Saturday, March 25, 2023

Two demographic and cultural turning points

What [political scientists Andrew Gelman, Yair Ghitza, and Jonathan Auerbach] found was that the formation of presidential voting preferences was most heavily centered on the period from age 14 to 24. “At the height of their influence, around the age of 18,” they write, political “events are nearly three times as meaningful [in forming voting preferences] as those later in life.”
Thinking of my own time in that decisive age bracket, what was formed in me was not only presidential voting patterns (I have voted consistently for Democrats including first in the ghastly Nixon-Humphrey election of 1968) but even more a suspicion of the warlike and other dishonest pretensions of authorities.  As Mr. Bump would I think agree, my generation broke patterns of conventional conformity that had characterized the 1950s for many Americans. He focuses on the sheer size of the boomer demographic elephant (born 1946-1964), which over and over demanded novelties from the society. In material terms, that meant so many more kindergartens and schools. But our arrival also meant cultural earthquakes. Reading Bump, I found myself wondering constantly about how current events of my early boomer youth shaped the society which struggled with our sheer numbers.

So, lately I've been reading histories of the U.S. Indochina imperial adventure as well as turning to more contemporary journalistic accounts from that time period. In particular, I turned to David Halberstam's The Best and Brightest, that war journalist's 1973 opus trying to explain contemporaneously the Vietnam imperial horror show and the collective folly of leaders.

That book was written in the midst of the national discovery that something about American culture had changed massively, something concurrent with the arrival into adulthood of the first wave of the enormous boomer generation, but before such an observation was simply a commonplace. So I cannot help but be arrested by Halberstam's attempt to describe what was going on among the young all around him. The times they were a-changing in Bob Dylan's lyric that captured the ethos.
Now in 1964 the cracks in the concrete were beginning to show in a variety of places, and the coming of the war would heighten the very restlessness which was just beginning to emerge. Hollywood of course had always supported the Cold War; at best a movie like High Noon was an oblique criticism of the McCarthy period. But generally certain things were sacred, and Hollywood seemed to be particularly good at grinding out films on the Strategic Air Command.  
In early 1964 nothing seemed to symbolize better the conflicting forces and changes of attitude, the new and the old, than the appearance of Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr. Strangelove, and the review of it by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times. The Kubrick film was an important bench mark; it attacked not so much the other side as the total mindlessness of nuclear war, portraying how the irrational had become the rational. It was wild black humor at its best, and it touched some very sensitive nerve ends. But Crowther, who knew where the line should be drawn, was appalled and called it a sick joke: “I am troubled by the feeling which runs all through the film, of discredit and even contempt for our whole defense establishment, up to and even including the hypothetical commander in chief. It is all right to show the general who starts this wild foray as a Communist-hating madman convinced that a Red conspiracy is fluoridating our water in order to pollute our precious body fluids . . . But when virtually everybody turns up stupid or insane—or what is worse, psychopathic—I want to know what this picture proves . . .”
(Significantly, as the change of values intensified in the middle and late sixties, there would be almost a complete turnover in the critics for all the major publications, such as the Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek and Time. The older reviewers would be moved aside and younger, more radical critics quickly promoted in film, books and the theater. Traditional outlooks still marked those publications’ political attitudes and reporting, but publishers, realizing that times were changing, had accommodated in their cultural sections; the result was that sometimes a paper like the Times seemed to have a split personality; its political reporters hailing what its critics shunned.)
In 1964 Lenny Bruce, who a few years later would become a major cultural hero, was being prosecuted by the District Attorney’s office. Bruce would lose the case, but what he stood for—the essential change in attitude—would win. Bruce was saying that individual foul epithets were not obscene; it was the tolerance of all kinds of inhumanity by people in power which was genuinely obscene. His definition of obscenity was rapidly gaining acceptance. He was by no means simply a popular nightclub comedian; he was linked to the same broad assault on the society’s attitudes that Kubrick was part of.
There were other political reflections. Young whites went to Mississippi that summer to attack segregation, but they made it clear that they were attacking the entire structure of American life and that Mississippi was merely the most visible part. Their activity led to the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party, which caused the one sour note as far as [President Lyndon] Johnson was concerned at the convention. There they were quickly put down, but what the Freedom Democrats symbolized politically, deep and abiding dissent from the processes and an unwillingness to compromise on terms dictated by the existing power structure, would live and grow. By 1968 many of the people who had helped put them down at the 1964 convention were with them, and the Democratic party itself seemed threatened.
Philip Bump's The Aftermath seems in the context of Halberstam's observations a strange book. It includes only three mentions of Vietnam, those tangential rather than substantive. Civil rights gets a few more mentions, nine in total. These social upheavals were the fabric of the lives of at least half the young boomers -- had they no consequence for our subsequent trajectories? That seems impossible.

Bump's real subject is where might the current emerging generations take us that surviving boomers will find novel. We boomers should finally be superseded by millennials as the largest block in the electorate in 2024. Younger Americans are different, very different from boomer old people. Here are some teasers from Bump's demographic explorations of the contemporary transitional scene:
• Whites are generally older than the population overall because younger Americans are less likely to be White … But this is a development that has occurred within the boomers’ lifetimes. In 1920, there wasn’t a significant gap in race between the oldest and youngest: the youngest tenth of the population was about 89 percent White while the oldest tenth was about 93 percent White. By 1970 that hadn’t changed much. In 2020, though, the oldest tenth was only about 77 percent White — and the youngest tenth was more than half non - White. This intertwines with the fact that the baby boom arrived during a period of restriction on migration to the United States.
• ... Whichever direction the arrow points, it is generally the case that boomers are White and Whites are Republican and Republicans are often boomers. None of these statements is uniformly true, certainly, but the Venn diagram of the three has a lot of overlap. Seven in 10 boomers are White. Fifty-three percent of Whites in 2019 were Republican or Republican leaning. Fifty-six percent of Republicans in 2019 were aged 50 or over.
• ... America’s non-White population is now mostly not Black.  

• The poles of Whiteness are sturdy. Everything else is more fragile.
Bump looks at possible "aftermaths" in terms of the evolutions of various states:
• Sociologist Richard Alba pointed to California as it was a place “where Whites are already a population minority.” The state has already seen an “influx of people from new groups into the leadership,” he continued, “but Whites are also still extremely important in the leadership of the state. At least in many parts of the country, there’s going to be — you know, I use the word ‘mainstream,’ there’ll be a mainstream. It’ll be much more diverse than today but Whites will still be very important players in that mainstream. It’s going to be a continuation of what we have today.”
• Since Republicans “see very clearly that they cannot expect to keep dominating going forward if this country is a democracy,” the historian Thomas Zimmer told me, “they are very blatantly and openly trying to restrict the electorate, restrict American democracy in a way that will result in a sort of a stable conservative minority rule. Something like Wisconsin, basically. Where you only get forty percent of the vote, but forty percent of the vote might be enough to stay [in power].

• With its balance of disparate regions, from the deeply conservative Panhandle — essentially an extension of the Deep South — to the urban, Democratic region around Miami, [Florida] includes an unusual geographic diversity. But there is a key way in which it’s an outlier, one that certainly affects its politics and is obviously pertinent to this discussion: it is old.  … Since older voters skew more Republican and more White, that suggests an influence on state politics that other places won’t share. Though, of course, the America of the future will be similarly older and those older Americans still more densely White than younger generations. So is Florida an aberration, or is it a preview?
I experienced Bump's book as a fascinating assemblage of largely undigested demographic insights. Perhaps he thinks it violates a journalist's code to extrapolate or draw conclusions from his data? Or maybe the magnitude of the changes he summarizes just overwhelm his explanatory powers. His data show that we are undergoing a generational transition as far reaching and wrenching as the one I lived in my high boomer youth. Bump passes along observations from a diverse collection of political scientists and sociologists. But he resists pulling it all together.

If, like me, you thrive on data, this is a wonderful collection. But if you wonder what our current generational transition means, this is just a beginning and we know that we will continue to drown in divergent efforts to shape our understanding of what we are living through. Just as my elders had to in the 1960s, but all moving so much faster ...

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