I was too young to be a hippy, but old enough to watch and somewhat understand what was going on back in the early seventies as phrases like “don’t trust anyone over 30” and “fight the establishment” were brandied about. By the time I was in college the hippies were morphing into yuppies and their movement gave way to consumerism.
That movement was driven by a number of factors. First, it was the coming of age of a post-war generation that was experiencing the biggest economic boom in history. Used to and expecting material comfort they were able to expand their horizons to environmental concerns (earth day and the environmental movement got started in the late sixties), human/civil rights, and of course opposition to the Vietnam War. They embraced the time tested ideals of love, peace, and community but were unable to translate them into a sustainable movement. Yet even as they became bankers and board members they radically transformed the culture to one more open, tolerant and questioning of old traditions. Even conservatives embrace most of the changes that came in the wake of the 1960s counter-culture movement.
They had one enemy: the establishment. The establishment meant the moneyed elite, materialists who played the game on the inside, cared little about ethics and principles, and made sure that those with power ran the show. The establishment covered both political parties, the media, and of course corporate America. In their view (before they joined the establishment) the establishment had seduced their parents generation into servitude, working meaningless 40 hour weeks in order to simply have a house, bills and responsibilities – a rat race grind that pushed aside deeper values of love, spirituality and human connections. Instead you work hard in a routine and distractions such as television and various material pursuits allow you to avoid really thinking about the meaning of life. Then you die. “What’s the point,” they asked.
So instead they offered Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a bird who broke with conventions to pursue his higher self, and look down at the mindless gulls seeking only food and survival. They offered communes, a sexual revolution, new musical expressiveness, and values that countered those of ‘the establishment.’ Then they went and got jobs, settled into routines, but brought some of that rebelliousness into the new post-hippy world, changing society, even if not in a way that reflected their ideals in pure form.
Now we have two counter-establishment movements. Will they change society? One is reactionary, the tea party. The tea party looks back at an America they believe is lost. They romanticize the world of the early sixties (such as that depicted in my post yesterday), when America had a clear vision, and life seemed more normal. They want to take back America, looking at the decay they perceive. In a sense they believe that the country was changed for the worse by the cultural shift after the early 70s, blaming “liberals” and “government” for destroying the America they grew up with or (for younger ones) imagine it to have been.
The left was playing defense at that point, defending the changes of the last forty years, even as the President promised to decrease domestic spending to levels lower than any time since the Eisenhower Administration. Yet as the two establishment parties moved towards a grand bargain that reflected a shift to the right, Speaker John Boehner of the GOP found that he could not control his party, especially freshman “tea party” members. They weren’t looking for compromise, the “establishment” solution being proposed, they were anti-establishment, demanding Boehner change. Now tea party darlings are risking primary challenges if they sided with the establishment GOP on some of these votes. They want the status quo to change.
Then in September 2011, responding to Republican power, efforts to limit voter participation, and the way in which President Obama seemed impotent in the face of Republican maneuvering, groups on the left decided to launch their own movement, inspired by the pro-democracy movements in the Mideast. “Occupy Wall Street” started small but grew to the point that almost every city now has a protest taking place, and it’s even gone global. Republican Representative Eric Cantor worries about “mobs” threatening democracy, and GOP Rep. Peter King openly suggests that unless this movement is stopped it will grow in power to that of the late 60s/early 70s counter culture movement, which he believes dangerous to the ideas he and the tea party stand for.
This movement is both a reaction to the conservative tilt of US politics, and intense disappointment with President Obama. One poster seen read “Obama Eats With Wall Street,” and if the tea party is the anti-establishment view from the right, Occupy Wall Street is the same thing from the left. Reviving the ideals of the past, the focus is on corporate power and the view that greed and inequality breed a system that is not capitalist or democratic, but one by the moneyed elite, for the moneyed elite.
While the left cherry picked tea party racist moments, the right cherry picks wild demands from Occupy, but in reality the two reflect separate anti-establishment movements built on frustration with where the country is going. Right now Occupy Wall Street beats the Tea Party in the polls (33% approval vs. 26%). Neither are very popular, but taken together over half the country is sympathetic to at least one.
And though they may seem polar opposites, their motives are often driven by the same core belief: the elites running the country don’t care about the people and have sold out to corporate greed and bureaucratic control. So what to make of it? First, this is not completely new, it is a reflection of past movements — just as we had the hippies in the sixties we also had the John Birch society, and many tea party organizers cut their teeth in that right wing organization.
Yet they’re also new, using social media and launching less organized, more diffuse movements, driven by what they sense is wrong with the country rather than a clear view of what is needed to set things right. In that these movements represent a new kind of politics, one less likely to be easily coopted by the political parties. Moreover there is no “Vietnam war” driving this; the hippy movement died as President Nixon rapidly withdrew troops from Vietnam. That movement was built on less solid ground than the movements today are, the problems the US faced then were less foundational.
These movements could pull the country apart becoming radicalized and making compromise more difficult — future Democrats may not be able to offer Republicans the deal they rejected earlier this year. Or, given the centrism of most Americans, a common element may emerge, a need to expand democracy and weaken the power elite of both big government and big money. In any event, these movements are real and reflect a new kind of politics — though rooted in a tradition of anti-establishment sentiment dating back from the frustration of the colonies against the British crown. We don’t know where this is going, but something tells me American politics is going to be anything but boring in coming years.