We should’ve figured that, in 2016, we would have at least one candidate who would dramatically defy convention and break from known historical patterns for successful candidacies. Traditional political axioms having to do with the weight of outside spending, television advertising, and endorsements would be robbed of their validity, eventually. The pure power of personality would become decisive.
All of these changes could easily be found in the tea leaves of culture, where seismic shifts have occurred over the past half century. Politics often reflects such shifts, but with a time lapse. Before today’s form of extreme progressivism could become entrenched in our politics, for example, it first had to overtake the Blue Dog Democrats and win a political party. Before it could take the party, it would have to develop entrenched interests in the academy and elite institutions in order to have greater influence. In order to gain such influence, the hippies of my parents’ day had to roll up the beach blanket, air out the vans, and earn advance degrees and tenured teaching positions.
Modern conservatism was built from the culture up, as well. Before the Tea Party, there was a president who popularized conservatism and, then, members of Congress who made it into a political platform. Before Reagan and Gingrich, there was National Review (“NR”) and the publicizing of conservative principles. Prior to the consolidating work of NR, there was a bevy of isolated intellectuals who had to be bound together in a coherent movement. This evolution of political movements reminds us why there was never a President Goldwater or McGovern.
Beneath these organic developments is the greater movement in our society from a modern culture to a postmodern culture. Many of our grandparents believed that there was a logic and science to the way the world works. With the rise of great technological advancements, there seemed to be boundless promise for every hard-working individual and peace-minded society. Science, in the hands of a benevolent humanity, would solve the world’s problems. Words had meaning and if any cross words were spoken, rationality would prevail.
The world wars that leveled this modernist mindset in the rest of the West did not have the same impact in America, which was more remote from the wars and came out stronger from both conflicts. Rather, it was the Vietnam era that marked our nation’s turning point. Our nation’s politicians sent thousands of our young men off to war, with unclear justifications. Deceit seemed to abound, and Watergate established, for many, that our politicians and authorities could not be trusted.
That generation was raised with greater affluence and promises than their Depression-era parents, but without the same religious and moral depth. Without clearly-established truths, they wandered their way through a sexual revolution in search of meaning. Truth increasingly came to be viewed as the province—and often the bludgeon—of the powerful, and personal experience became each person’s guide. The wanderers of that era are now our moral guides from their perches in politics, elite institutions, and the academy.
We as a postmodern people often have little use for notions of objective truth. We rely upon personal experience instead. It seems safer. We are not optimistic about our nation’s future or mankind’s destiny, in general. We do not trust authority and think every man above us is a tyrant, yet have submitted to the tyranny of the personal whims of 300-plus million people. Words no longer have fixed meaning, so we have devolved into an echo chamber of opinions with little ability to actually engage in constructive discourse.
President (Bill) Clinton’s administration and perpetual scandals formed the first full flowering of this cultural shift. His musings about the definition of sex and the word “is” and lack of concern about how his personal acts might affect the nation, as a whole, all grew from this cultural shift. President (W) Bush’s election seemed to be a victory of personal likeability over more concise arguments (not necessarily better ones). President Obama relied upon meaningless clichés like “change” without ever having to define his terms.
Now, we have a second Clinton and Donald Trump—both of whom are shape-shifters like the first President Clinton. Such a description cannot even be considered disparaging at this point, because we don’t mind shape-shifters, as long as some of their shifts validate our feelings and experiences.
We also should stop talking about Donald Trump as a surprise. He does not emblemize a political revolution, but a cultural revolution that has been forming for 50 years. It is not a progressive or conservative revolution, but a postmodern one. The age of Jesse Jackson and Dr. James Dobson—both representing the moral character of their movements—is long gone. We have traded them in for rhetoricians and schemers with no substance—an apt indictment of our society as a whole.
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