In their book Pendulum: How Past Generations Shape Our Present and Predict Our Future, Roy Williams and Michael Drew map out how society repeats itself in cycles. In their book, the pendulum shift is a 40 year span. But there are other ways to see how the pendulum can swing in American culture. If John F. Kennedy inspired a cultural renaissance that led to a counter culture revolution, which eventually swung in the opposite direction to Ronald Reagan, one can see how the arc went from the 1960s to the 1980s.
The next big culture quake on the left happened when Barack Obama was elected in 2008. He inspired a renaissance of identity, of shared voice, which then gave rise to the counter culture revolution we’re living through now. What we don’t yet know is where 2020 will fit into this shifting landscape. Which side of the pendulum will the country swing?
Trump’s re-election would be another 1972. If Biden defeats Trump in November, he is either Jimmy Carter in 1976, briefly holding onto the presidency before American culture pulls back towards the right, towards conservatism, or Biden IS Ronald Reagan, and will push American culture fully and completely into the new left that Obama started. A “Woke Utopia” which could hold for as long as Reagan’s did, that’s roughly 28 years if you mark the of it the beginning of Obama’s reign.
If Williams and Drew are right, and that culture swings in the opposite direction every 40 years, we are not even half-way through the cycle of culture shifting. But that doesn’t mean presidential power won’t.
Where we are right now is not yet knowable. We have extremes pulling on both the left and the right. Then we have the middle. Is the middle staying with the Democrats or will it shift over to Trump’s side of things? A bigger question is which way is the pendulum swinging and where will we end up?
The pendulum started swinging away from the conservatism of the 1950s just before Kennedy’s rise in 1960. That was due to a generation of young people, baby boomers, who started to come of age who were shaking off the confines of the rigid 1950s, which was its own utopian vision of American life after World War II. It was also a time when black activism was rising to demand equal rights in a country that had oppressed them for centuries. Kennedy would give voice to that movement. He would be shot, so would his brother and so would Martin Luther King, Jr. Though all three would be shot for different reasons, it seemed clear to everyone that whatever they stood for was being silenced.
America was in a state of complete and total chaos by 1968. A culture war raged against an equal and opposite force of conservatism rising in the wake of Civil Rights, and the war in Vietnam. The war divided Americans into those who opposed it and those who supported it, the latter being the silent majority.
It was just one of many dark moments in 1968, which included students being shot at a protest against segregation, 15,000 Latino students walking out of their high schools to protest for a better education, students being shot at protests and fires and riots raging in cities protesting segregation.
Richard Nixon was the beginning of the end for the 1960s, because he spoke for the majority of Americans who could not and did not speak for themselves. The news was consumed by the anti-war and civil rights protests. The Democrats, now that LBJ was so unpopular he declined running for a full second term, were in complete disarray, with Hubert Humphrey representing the Kennedy administration, against Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war activist and notable party split with the blue dog democrats who wanted to hold on to their white supremacy in the Southern states.
But Nixon’s win in 1968 was way too close for comfort. He, like Trump after 2016, did not have the mandate and he certainly did not have the love of the people. He wanted their admiration. He needed a decisive victory in 1972.
Nixon set about ratfucking a race at a time when his approval ratings were already high. He knew some candidates, including Edmund Muskie, posed a threat, so he and his dirty trixters (among them Karl Rove and Roger Stone, both on Trump’s campaign now) set about sabotaging Muskie and others.
With George McGovern as his competition, Nixon won an historic landslide, winning every state except Massachusetts.
The loss of McGovern was demoralizing for the Democrats, but especially so culturally, with the likes of the counter culture revolutionaries, and people like Hunter S. Thompson. Many of them simply gave up and tuned out, went to California, joined cults and religions. But Nixon was holding onto presidential power even if American culture was still very much caught up in the radical 1960s that inspired it.
Nixon’s criminal activities to ensure his re-election finally caught up with him and he was shamed out of office in 1974. That seemed to be the confirmation his opponents needed. And gave Democrats more than enough to clout to elect a Democrat in 1976.
Jimmy Carter was the one rare one term president in the modern era, who was hated enough by his own party Teddy Kennedy primaried him. He was the Democrats’ last bulwark against the gathering storm of conservativism. Carter would last just one term.
A public long since tired and exhausted by the counter culture revolution and everything that happened in the wake of it, was ready to embrace American exceptionalism, the nuclear family, good jobs, a strong military.
Ronald Reagan’s America
Children born into the 1970s (I was one of them) were abandoned by their parents who were celebrating a “me generation” of hedonism and pleasure pursuits now that their revolution was over. And they too sought security. This was the era of the yuppies, sushi, artists lofts downtown. It was Trump’s era in New York City, where greed was good again.
Ronald Reagan drew upon the deeply embedded racism embodied in the likes of the Barry Goldwater/George Wallace voters. He did it with dog whistles but America was just too worn out by then, too broke, too demoralized to continue that fight. The former hippies grew up, got jobs, bought big houses and pretty much “sold out” as the saying goes.
I came of age in the 1980s and I very well know what it looked like. I was a part of a generation that would eventually pull American culture leftward, setting the stage for Bill Clinton’s rise in 1992. Clinton was the start of it, but there wasn’t really much of a cultural shift with the Clintons. We were all still very much inside the Reagan bubble culturally: make money, tough on crime, race relations on the back-burner, gay marriage not accepted yet.
Even though Bush held onto presidential power from 2000 to 2008, American culture was ready to once again experience a renaissance, a culture quake and a new counter culture revolution was born when Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States.
Barack Obama’s America
Obama’s rise came just as social media was beginning to spread through American culture. Gen Z is comprised of internet natives, as opposed to immigrants. They grew up in a world they could make and build, create avatars of themselves that they could define any way they wanted to. Obama’s America gave them the freedom to do it, and the internet gave them the means to achieve it. They were now finding their way onto Tumblr, and eventually Facebook and Twitter. Happening at the same time, around 2012 or 2013 was critical theory, race and gender and sexuality and was teaching young people a new way of seeing identity and their world. That eventually erupted into the early stages of “cancel culture” online.
Obama’s America could best be embodied in Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. In that version of America there are no racial lines that decide who can be George Washington and who can’t. The American dream is open to anyone. We’ll brush aside for the moment how Hamilton itself has been mildly canceled, but there is no doubt that diversity, opportunity was the main driver of culture. Women’s rights, gay rights, trans rights. The rights of the disabled. Everyone had a seat at the table in Obama’s America. It was beginning to look a lot like Utopia.
But lurking beneath the surface of this Utopia, was a code of conduct and decency. There were suddenly a growing list of things you could not say, things that were offensive. If someone was offended that was enough to define something as offensive.
Which is the flipside of the ideology of the counter culture movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which encouraged freedom of expression and opposed censorship of any kind.
As “cancel culture” was on the rise, there was another wave of discontent growing, and it wasn’t just the Tea Party, which objected to Obama’s political overreach. It was a growing population of people, mostly men, mostly white men who were waging a war against “SJWs.” Social justice warriors who were making their lives a living hell. We all remember that too. Those folks also took to Twitter, to the comment sections on Youtube and Breitbart, eventually to Facebook. As it grew, it had a new leader for its cause.
Donald Trump’s America
The same way Reagan drew upon the Goldwater/Wallace voters, so too did Trump draw on the 4-Chan crowd of left out white men angry at what had become of American culture under Obama. This is otherwise known as “white privilege.” It is no coincidence that Trump’s opponent was the first female candidate of a major party in history. America was about to see their first black president followed by their first female president.
The Democrats were also becoming more and more fractured in 2016, as Bernie Sanders challenged Obama’s third term successor, which also helped put Trump in power. That fight is not yet over with half of the Democrats wanting to push towards Democratic Socialism, and half wanting to keep fighting for social justice — and both movement embodied in four new members of congress called “The Squad.”
What you saw with Trump’s rise was culture SHOCK. This man who broke all of the rules that were mutually agreed upon, at least on the surface, had risen to power and there was no way to take him down. He’d won by just 70,000 votes, and he’d won by mocking the disabled, women, war veterans, by chanting “Lock her up,” by questioning Obama’s rightful citizenship. He’d ripped right through the cultural norms.
Trump is the polar opposite of everything the left, or Obama’s America, had come to stand for. And even with four years of attacks on Trump that even included impeachment it barely moved his approval numbers, which has only caused more frustration and anger on the left — America was and is at war with itself.
Biden was, by an overwhelming majority, what Americans wanted prior to the Coronavirus and the George Floyd protests. The two major events split the media down partisan lines and Americans began to wonder if they were being told the truth. The press did not call out the protesters for taking to the streets by the thousands on the heels of dire warnings about social distancing. Now the only thing that mattered was wearing a mask. It became an issue of racism to even question it. Likewise, when the protests broke out, the press refused to even talk about the rioting and violence occurring, because that too became an issue of racism.
If 58% of Americans believed military intervention was the right thing to do, and the New York Times published an op-ed by Tom Cotton that was so controversial it ended up in a massive shake-up at the Times, with James Bennett fired, that was a good indicator that there was a disconnect between public perception and what the media was telling them. On June 5th the Times added this disclaimer to Cotton’s piece, which was never taken down and never caused troops to flood into the cities because people pushed back, because that is how it is supposed to work in a free and open society:
After publication, this essay met strong criticism from many readers (and many Times colleagues), prompting editors to review the piece and the editing process. Based on that review, we have concluded that the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published.
Now, the public was aware of it. Now, because they could see both the story unfolding and the way the press covered it and how people were being fired for saying phrases and words you can’t say (like “all lives matter”), now the public was beginning to worry about the effects of “Cancel Culture.”
62% of people are afraid to say what they really think online, and more and more are gravitating out of the bubble where they can’t be canceled, and they are watching and listening to people who exist outside those strict cultural rules, like Joe Rogan or Ben Shapiro.
Regardless of what voters feel about Trump, now they know they can’t fully trust the messengers anymore. Does that mean a new silent majority is rising? Does that mean the pendulum is going to swing away from Obama’s America and towards something else? We can’t yet know until the whole story of 2020 is played out.
One thing we can mostly certain of, however. American culture remains at an inflection point and it could go either way. There will be rough days ahead no matter what happens in November.