America's new political center
'60s liberalism and '80s conservatism yield to synthesis.
Brace yourself. It's the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love, and for the next few months you're bound to hear your share of breathless homages to those madcap baby boomers who let down their hair and stood up to the man. Ah, those were the days, when the social order buckled and the sweet smell of revolution was in the air. But don't let all the nostalgia fool you. Even after all that free love, the Age of Aquarius never really arrived. And thank goodness for that.
Not that the tumult of the 1960s was all bad. In fact, it was a necessary corrective to the stringent, outdated mores of the 1950s. We had entered a new age of relative freedom from material need, and the rules of social engagement were bound to change. When the wolf is at the door, there is little room for human error, let alone experimentation. But with unprecedented mass affluence, the self-restraint that characterized the era of scarcity gave way to self-expression in an age of abundance.
The spirit of rebellion and experimentation of the '60s did make US society more dynamic and inclusive. Women gained greater social latitude, blacks won their full rights as citizens, and the needs of other minorities were considered for the first time. But as revolutions often do, it went too far. At some point, "We Shall Overcome" morphed into "Burn, baby, burn," and the call for freedom from old-fashioned social repression became a license for self-indulgence. The counterculture's call for the death of capitalism blithely ignored the fact that capitalism created the wealth that made their rebellion possible.
The excesses of the '60s gave rise to a conservative counterrevolution. Abbie Hoffman begat Ronald Reagan; Timothy Leary begat John Ashcroft. Just as the counterculture railed against free-market capitalism and traditional morality, a resurgent political conservatism – which would exhibit its own excesses – emerged to preserve and defend them. The '60s bequeathed us the culture wars, and the divisions it wrought became the organizing principles of national politics.
But are average Americans really as deeply divided as our blue-and-red politics suggests? Not as much you might think, says Brink Lindsey in his compelling new book, "The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture." Mr. Lindsey, vice president of research at the Cato Institute, argues that the post-1960s collision between left and right has accidentally forged an "implicit libertarian consensus" at the broad center of US public opinion.
By the 1980s, the left had gained control of the nation's preeminent cultural institutions, but the reenergized conservative movement, fueled in part by newly politicized evangelicals, had the advantage in the struggle for political power. Even as the activists who dominate the two major political parties hunkered down in their polarized extremes, neither side was able to capture the pragmatic middle or remake the nation in its image.
The "Aquarian left," as Lindsey calls it, celebrates diversity and inclusiveness, "while lacking due appreciation for the moral framework that sustains and advances progressive values." The right, meanwhile, "defends that framework, but does so on the basis of dogmatic beliefs that remain unreconciled" to 21st-century cultural openness.
Tuning out the divisive political rhetoric on the airwaves, a growing number of Americans, Lindsey says, have cobbled together an ideologically impure compromise between left and right in their own lives. The synthesis he describes is one of continuing strong commitments to family, work, and country, "tempered by a broad-minded tolerance of the country's diversity and a deep humility about telling others how they should live."
On the one hand, Americans embrace many of the core values they always did about God, mom, and apple pie; on the other, their attitudes on issues such as race and sex are vastly more liberal than they were two generations ago.
Of course, the problem is that muddled and pragmatic compromises transcend left and right, and accommodation is not articulated by any major political party. The electoral process in large ways and small emphasizes each party's "base" – exacerbating the extremes. Just watch the absolutism in the presidential primary campaign unfolding (unendingly) before our eyes now, or think back to the Swift-Boating of the last go-round.
While many Americans have already found ways to mend the divisions wrought by the 1960s and 1970s – the era political economist Francis Fukuyama has called the Great Disruption – we won't really emerge from that transformative chrysalis until politics achieves the same kind of pragmatic synthesis.
• Gregory Rodriguez writes a column for the Los Angeles Times. ©2007 Los Angeles Times Syndicate.