These countercultures arise because the dominating culture hates the other culture. Then the counterculture, simply out of feelings of suppression and disenfranchisement, comes out and retaliates.
The year is 2019, America is a political dumpster fire. Liberalism is a dominant agenda and conservatives are looming over the horizon. It’s the age of feminism, minorities, and freedoms. Yet, America has Trump- a figure that stands against everything liberal. Social media has become a battleground for alt-right groups and the radical left. It seems like America is divided and doesn’t quite know where to go. America’s fate however is already predetermined by the natural laws derived from the historical context of the modern day American battleground.
History is not just a collection of facts. History is about patterns. It’s about identifying why and how something happened. It’s easy to recognize historical events, it’s another thing to explain a historical event. That being said, one of the biggest patterns of history is the oft-repeated phrase: “history repeats itself.” In other words, history is like a pendulum that swings back and forth. This is true in theory and in observation.
There are many societal trends: religiosity and atheism, economic philosophy, art, and culture, or, as with the focus of this paper, liberalism, and conservatism. Liberalism and conservatism are strongly tied to these other societal trends, hence why it was chosen as the main focus of this essay. Liberalism and conservatism act as cultures and countercultures. Whenever liberalism dominates, reactionary conservatism follows. When conservatism dominates, revolutionary liberalism comes out. Following the earlier example of the Enlightenment, this becomes more clear. The Enlightenment was distinctly a liberal period with thinkers such as Locke. The Romantic movement was the opposite, with thinkers like Burke. Periods of liberalism and conservatism, at least for the modern world, are what society swings between.
So what exactly is liberalism and conservatism? Liberalism refers to a general mindset of individual freedoms, democracy, and openness to new ideas. Conservatism is more paternalistic, group-oriented, and traditional. Each has varying degrees: liberalism at its most extreme is anarchism, and for conservatism, fascism. In any case, these two ideas are directly opposed, and in America, this dichotomy is magnified with the two-party system.
Basically, liberalism and conservatism have a culture-counterculture relationship. When one is in the majority, the minority forms a counterculture that takes over in the following generations. If the current generation can be characterized as either liberal or conservative, then it is reasonable to predict that the next generation will become the opposite.
Therefore, before predicting anything about the next generation of America, the generations of America must first be identified. The Baby Boomers (born 1940s-60s) started out as liberal in their youth, but are now the most conservative generation today. Generation X (born 1960s-80s) is a transitional period into the next generation: Millennials. Millennials (born 1980s-2000) are definitively liberal. And finally, Generation Z (born 2000s-present) is also a transitional generation. These claims will be proven later on.
The rest of this essay will attempt to prove a prediction that rests on two premises. The first premise is that the Millennial generation is a liberal-minded generation. The second premise is that a liberal generation will be succeeded by a conservative one and vice versa. This leads to the following prediction: Generation Z is the transition generation which will be followed by a more conservative generation in response to Millennial liberalism.
The four generations of America
First of all, this essay will ignore the Silent Generation. This cohort is at least over eighty years old at this point, and with the average mortality age being 72, there’s no point in considering any influence this generation has on the future. In any case, this generation seems to be a transition generation. Their name: the “Silent Generation,” is derived from their political inactivity due to a desire to work and conservative McCarthyism preventing people from speaking out. The Silent Generation would give rise to the next cohort, the Baby Boomers.
The Boomer Generation is especially interesting. At first, during the Vietnam War, this generation was liberal. However, into the 1980s, the Boomers became more conservative. The Boomers drove the Reagan Era which essentially created the modern Republican Party: “the 18- to 29-year-old age cohort — the front end of the baby boom — called themselves Democrats (35%) than Republicans (21%). A decade later, when they were 28 to 39 years old, their identification with the Democratic Party over the GOP was even stronger (45% to 19% in Gallup’s surveys)” (Bowman and Rugg). By the time the 1980s came around, the Baby Boomers had become family oriented, traditional, and conservative, ripe for Reagan’s picking.
The next logical question is why did Boomers become conservative? According to Bowman and Rugg, age played a role. While this is one factor, the 1968 elections show something different. The 1960s was the era of the Civil Rights movement and the growing anti-war sentiment towards the Vietnam War. In fact, Boomers were initially in support of the war, and older voters were against it. Boomers as a whole were not all liberals- there was a cultural divide. Liberalism seemed to be the dominant culture, with conservatism being a counterculture. Consequently, there was an increasingly vocal group of young, segregationist minded voters. Dr. King’s assassination only seemed to cement the idea that in spite of the progress made for Civil Rights, a group keen on destroying that culture still existed.
It seemed fitting that in both cases, young people assassinated Dr. King and President Kennedy. Lee Harvey Oswald was only 24, and James Earl Ray barely touched past 30. Their deaths were perpetrated by an angered segregationist America that said the Civil Rights movement went just too far. And then, the election of 1968 happened.
The election was closely contested. Democratic liberal Humphrey locked horns with Republican conservative Nixon. In the shadows was George Wallace, a third party candidate who made it to the national election. Just as the narrative would predict, young, segregationist voters came out in troves for George Wallace. Still, 47% of younger voters went in favor of Democratic Humphrey with his antiwar sentiment (compared to Nixon’s 38%). This is misleading, however. The rest of the 15%? Those went to Wallace, someone perhaps considered more conservative, and racist than Nixon. This is why Nixon’s young voters were called the “Silent Majority.” Despite the liberal-minded agenda of the time, a counterculture of conservatism grew out of the 1968 election.
One example of this growing conservative culture was the War on Drugs. Nixon’s drug crackdown was really nothing more than a cover to suppress liberal and minority voices, “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said.
We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
This is a direct quote from one of Nixon’s advisors, John Ehrlichman. In other words, Nixon’s presidency made America anti-left and thus more conservative.
For the Boomers, liberalism became associated with Civil Rights and ending the Vietnam war. The 1968 election was a pivotal moment for the Boomers because of Nixon’s ability to leverage younger voters. Younger voters were tired of Johnson’s war and wanted to see real changes made. Disillusioned with the Democrats, young voters turned Republican. With the exception of Carter, Boomer voters were Republican conservative.
The 1980 election is significant for a number of reasons. This is the first election where all of the cohorts of the Boomers were eligible to vote. The age group of 30-45 (the average Boomer age) and older voted overwhelmingly in favor of Reagan. This is also the start of 12 years of Republican presidencies. This means that Boomers by this time had fully grown into conservatives after the issues of Civil Rights and the Vietnam War were ‘resolved’. Reagan ran a campaign for the now family-minded Boomers. These next 12 years would culturally solidify the Baby Boomers as a reliable red vote.
To summarize, Boomers came of voting age during a time of the growing Civil Rights movement and the antiwar protests. While young Boomers initially drove these liberal movements, conservative counterculture took hold by 1968. Watergate made a Democrat minded America (as evidenced by the midterm elections of ‘70) vote for Carter. After a bad presidency, conservative counterculture resurfaced and ushered in the era of Reagan. Reagan and Bush Sr. solidified the Boomers as a conservative vote. Boomers show that a cohort can initially be politically oriented one way in youth and another in adulthood. As a whole, Boomers have come to represent a conservative culture that grew out of the liberal culture of the 1960s and 70s.
The next generation to come of age around this time was Generation X. This cohort was born between 1960-1980. If the 1980s and early 90s were a conservative time for America, then liberal counterculture would be surfacing at this time to take its place. Generation X drove the vote behind Clinton and Bush Jr., with much of Generation X growing up in relative comfort- hence why many of the founders of Apple, Google, Amazon, and similar companies are from Generation X. These voters represent a transition generation of relatively quieter political activity.
Liberal sentiments began to rise during this generation. The LGBT AIDS Epidemic of 1987 was a time of increasing awareness and growing acceptability of LGBT groups. Feminism started catching steam around this time in the late 90s, and slowly, Reaganism faded away when Clinton came around to preach a more muted form of liberalism. Clinton was positing Neoliberalism, a more Laissez-Faire capitalist version of liberalism. Essentially, Clinton was the Generation X president- a mix between liberal and conservative ideas.
Generation X is a transition generation, and Clinton characterized this generation by having both conservative and liberal policies, with of course his own liberal slant. Generation X is relatively speaking, centrist. Generation X is a generation of swing voters- as the numbers for the 2000 election were 48:50 in favor of Bush, and for 1992, 41:32 in favor of Clinton, Generation X is willing to switch party lines because they are mostly moderates.
Millennials are probably best characterized as the liberal counterpart to conservative Boomers. Being born anywhere from 1980-1995, the Millennials had their first set of votes in 2000. Of course, 9/11 threw a wrench into the mix. Liberalism among Generation X was put on hold when hyper-nationalism came to America in the form of two planes. Millennial and Generation X liberalism was put aside until the 2008 election, where Millennials voted overwhelmingly for Obama and Generation X’ers voted somewhat in favor of Obama. Millennials during the Bush administration represented something of a counterculture to conservative policies.
After the 2008 financial crisis, many voting Millennials and the liberal half of Generation X especially began to be anti-establishment. Coupled with antiwar sentiments towards the Iraq War, Millennials became an extremely liberal generation. It is not likely that Millennials, in general, will turn conservative as the Boomers did. There was no war or financial crisis that Trump could have leveraged in the way Nixon did. For the most part young white Millennials supported Trump, and even then only a minority of them.
As a whole, Millennials are overwhelmingly liberal. Millennials are religiously ambiguous, with most leaving organized religion in favor of personal ones or none altogether. Millennials as such are incredibly socially liberal. Every stride for the LGBT community, for example, was driven by liberals. If Generation X was the entrepreneurial and individualistic generation, Millennials took that to a different level. Mark Zuckerberg, a Millennial, created the social media revolution. Social media magnified the already individualistic trend laid out by the previous Generation X. No better mantra describes Millennial philosophy than “nobody knows what’s in your best interest but you.”
The next generation, which just recently got the ability to vote, is the new Generation Z. Born after the late 90s, this generation is markedly more conservative. New social movements such as the alt-right campaigns, the Incel movement, and other conservative movements were created by Generation Z. However, this generation, as mentioned before, is characterized by identity politics. Meaning that this generation is divided, and can thus be classified as a transition generation. Generation Z is also equally liberal, with non-whites identifying with liberalism and whites identifying with conservatism.
A possible theory as to why Generation Z is so divided is the fact that identity politics created this division. Men felt hurt by the direction feminism was going in. White people felt disenfranchised by politicized minorities. Just as young segregationists in 1968 spoke with their votes, Generation Z whites voted for Trump. That being said, among all upper-level institutions such as universities, liberalism seems to be a dominating agenda. Conservatives feel silenced and are now beginning to spur a counterculture against liberal agenda. Basically, the bells of 1968 rang again with the Trump election of 2016.
Millennial and liberal Generation Z members are pushing back against the conservative counterculture that is developing from Generation Z itself. The alt-right movements, the mass shootings, the chauvinism, and so many more movements are just a natural consequence of high levels of liberalization. This is the same as how Millennials were a natural consequence of Boomer conservatism under Reagan.
If America stays strong, the political turmoil caused by Trump is nothing new. America has had Andrew Jackson and Nixon in the past. America will probably put another Carter in after Trump, which will naturally be followed by more conservatism.
In short, America has four generations. The Boomers, which are conservative; Generation X, which were a transition to liberalism, Millennials, which are liberal; and Generation Z, which is a transition to conservatism. If history follows suit, the next generation will be conservative.
Making the prediction – a summary and conclusion
History repeats itself. It cycles between opposites. Both through philosophical reasoning and through observation, this can be verified. Since America has the two-party system, and since liberalism and conservatism are fairly general terms, the bounds for what history cycles between would be liberalism and conservatism. History suggests that America goes through these cycles. Moreover, looking at voting patterns and behaviors of the four generations of America, a clear trend from conservatism transitioning to liberalism and transitioning back can be seen. If historical trends hold true, the generation after Generation Z will definitely be conservative.
With that in mind, it’s important to ask why America swings the way it does. Liberalism and conservatism are ideologically opposite. Liberals and conservatives will always create friction. The rise of the Baby Boomers through anti-minority and anti-liberalism was fundamentally based on hate. The rise of Millennials through anti-white and anti-establishment sentiments was also equally based on hate. These countercultures arise because the dominating culture hates the other culture. Then the counterculture, simply out of feelings of suppression and disenfranchisement, comes out and retaliates.
As long as party politics and a divided America continue to exist, these cycles will also continue to exist. This is also somewhat reassuring as well. Every time an American feels hopeless that his or her country is going downhill and against his or her wishes, time will fix that. Every defeated liberal or jaded conservative only needs to wait another fifteen years or so before everything is the way he or she wants it to be again.
Handbook to Life in America, Volume 8 Rodney P. Carlisle Infobase Publishing, 2009, p. 22
https://ropercenter.cornell.edu/public-opinion-on-civil-rights-reflections-on-the-civil-rights-act-of-1964/ (Note how a majority of Americans view the Civil Rights act with suspicion even if a majority approved of it)