sympathy for the young Mormon missionaries who ride their bikes from house to house in a generally futile effort to spread the gospel according to Moroni.)

When Richard Nixon overwhelmingly won re-election, my disappointment was minimal and largely directed at the fact that McGovern had been held to victory in a single state. Some of my friends, on the other hand, seemed positively shattered, astounded that good, as they defined it, had somehow failed to triumph over evil like it was supposed to. By the time Nixon bit the dust two years later, we were all a great deal more cynical, though relieved that the country could, at least, finally acknowledge the error of its ways.

The hard-core idealists, of course, came primarily from the half-generation before mine, those first-stage Baby Boomers born during the 1940s and very early 1950s. Their first memories were of a world in which wars ended and presidents acted, however reluctantly, to support the cause of equality here at home. They saw Truman integrate the Army and Eisenhower dispatch troops to Little Rock to enforce integration. And then, in 1960, these young voters gravitated toward a presidential candidate who summoned them to noble sacrifice, promised a freer America, and assured them that their generation would conquer the frontiers of space.

My initial political memory, JFK's murder, was the early Boomers' first lesson in how real life inevitably responds to idealism. Within a decade, the dreams of a generation would be exploded in Memphis, Los Angeles, Da Nang, and Kent, Ohio. Idealism wilted into disappointment, and disappointment flowered into rage.

When promises are broken, cynics mutter; idealists lash out. People asked for years after the 1960s ended, why students no longer responded to the various political and international outrages that marked the 1970s and 1980s. Part of the answer, of course, involved self-interest: we were no longer at risk of being drafted and sent involuntarily into war. But another part was far more damning. We did not take to the streets because we were not disillusioned. We expected government failure and malfeasance, and knew better than to care too much about it.

I was already prepared to write this essay today, when my eye was caught by a short entry in a website called The first sentence reads:

"Some student life experts are worried that campus excitement and idealism over Barack Obama’s campaign has reached such high levels that students are sure to be let down by either an Obama presidency or an Obama loss."

And it's true. Those of us who teach college students will readily report that Senator Obama has effectively tapped previously unrealized reservoirs of idealism and hope among undergraduates who had heretofore regarded political science as nothing more than a general ed requirement. They believe…they really do. Many are truly convinced that our nation will be transformed by a bright, charismatic leader who is committed to leaving behind the divisive, negative politics of the past. They are rarely dissuaded by even the most basic accounting of James Madison's Federalist #51, in which the author of the Constitution explains how his government is uniquely structured to diminish agents of change.

By the time his limousine made its fateful turn onto Elm Street in Dallas, John F. Kennedy had already begun to lose some of the confidence of his young supporters. His civil rights efforts were tentative and inadequate. His personal charisma did not, indeed could not, overcome Madison's carefully crafted blueprint for disappointing activists. The angrier side of the Baby Boomers, the SDS and the Black Panthers, were already gestating during the Kennedy years. Things would explode, of course, after the president's death, but it is likely that a second Kennedy administration would have unleashed at least some of the same furies, particularly if JFK had continued to pursue war in Vietnam.

Barack Obama's supporters do not constitute a cult, as the current slanderous right-wing talking points would have it. But they do represent an army of idealists who seem, at least for now, unprepared for the disappointments that they will inevitably endure, either after Obama loses the presidential election or once his actions in office fail, as they must, to live up to his soaring rhetoric. Let's see, for example, what happens when President Obama breaks his first promise, most likely the one about getting combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months.

In the meantime, flashes of anger and overreaction can already be seen from those who respond to Hillary Clinton's rather tepid negative campaign with disproportionate fury. Over at Daily Kos, a diarist called Delaware Dem, who doesn't even appear to be all that young, pronounces Bill and Hillary "[t]he worst narcissists our country has ever seen", primarily because they won't stand aside and hand over the nomination to its rightful owner, Senator Obama. After recounting a few of Clinton's tougher jabs against her opponent, the diarist concludes:

"I am ashamed of Hillary Clinton. I find her now to be an utterly contemptible person, who would do anything and have her campaign say anything to get elected. Her actions, and her husband's actions, define narcissism. It has always been about what they want, and their ambition is the only principle that they defend."

Only a wounded idealist could summon that level of invective against someone whose transgressions have been, in a political sense, so limited and pedestrian. These are not the words of a political activist so much as those of a jilted lover. They betray little ability to come to grips with the untidy realities of politics and the fact that all campaigns get ugly from time to time. And this overreaction is coming at a moment when Obama is the odds on favorite to win the Democratic nomination and, for that matter, the presidency. Imagine what the response might be if he actually loses or fails to deliver in office.

Clearly, one doesn’t wish to generalize too much from a single entry on a single Obama-besotted website. But it is worth pointing out that this particular diary was "recommended", meaning that other members of the community regarded it as more worthy of attention than the dozens of other contributions made by Daily Kos participants. If the Democratic party is not yet worried, it should be.

Idealism is a fine and wonderful thing, until it is shattered. And it always gets shattered.


PollFan said...

Well-written post. Bear in mind, though, that Obama is a member of Generation Jones--the heretofore lost generation between the Boomers and Xers, born 1954-1965. Numerous big media outlets, including Newsweek, NBC, and The NYTimes have run pieces in recent weeks specifically arguing that Obama is not a Boomer or Xer, but instead is part of Generation Jones.

The Man Who Was Never Born said...


Thanks for the kind words.

You are correct, of course, that Obama's generational ties are to that lost generation born in the late 50s and early 60s (as are mine, as you probably inferred from my post). It is remarkable that he doesn't carry--or at least display--the cynicism that characterizes so many of the rest of us who were weaned on late-stage Vietnam and Watergate.

It's interesting, too, to notice how youth is relative in the political world. Today's young people (Millennials, I think they're called) are flocking to the "young" man in the race, who is actually in his early middle-aged years. Back in 1960, Baby Boomers, then in College, rallied behind JFK who was, of course, a member of what we now call the Greatest Generation.