The Conservative Case Against the BoomersHistorians in the News
tags: conservatism, book reviews, baby boomers
Everyone’s fed up with the baby boomers. Younger progressives charge them with a form of generational hoarding—of titles and power but mostly of money. The richest generation in the history of the world, the story goes, has squandered its wealth on vanity purchases and projects while leaving younger Americans with a debased environment and crazy levels of debt. During the Presidency of Donald Trump—a boomer himself, who drew some of his strongest support from other boomers—the generation’s long-standing optimism seemed plainly misleading. Why did anyone think that things were always bound to turn out all right?
But for bleakness, scope, and entropic finality, the progressive critique of boomers has nothing on the Catholic social-conservative one, which measures the generation’s sins not just in rising debt ratios but also in the corruption of souls. In the view of an increasingly prominent cohort of Catholic intellectuals, Americans have, in the long span of the boomer generation, gone from public-spirited to narcotized, porn-addicted, and profoundly narcissistic, incapable not only of the headline acts of idealism to which boomers once aspired, such as changing the relations between the races or the sexes, but also of the mundane ones, such as raising children with discipline and care. That the arguments over the boomer legacy quickly become fundamental—that they bring up the question of national decline and the fate of liberalism—suggests that the generation has so fully suffused cultural memory that, when we say “boomer,” we might simply mean “American.”
The more nakedly selfish and frankly pornographic American that society came to seem during the Trump years, the more influence accrued to the scolds. Much of this had to do with the singular presence of Ross Douthat, a brilliant Catholic conservative intellectual and the best columnist of the time. But even the optimists were seeking a darker palette, and the Catholic conservatives were there to supply it. In 2018, Barack Obama let it be known on Facebook that he had been reading “Why Liberalism Failed,” by the Notre Dame political philosopher Patrick Deneen, whose writing is suffused with a thistle-chewing pessimism. The project of liberalizing markets and culture, Deneen argued, had made everyone feel rootless, and was behind the yearning for a strongman that helped give us Trump.
Deneen made a certain amount of sense as a despair thermometer. The latest impressions left by the boomers in that moment suggested that everything had gone terribly wrong: Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, the racism and stupidity of the Trump Administration, and the spectre of the religious grass roots in thrall to a man who had not only allegedly cheated on his wife, with a porn star, shortly after she gave birth but who had also imposed his adult children on the world, most notably a daughter obsessed with the sheen of prosperity and a son who broadcast brutality from a twitching mouth. So much seemed morally repugnant. How had we, as a liberal society, become so fond of corruption—and so gross?
The Catholic intellectual right issued a correction, as quick and snappy as a nun’s rap across the knuckles: you are looking for a different word, they said. Not “gross,” but “decadent.”
In the midst of all this ferment, an editor at First Things had a good idea for a young conservative writer named Helen Andrews: she should write a book of biographical sketches of significant boomers, and through them define the generation’s responsibility for the decline of liberal culture. In the preface to “Boomers,” the book that this project produced, Andrews writes, “I forgave my editor for elaborating on my suitability for the project by saying, ‘You’re like Strachey; you’re an essayist, and you’re mean.’ ”
Andrews’s view is that wealthy boomers have accomplished a kind of bait and switch, promising liberation for everyone but meaningfully delivering it only for the entitled. Women’s liberation may have paid off for the “atypical woman,” who had the means and talent to thrive as an educated professional, she writes, but typical women have been robbed of “the choice that was making most of them happy”: homemaking. (Here she cites Elizabeth Warren’s observation that the entry of women into the workforce en masse bid up the cost of housing and education, until two incomes became necessary to get by.) She also notes that one in five white women is on antidepressants. On the political left, she argues, unionism was deëmphasized, in favor of “boutique interests”—a phrase that makes dismissive reference to a wide array of identity-based liberation movements. She believes the expansion of college education did less than it might have, because universities dispensed with traditional liberal education and built a supercilious, intolerant educated class intent on imposing its values on everyone. Narcotics proliferated, both literal and metaphorical (television). Sardonically, she sums up the boomer legacy: “Drugged up, divorced, ignorant, and indebted, but at least they did it out of idealism.”
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