Saturday, July 17, 2010

The 1960s and the rise of conservatism

The United States never had a conservative movement prior to the 1950s. And in the 1950s that newly created conservatism was little more than a fringe intellectual movement with little influence on policy. So when did conservatism move beyond this small group of intellectuals to become a real political movement that could influence policy and elections? The 1960s. The intellectuals who populated the movement in the 1950s were still around in the 60s, but something in society began to change with the coming of age of a generation characterized by intense political passions and an inclination towards zealotry. It was this cohort (most of them boomers but others were a little older, some a little younger) whose sensibilities have dominated our politics and have bequeathed to us a rigid, intolerant partisanship.

When people think of "the sixties," they commonly associate the era with civil rights protest, with the student, antiwar, and feminist movements, and with the rise of the New Left. Yet the untold story of the 1960s is about the New Right. While thousands of youth did join protests on the left, thousands of others mobilized on the right. Many of today's conservative leaders came of age during the 1960s and became politically active during their college years through participation in Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a youth organization founded at the estate of William F. Buckley. Ironically, YAF began in 1960, the same year as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), one of the primary organizations of the New Left...

Idealistic youth from one end of the political spectrum to the other formed movements to reshape American politics. Whereas youth on the left came into ascendancy during the 1960s and early 1970s, the other wing of that generation came into prominence during the mid-1970s and 1980s and began to take over the seats of institutional power. The 1960s must be seen, then, within this larger context: not only fostering protests on the left, but also nurturing a new generation of leaders on the right. Much of the conservative backlash of the 1970s and 1980s was led by people of the same age as leftist activists, not the older generation.

I look forward to the time when that generation fades from the scene and we can move forward with a different political sensibility. It will be interesting to see what politics can be like absent the boomer's zealotry.

Quote from A Generation Divided: The New Left, The New Right, and The 1960s by Rebecca Klatch.

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