By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—I bow to no one in my distaste for food-fight politics. I don’t want to dine with absolutists and ideologues hurling red meat at each other.
For that matter, I have long amused myself with visions of baby boomers carrying the same old conflicts into old age, dividing into pro- and anti-Vietnam nursing homes.
So I am drawn to the brand known as Generation Obama. This presidential candidate has repeatedly offered himself as the post-boomer, the one person in the race who can take us past the great divides of the last 40 years.
In announcing his candidacy, Barack Obama used the word “generation” 13 times. In “The Audacity of Hope,” he described boomer politics with something close to disdain as a psychodrama “rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago.” On TV, he described Hillary Clinton and others as people who’ve “been fighting some of the same fights since the ‘60s.”
This post-boomer theme is spun out in Andrew Sullivan’s recent piece in The Atlantic, where he writes that “if you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the boomer generation and face today’s actual problems, Obama may be your man.” It can be found as well in the label that Ross Baker, a Rutgers political scientist, put on Obama: “the post-polarization candidate.”
But slowly, all this generation talk has forced me to revisit not just boomer politics, but the nature of polarization in a country that may be poles apart.
To begin with, if Obama represents the “post-polarization” generation, what was the “pre-polarization” generation? The idea of some tranquil 1950s America is surely exaggerated. There were great struggles over McCarthyism and nuclear testing, to name just two issues.
As for the consensus that existed in the 1950s? Columbia’s Todd Gitlin says, “There was a consensus that nothing much ought to be done to yank the former Confederacy out of the age of Jim Crow. There was complacency about the position of women. Complacency about the belligerence with which the U.S. occasionally overthrew uncongenial foreign governments.” Are we nostalgic for that?
The ‘60s opened up huge and important conflicts. It was not all about boxers or briefs, inhaling or not. Issues surfaced around black and white relationships, male and female relationships, gay and straight relationships, all kinds of authority and our place in the world.
These still go on. Not because they are relics of old college dorm fights but because they are still important and unresolved. Did Democrats go down in the last two presidential elections because they were locked in a stale old fight, or because they lost that fight?
Now we come to the 2008 primary season. Barack Obama is an appealing icon of change. In reading “Dreams From My Father,” I was engaged by a description of his half-sister’s dilemma—torn between the Western values of individual success and the African values of community. Obama has the capacity to turn a problem around, roaming across its many surfaces. He gets it.
His philosophical frame of mind appeals to the educated elite of the Democratic Party. His largest group of supporters are college-educated. But I am forced to ask, against my own grain, whether Democrats need a philosopher or a combatant.
In his stump speech, Obama says, “I don’t want to spend the next year or the next four years refighting the same fights. ... I don’t want to pit red America against blue America.” Neither do I.
Sometimes I approach politics like a parent watching her children: “I don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong; just stop fighting.” But, of course, I do care who’s right, who’s wrong, who’ll win. What if red America is pitted against blue America?
Obama is a notoriously uneven performer. Alone on a stage, he is often eloquent and inspirational, if I may use an Oprah word. But on the debate platform with his opponents, he is, well, less impressive. Temperamentally, he prefers to be above the fray. But the campaign against any Republican will take place in the fray.
Gitlin, author of “The Bulldozer and the Big Tent,” says, “In a family situation, we need a healer.” But in an era of ugly politics? “We don’t need healing but resounding defeat. ... The bulldozer can’t be kissed into submission.”
Maybe I am suffering from too little “audacity of hope.” Or an excess of experience. The Democratic nominee won’t have the luxury of a do-good campaign. Even a post-polarization candidate would face a polarized politics.
There’s still a difference between being an icon of change and an agent of change. And there is a difference as well between being a fine philosopher king and a strong presidential challenger.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group