November 2, 2023
The Generational Divide
We see the state of our nation very differently
By: Brian Almon
On January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave his inaugural address after a close fought presidential campaign against then Vice President Richard Nixon. Both candidates belonged to a new generation in American politics, what we now call the Greatest Generation. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower were all born in the 1800s, while Kennedy and Nixon were born in the 20th century. Both had served in the Navy during World War II, and both had quickly been elected to both the House and Senate.
Kennedy remarked on the passage of time in his speech:
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage–and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
A similar changing of the guard occurred with Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 as the first Baby Boomer president, and Clinton echoed Kennedy’s rhetoric in his own inaugural address:
Today, a generation raised in the shadows of the Cold War assumes new responsibilities in a world warmed by the sunshine of freedom but threatened still by ancient hatreds and new plagues.
Today we stand at another passing of the torch, but this one will surely be much more chaotic. The older and younger generations see the state of our nation through very different lenses, and that colors everything from how we communicate to how we plan to move forward as a society.
Our most recent two presidents were each the oldest man ever to take office upon their inaugurations. Donald Trump is a Boomer, born within months of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in 1946. Joe Biden is even older, a member of the Silent Generation born in 1942. Many of the leaders of both parties in Congress are also part of those generations, and our governor here in Idaho is a Boomer as well. It will not be long before that generation has ridden off into the sunset, leaving our nation very different than it was in 1960 or 1992.
I believe that the way most people see the world becomes ossified at some point. Most of us reach a moment when we realize that the music we like, the clothing styles we prefer, and the lens through which we view politics are all frozen at some point in our past. Most people, when asked what era produced the best popular music, will say the era in which they were teenagers and young adults.
You see this with nostalgia as well. Boomers look back fondly on the 1950s and 60s, while Millennials long for going to Pizza Hut in the 1990s. “Those were the days, my friends, we thought they’d never end.”
But time moves on even if our hearts remain in the past. Sticking with classic music is one thing, but getting stuck with an obsolete political worldview can be dangerous. An exchange in a recent debate between Vivek Ramaswamy and Mike Pence exemplifies this generational divide, both in our country and in the conservative movement:
“We’re in the middle of a national identity crisis, and I say this as a member of my generation, the problem in our country right now, the reason we have that mental health epidemic, is that people are so hungry for purpose and meaning, at a time when family, faith, patriotism, hard work, have all disappeared. What we really need is a tonal reset from the top, saying that this is what it means to be an American, yes we will stand for the rule of law, yes we will close the southern border where criminals are coming in every day, and yes we will back law enforcement because we remember who we really are, and that’s also how we address that mental health epidemic in the next generation that is directly leading to violent crime across this country.”
“We don’t have an identity crisis, Vivek, we’re not looking for a new national identity. The American people are the most faith-filled, freedom-loving, idealistic, hard-working people the world has ever known. We just need government as good as our people.”
“Mike, I think the difference is you might have — and some others like you may have on this stage it’s morning in America speech, it is not morning in America. We live in a dark moment, and we have to confront the fact that we’re in an internal sort of cold cultural civil war, and we have to recognize that in order to actually win.”
“You are equating the American people with the failed government in Washington, DC. We just need government as good as our people again.”
Ronald Reagan had good reason to proclaim morning in America again in 1984. He had been elected president in 1980 as a response to the failures of the Carter Administration, both abroad and at home. Inflation and unemployment were high, and it seemed like the American dream of the 1950s was forgotten, out of reach for the young people just coming of age. After a short recession, Reagan righted the ship and by 1984 many people felt confidence in their country again, and in themselves.
Mike Pence was 25 years old in 1984, right about the time when his musical and stylistic tastes were solidifying. He was surely inspired by Ronald Reagan, as millions of Americans were then and now. Based on his statements in the debate, Pence seems to believe that returning to the America of 1984 is simple. What he doesn’t realize is that we are not the same country we were in 1984.
The world in which the Boomers grew up was not all sunshine and roses, obviously. There was the domestic strife of the 1960s, the Vietnam War and other Cold War conflicts, and the 1970s saw a truly awful economy. However, America got through it, which perhaps gives Pence confidence that we can make it through the crises of our current era as well. Unfortunately, many of our leaders have forgotten how America weathered those crises, and are playing the cargo cult in trying to bring the good times back without understanding the foundation they were built upon.
Whereas Mike Pence lived through the Cold War and came of age during the Reagan Administration, Millennials grew up in the relative peace and calm of the 1990s, only to have our worlds turned upside down by the one-two punch of 9/11 and the Great Recession. We have only seen America deteriorate, never getting better outside of a few moments during the Trump Administration. It’s even worse for Generation Z, which is coming of age now. They grew up in a time of recession, endless foreign wars, and the Covid lockdowns. Does that explain why members of different generations see the same situation with different eyes?
An anonymous blogger called AntiDem wrote an insightful piece a few years ago about why today’s crises are more dangerous to America than those of the 1960s. The difference is that back then we had a store of social capital that had been built up over the preceding generations. AntiDem defines social capital as:
…the bond that exists between people within a certain society; it is their sense of mutual trust, loyalty, obligation, and responsibility; it is what makes us say ‘We are one; we are all in this together’. These are the ties that bind a nation; that bind a people together. Once these bonds are severed – once the reserve of social capital reaches zero – then there is nothing that can hold things together but brute force. And this is where conflict begins.
If you listen to my podcasts you’ll notice the similarity between this social capital and Ibn Khaldun’s concept of assabiyah. In both cases it is an intangible vitality that gives substance to a civilization. AntiDem argues that America depleted its social capital after the crises of the 1960s and never refilled the tank. Consider what has changed in the last half century:
- American demographics are radically different. White Americans, descended from western Europe, made up nearly 90% of our country in 1960, but have fallen under 60% today. Such a massive demographic change cannot occur in a vacuum, but will have many unforeseen second and third order effects within our culture.
- Class distinctions have been amplified. Charles Murray’s incredible work Coming Apart explains how the upper and lower classes, which in 1960 still went to the same schools and churches, lived in the same neighborhoods, and belonged to the same civic organizations, now exist in entirely separate worlds.
- Marriage and families have become less common. In 1950, the marriage rate peaked at over 90%, while today it is near 30%. By 2007, the percentage of children living with both their parents who remained married to each other had dropped below 50%.
- Children have become less common overall, as the total fertility rate has plummeted to below the level needed to maintain a population.
- Religious beliefs have drastically declined since the 1960s. While self-identified Christians remain a majority in America, church attendance has declined significantly, and the share of people claiming “no religion” in polls is skyrocketing.
- Military service has become less common, both overall and in the upper classes in particular. Whereas the sons of politicians once proudly served, today they avoid service while their fathers engage in nearly constant warfare throughout the world.
We are no longer the nation that came together to fight and win World War II, which is a worrying thought as our leaders seem to be rushing headlong into World War III. Military leadership has turned the armed forces into an arm of the leftist revolution, demonizing the very young men needs to fight the next war. While the previous generations that fought in WWII and even Vietnam remained proud of their service, and urged their sons to follow in their footsteps, I hear from more and more veterans of the War on Terror that they are urging their children to avoid military service.
For more than three generations, public schools have taught students that America is uniquely evil, and that rather than celebrate its history they should work to tear it down. Whereas Boomers remain proud to be Americans, younger generations face a crisis of patriotism. Young people on the left have learned to hate America for what it was, while young people on the right have come to hate America for what it has become.
Vivek Ramaswamy is correct: America is facing a significant crisis, and much of it is born out of a lack of identity. We have no idea who we are as a people. What was once a melting pot of distinct cultural identities has become a Jackson Pollack painting — unfocused and chaotic. Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” spoke to many young people on the right because we understand that America is not what it should be. Yet his presidency proved that restoring American greatness will not happen with the flip of a switch, as Mike Pence still seems to believe.
Many conservatives were frustrated that Trump did not go far enough in fighting the deep state and draining the swamp. When the swing states stopped counting votes in the dead of night and we awoke to find Trump’s reelection snatched away by uncounted mail-in ballots, many of my friends wanted Trump to cross the metaphorical Rubicon and do what needed to be done to stay in power. I do not think there is anything that he could have done in the face of political opposition, but even if he could have, I don’t think it was in his nature to shred the Constitution, even if the cause might have been just. Donald Trump remembers an idyllic vision of America of the 1950s, and could no more destroy it — even to save it — than a man could take a hammer to a beautiful classic car he painstakingly restored.
But the next generation will not have those qualms. Our America is not a beautiful classic car, but an old beater that’s falling apart and running on fumes. We know it was great once, but many of us will decide that keeping it running is not worth the cost when we can get something new for cheaper. As a Millennial, Vivek Ramaswamy can more clearly identify the problems with America because he does not have the rose colored glasses of Donald Trump or Mike Pence.
Late last year, Glenn Ellmers and Josiah Lippincott collaborated on an essay looking at the growing generational divide in America. Ellmers is a conservative Boomer and a disciple of political philosopher Harry Jaffa while Lippincott is a Millennial who served in the Marines and is working on his doctorate at Hillsdale College. Together they try to bridge the generation gap, because we need each other if we are to have any hope of saving our country.
The older generation grew up in an America where, on the surface, institutions were trustworthy, or at the very least, not actively at war with the people. That façade crumbled for those who grew up after 9/11. Decades of pointless war in the Middle East, the financial crisis in which not a single banker on Wall Street went to jail, and the ever-skyrocketing cost of living, soured the generation that grew up under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The promise of racial reconciliation never materialized and the constant screams of crisis (climate change! COVID!) have further radicalized a growing youth faction on the right.
I wrote last March about this tendency by older generations to believe that American institutions remain solid and trustworthy:
We are frogs being boiled in water, not noticing how the things we consider normal have been turned on their heads. The reason for this is because we trust our national institutions. The older we are, the more we tend to trust assume that our government, our schools, our media, our law enforcement agencies, and our churches remain the trustworthy institutions they were in our youth.
The left has redefined normal slowly enough that many people have yet to catch on, but quickly enough so as to radically transform our country in just a few generations. We need to acquire a sober-minded historical perspective to understand how awry things have gone, and what it will take to fix them.
We need to reassess everything we currently take for granted. We have to stop assuming the institutions we remember from our youth still uphold the same values and exist for the same purposes they did then.
This is what Vivek Ramaswamy was doing in the GOP debate, and what Mike Pence reacted so strongly against. From Pence’s perspective, America is still the same place it’s always been, and we’ll get through these crises with good old American grit and hard work. But the situation has changed, and we risk losing everything if we just assume the ship will right itself.
In some ways, the Baby Boomers are the only thing holding back the tide. Where I live it is the older generations that vote consistently Republican, keeping our state as red as it has been. Once they’re gone, all bets are off. Younger generations are far more polarized, with progressive Zoomers advocating for outright socialism along with all their pronoun nonsense, while conservative Zoomers think that figures such as Franco and Pinochet set good examples. The next decade or two is going to see the cold cultural civil war that Ramaswamy mentioned get hot, one way or another.
AntiDem concluded his piece by speculating as to how long America has left:
Just how close are we? How long do we have until we reach the point of social capital bankruptcy, and the next step – be that war, balkanization, tyranny, or the rise of a Caesar – begins? The truth is that I don’t know exactly. Depending on your point of view, it may take more time than you’re expecting, or less. A year ago, I would have said it would take 20 or 30 years; now I fear it come much more immediately – anytime from literally tomorrow to perhaps, at most, ten years hence. But it will happen; what I can say for sure is that the events of this year have made what is coming inevitable, and sooner rather than later. We aren’t the country we were in 1968, and the 2020s just don’t have the social capital reserves necessary to leverage the kind of Great Cooling-Off that we had in the 1970s. There won’t be any buying of two generations’ worth of peace this time – that trick worked once, but it won’t work again.
Prepare yourselves accordingly.
I hope we can find the narrow path between totalitarianism and a hot civil war, but there are no guarantees. In any case, I would rather ride out the storm here in Idaho than anywhere else. As political activists, we should listen to the wisdom of our elders, while moving forward to do what needs to be done to address the crises of today and build for a brighter future. Our country isn’t going to fix itself, so let’s get to work.
More than half a century ago, John F. Kennedy said “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It’s up to us to build a society once again worthy of such patriotism.
Note: A descendant of American pioneers, Brian writes about the importance of culture and about current events in the context of history. His work can be found on Substack, here.