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Tilting at Windmills

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February 3, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

A CIVIC MAN....Guess what? We're about to enter a "Joshua generation."

According to Morley Winograd and Michael Hais in the Washington Post today, there have been three elections in American history that ushered in an era of dominance by a "Moses" or idealist generation: 1828, 1896, and 1968. "Members of idealist generations embroil the nation in heated debates on divisive social issues as they try to enact their own personal morality and causes through the political process."

Likewise, there have been two elections that ushered in a "Joshua" or civic generation: 1860 and 1932. "Civic generations react against the idealist generations' efforts to use politics to advance their own moral causes and focus instead on reenergizing social, political and government institutions to solve pressing national issues." We're due for another civic generation to take over this year.

Do I buy this? No, I do not. (You can read more about the "saeculum" theory of generational waves here.) But if you're in the market for an abstract and academic sounding argument about historical inevitability to prove that Barack Obama is The One, look no further. Click and read. Or read Obama's own version here.

Kevin Drum 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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Yes but is it an executive Joshua generation or an engineering Joshua generation?

You are a sadist.

Posted by: lobbygow on February 3, 2008 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

Good god, how long are these guys going to peddle this nonsense?

Posted by: John on February 3, 2008 at 1:11 PM | PERMALINK

This year's election will offer a chance at radical and possibly long term change. The republicans have made a mess of things and the base wants a candidate who'll give us an SSDD (same shit , different day) administration. Whoever the democrats eventually choose will campaign on change and contratsed to the past seven years, any change will be an improvement.

Posted by: sparky on February 3, 2008 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

If we were indeed at one of those epochal turning points these hysterical historians are pronouncing, don't you think that it would be accompanied with underlying numbers vastly more decisive?

If either Obama or Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, is there anybody with a lick of common sense who believes they will win by a landslide?

If, as I expect, they would win by a relatively small margin, how do you wring historical inevitability out of that?

Posted by: frankly0 on February 3, 2008 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

I knew Joshua, and let me tell you something, Senator Obama: you're no Joshua.

Posted by: John McCain on February 3, 2008 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

The scholars only tell you what you need to know. Ergo, some of their answers you will understand, and some of them you will not. Concordantly, while your first question may be the most pertinent, you may or may not realize it is also the most irrelevant.

Posted by: B on February 3, 2008 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

I'm beginning to resent this insufferable "Moses down from the mountaintops" attitude amongst Obama's supporters, and, to a lesser extent, from Obama and his surrogates.

As much as I might agree or disagree with Obama's particular stances and policies, any inclination that I might have to independently analyze his candidacy is getting more and more difficult. I am not a fan of hagiography. I am even less of a fan of having to suffer, yet again, the myth of the Kennedys as some paragon of purity in politics or for them having stood for something other than their own infatuation with power. I resist it---and I resist the baldfaced attempts to marry the Kennedy mystique to Obama by those same Kennedys. I further resist the efforts of the people who've been so emotionally and psychologically battered by the Bush years, as well as the happy participants in the echo chamber of the non-analytical blogosphere, that they want their own King Arthur candidate, and have picked Obama as that man.

I refuse to recognize the apparently self-evident representation of "transformational politics" in the person of Barack Obama.

I am surprised that "Moses" attitude isn't beginning to rankle the more mainstream, moderate folks. I'd always thought Americans resisted being dictated to about how lucky they were to be able to have the opportunity to elect a figure such as "Candidate X" or "Candidate Y." It smacks of the worst demagoguery of the Left and the Right.

Enduring the soggy rationales being employed by some people to pick a president has been a sorry spectacle.

Posted by: Higgins on February 3, 2008 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

Higgins, Joshua not Moses. Nixon was Moses -- delivering our troops from Vietnam before the "red" sea collapsed around us.

Apparently Obama is going to conquer six nations and live to be 110.

Posted by: B on February 3, 2008 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

Obama makes nice speeches, has a short political record, and he is the first Afro-American to come that far.

Hillary has a longer record in public life, has fought the republican political machine and has the scars to proof it. She is a realist without the beautiful speeches. She is the first spouse of a president to become a Senator and the first to run for president and she is a woman.

Moses and Joshua and the past are nice dinner talk. We have to vote for the candidate we believe is best suited to save the country now after 8years of Bush.

Posted by: Renee on February 3, 2008 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

"Hillary has a longer record in public life"

Really? How are you defining "public life?"

Posted by: PaulB on February 3, 2008 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

This sounds like some kind a navel gazing, reverse engineered to give intellectuals excuses to vote for Obama. It might win over certain weak mminded individuals, but as an exercise I find it a bit weak.

I'm working on a unified theory of Hillary Clinton myself...

Posted by: Tom Stewart on February 3, 2008 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

Really? How are you defining "public life?"

Are you really going to try to act as if the original obvious point has any problem with it?

However you try to define "public life", don't you think that Hillary, at 60, is going to turn out to have a longer record than Obama, who's 46?

Have you so lost your objectivity that you can't see that, in terms of experience, Hillary wins? If you want to say it isn't as long or impressive as she makes it out to be, that's one thing. But to suggest that it isn't longer is just absurd on its face.

Posted by: frankly0 on February 3, 2008 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

It needs to be noted that "these hysterical historians" are not in fact historians [though one is a trained political scientist, and reputedly a specialist in partisan realignments]. And while *this* historian thinks there's a good deal of merit in these sorts of long-swing analyses [partisan allegiances stay pretty stable for long periods of time, until the old issues just stop mattering to [usually new] people, and new ones show up], the rest of their analysis is bizarre crap. The Election of 1860 ushered in a period of reaction to cultural politics? I guess these guys have never seen any of those viciously anti-Irish-Catholic Thomas Nast cartoons from the 1870s. In fact, if anything, that sort of ethnocultural politics *arose* in the 1850s, and--Lincoln's own tolerance notwithstanding--was intrinsic to the Republican and Democratic parties of the Gilded Age. I could go on, but I think these cyclic schemes are really overblown. I do think we're at a major turning point, at which a party system shaped by the issues of the 1960s is running out of steam, and a new generation is coming on for whom those old battles are wasteful distractions--but no historian in his right mind can be sure what will replace it.

Posted by: David in Nashville on February 3, 2008 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

Some of this generational stuff may sound like astrology, but writers William Strauss and Neil Howe provided perhaps the most accurate forecast of the political climate in the 1990s and 2000s (under idealist-Boomer administrations) as is possible to imagine in their 1991 book, Generations: History of America's Future 1584-2069.

That's not to say that patterns of history necessarily predict that Obama will be the nominee this year, but if there is nothing at all to these kinds of analyses, you have to wonder how those authors could possibly have guessed right about right-wing hostility to Clinton's Boomer-like sexual mores and Bush/Cheney's eagerness to wage a holy war with no Constitutional limits. It's not farfetched to suggest that a generational reaction is about due, and that Obama would govern as a civic fence-mender in a post-crisis era.

Posted by: Rob Salkowitz on February 3, 2008 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

PaulB,

idealism is nice, but does not help in politics. I remember the McGovern election well, we got Nixon and more war. President Johnson was ready to negotiate a pull out of Vietnam and Nixon had to learn the lesson all over again.

Same here, Hillary has experience Obama might have a few years down the road. He does not have it now. Hillary is still standing her ground. They have irrational hate against the Clintons because they could not destroy them. And don't believe the right wing will go for a black male either. You may well vote for McCain by voting for Obama. Taking the high road did not help Gore or Kerry.

Posted by: Renee on February 3, 2008 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK
…you have to wonder how those authors could possibly have guessed right about right-wing hostility ….Rob Salkowitz at 2:20 PM
Perhaps by the historical record of hostility dating from that period and the history of Nixon's abuse of power. There are a number of old Nixonites in the Bush regime. Posted by: Mike on February 3, 2008 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

However you try to define "public life", don't you think that Hillary, at 60, is going to turn out to have a longer record than Obama, who's 46?

Hillary supporters are beyond parody at this point. Trying to talk about her years as First Lady as if they count toward "experience" was too absurd to get away with. Not to mention that as First Lady, her big claim to "experience" was that she killed some very real chances at health care reform.

So now they generalize it to "public life".

Barbra Streisand has more years of "public life" than Hillary. Too bad she didn't run for office, too.

Posted by: bobb on February 3, 2008 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

Speaking of Hillary's experience, here's what Brad Delong had to say about Hillary's handling of health care reform:

http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/2003_archives/001600.html

My two cents' worth--and I think it is the two cents' worth of everybody who worked for the Clinton Administration health care reform effort of 1993-1994--is that Hillary Rodham Clinton needs to be kept very far away from the White House for the rest of her life. Heading up health-care reform was the only major administrative job she has ever tried to do. And she was a complete flop at it. She had neither the grasp of policy substance, the managerial skills, nor the political smarts to do the job she was then given. And she wasn't smart enough to realize that she was in over her head and had to get out of the Health Care Czar role quickly.

So when senior members of the economic team said that key senators like Daniel Patrick Moynihan would have this-and-that objection, she told them they were disloyal. When junior members of the economic team told her that the Congressional Budget Office would say such-and-such, she told them (wrongly) that her conversations with CBO head Robert Reischauer had already fixed that. When long-time senior hill staffers told her that she was making a dreadful mistake by fighting with rather than reaching out to John Breaux and Jim Cooper, she told them that they did not understand the wave of popular political support the bill would generate. And when substantive objections were raised to the plan by analysts calculating the moral hazard and adverse selection pressures it would put on the nation's health-care system...

Hillary Rodham Clinton has already flopped as a senior administrative official in the executive branch--the equivalent of an Undersecretary. Perhaps she will make a good senator. But there is no reason to think that she would be anything but an abysmal president.

Posted by DeLong at June 7, 2003 10:15 PM


Posted by: bobb on February 3, 2008 at 2:57 PM | PERMALINK

We already have the Joshua generation, led by slaughterer-in-chief GWB.
Joshua is most notable, IMHO, for (on the command of god) killing everyone non-Israelite he and his minions could get their hands on. This seems to match GWB's vision for the world which apparently involves killing every non-American he can.

Posted by: Maynard Handley on February 3, 2008 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

Obama is on his first term as Senator, Hillary on her second term, she was reelected.

When Hillary worked on health insurance she had not much of chance against the insurance industry, things weren't bad enough.

He is so new at it he did not know which button to push to vote. And he believes it will help to be nice to the insurance industry.

Posted by: Renee on February 3, 2008 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

Somehow, I don't understand how Nixon ushered in an "idealist generation." This is academic bullshit.

Posted by: tomeck on February 3, 2008 at 3:24 PM | PERMALINK

If you are interested in this type of generational stuff the only thing you need to read is the book "Generations - A History to Americas Future". It was written about 1992 and everything that has happened since, from a generational standpoint, has been foretold in this book. Seriously.

Posted by: DJ on February 3, 2008 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK

Ah, Kevin.

You forget the most epocal election in our nations history: 1980.

In that election, reams of the population were fed up with the red tape, heavy-handedness and over-taxation of Washintgon. It took a special someone, someone with the stature of a statesman, a man named Ronald Reagen, to beat back the rot and bureaucracy. That's the real pivotal moment in our nations history.

Posted by: egbert on February 3, 2008 at 4:20 PM | PERMALINK

Ah egbert:

And we ended up with a legacy of debt, pollution and funding of terrorist groups, like the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, thanks to Saint Ronnie. What a worthless toad.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on February 3, 2008 at 5:58 PM | PERMALINK

One other thing - The election of 2008 will be the first one in America history where the winner will inherit TWO wars, thanks to the Nimrod from Crawford!

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on February 3, 2008 at 6:00 PM | PERMALINK

Actually this formulation makes a kind of overall sense, but not the way these guys are interpreting it. "Joshua" is not the idealistic leader; that was "Moses." In our generation, I guess "Moses" would have to be Reagan, the idealistic leader whose (crackpot) ideas have run their course. "Joshua" is the practical, pragmatic leader who cleans up the mess and makes government effective again. (I went to Sunday school, so I know about these things.) To me, that description fits Hillary Rodham Clinton more than Barack Obama. Obama fits that role only for people who think the reason Washington doesn't work is because the Republicans and Democrats are so stubborn about getting their childish wishes. The people thing all we need to fix Washington is an unblemished idealistic orator who reaches across the party lines and gets everyone to play nice. The end result of celebrity journalism for the TV generation.

Posted by: Brownell on February 3, 2008 at 6:27 PM | PERMALINK

"Joshua" is the practical, pragmatic leader who cleans up the mess and makes government effective again. (I went to Sunday school, so I know about these things.) To me, that description fits Hillary Rodham Clinton more than Barack Obama.

But can you say why? She was anything but practical and pragmatic when she tried to push health insurance reform. She was just the opposite.

For the wars she would inherit, she was (until the campaign started) a supporter of strategies that were anything but practical and pragmatic. Worse than the opposite, she supported strategies that were idiotic and deeply damaging.


Obama fits that role only for people who think the reason Washington doesn't work is because the Republicans and Democrats are so stubborn about getting their childish wishes. The people thing all we need to fix Washington is an unblemished idealistic orator who reaches across the party lines and gets everyone to play nice. The end result of celebrity journalism for the TV generation.

That's what Hillary supporters wish were true about Obama and his supporters.

I think he'll get things done because he has better plans. On health care, for example, Hillary has a plan that is a non-starter, a wonkish mess. "If you can't afford health insurance, our solution is to force you to buy it and garnish your wages if you don't. Vote for me!" Obama's plan is less sweeping, but more practical and pragmatic. More realistic (at least within the cowardly constraints that all the candidates adopted of trying to say what they would do without uttering the word "taxes").

I think he'll get things done because he's less polarizing. Look at what went wrong with Hillary's first attempt at health care reform if you want to know why she's polarizing. It's not just because the wingbots attack her, as her supporters like to pretend.
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/2003_archives/001600.html

I think he'll get things done because he's inspiring. Hillary supporters try to turn this into a bad thing. Or they try to pretend that it's the only thing he's got going for him. But it isn't. And as the icing on the cake, it's a very good thing.


Posted by: bobb on February 3, 2008 at 6:48 PM | PERMALINK

Given that people tend to get born every year, and tend to live for the next 70 or more, the notion that a new "generation" comes around every 20 years or so is prima facie idiotic. Obviously there are periods of history where certain ideologies prevail, but these ideologies are always a mix of older and younger people sharing ideas across a wide range of birth years.

Posted by: Tim Morris on February 3, 2008 at 8:06 PM | PERMALINK

Higgins: I am surprised that "Moses" attitude isn't beginning to rankle the more mainstream, moderate folks.

It rankles me. Though I don't know how mainstream or moderate I am, it's the one thing that draws me up short every time I find myself leaning toward Obama. I have a deep suspicion of magical thinking. It's a trap of our own making. I like Obama, but every time I'm confronted with that stuff, it reminds me of Dave Chapelle's Magic Negro.

Posted by: Sharon on February 3, 2008 at 8:30 PM | PERMALINK

Thank you, Kevin, for not joining the Borg.

Posted by: wilder on February 3, 2008 at 8:32 PM | PERMALINK

Tom Stewart: I'm working on a unified theory of Hillary Clinton myself...

LOL. Tom, put me on your mailing list. I want to read your paper when it comes out.

Posted by: Sharon on February 3, 2008 at 8:34 PM | PERMALINK

frankly0: Have you so lost your objectivity that you can't see that, in terms of experience, Hillary wins? If you want to say it isn't as long or impressive as she makes it out to be, that's one thing. But to suggest that it isn't longer is just absurd on its face.

Frank, you might have ended that thusly: But to suggest that it isn't longer is just absurd on its face, fool. Paul can take it.

Posted by: Sharon on February 3, 2008 at 8:38 PM | PERMALINK

Rob Salkowitz: It's not farfetched to suggest that a generational reaction is about due, and that Obama would govern as a civic fence-mender in a post-crisis era

Intriguing observation...an excellent place to start a discussion.

Posted by: Sharon on February 3, 2008 at 8:44 PM | PERMALINK

bobb: Barbra Streisand has more years of "public life" than Hillary. Too bad she didn't run for office, too.

PaulB, you have my permission to bash this person without mercy.

Posted by: Sharon on February 3, 2008 at 8:48 PM | PERMALINK

But if you're in the market for an abstract and academic sounding argument about historical inevitability to prove that Barack Obama is The One, look no further.

This sounds perfect for PaulB. Oh my God! Winograd (that sounds like a type, eh?) is the Oracle!!

"Members of idealist generations embroil the nation in heated debates on divisive social issues as they try to enact their own personal morality and causes through the political process."

Their own personal morality, or the morality of very broad groups that may even be ground-breaking?

Well, I'm not going to wade into this muck.

Posted by: Swan on February 3, 2008 at 10:08 PM | PERMALINK

If either Obama or Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, is there anybody with a lick of common sense who believes they will win by a landslide?

Let me match your assertion with an assertion - sure, I'll go out on that limb. Both would make good executives but at least 1 of 2 has a chance for an era-changing landslide.

This Joshua/Moses stuff is crap though.

(and here I'm still going to have to listen to stories about the '72 Dolphins... within 35 seconds of an end to them!)

Posted by: snicker-snack (alack a lick of common sense) on February 3, 2008 at 10:23 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks Kevin, a lot of people are aching for a Matrix parody and although the writer's strike continues I think Colbert could probably handle it single handedly.

Posted by: B on February 3, 2008 at 11:14 PM | PERMALINK

They are right in arguing about generational theories, but their arguement in inaccurate, and viciously right-wing. Firstly, Lincoln was a Transcedentalist, a memeber of a prophet generation, like the boomers. Hence the reason for the apocalypse of the Civil War; both sides thought God was with them, just like Bush and the Kennedys think they have righteousness on their side.

Also, it is a very right-wing narrative, because it claims that my generation is not ideological. Excuse me; What do you call support of plurality, diversity, assimilation of immigrants, and support of the Welfare State? Well, care to guess. That's right; hard core liberalism. Hell, we are to the left of nearly the entire Democratic Party. Only John Edwards, Ted Kennedy, Bernie Sanders, Russ Feingold and a few others are on our level; the rest of the party is down right conservative compared to us.

Seriously, the Washington Post is now just as right wing and spouting GOP propaganda as Faux News, except that Faux news has no pretense to legitimacy.

Posted by: Alex on February 4, 2008 at 12:09 AM | PERMALINK

Moses? Joshua? Apparently these idiots are unfamiliar with the terms "conservative" and "liberal." If their idea of idealists are Nixon and McKinley and they think Lincoln was underfocussed on morality, there's really nothing to say. Flush and forget.

Posted by: calling all toasters on February 4, 2008 at 1:40 AM | PERMALINK

So what do I think of the--sac theory, was it? Well, thank goodness we're going to be rid of those activist no-goodniks who have been such trouble makers since 1968. If only we'd been free of their silly ideas about justice and decency the Reagan Revolution could have done SO MUCH MORE. And the same goes for Bushes I and II. Taking care of government institutions, tending them, nurturing them--it warms my heart. Finally, hope for the continuation of the Bush Legacy. We shall live in the warm embrace of the Republican Vaterland.

Posted by: Anon on February 4, 2008 at 2:25 AM | PERMALINK

Bravo, Anon!

Posted by: Sharon on February 4, 2008 at 8:31 AM | PERMALINK

Yeah. The idea that a new guy is going to come to town and through the sheer force of his exciting newness and rhetoic change the way things have been done in DC forever is maddingly childish. My question: if this were possible, why hasn't Sen. Obama done something like this in the three years he's been a Senator? Is he saving it up or something?

Posted by: Pat on February 4, 2008 at 9:32 AM | PERMALINK

In 630 AD, it was called the Mohammed generation.

Posted by: Brojo on February 4, 2008 at 10:37 AM | PERMALINK

Barak Obama IS the one. He can stop bullets with his mind!

Posted by: IMU on February 4, 2008 at 10:46 AM | PERMALINK

Here is a bit on passing the torch to a new generation:

Just for the record: Barack Obama is just 14 years younger than Hillary Clinton. That is not a "generation" (except maybe in some southern states), and not enough time to have created a brand new way of thinking. This constant talk about passing the torch from the boomers as they head to that great Woodstock in the sky is mighty damned premature. We're still fighting the same old battles against racism, sexism and economic exploitation.....

I doubt that harangues to crowds will get the job done in any meaningful sense. It may be a 'feel good' movement, but where's the beef?

Posted by: Mike on February 4, 2008 at 12:04 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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