The mainstream media analysis of Beto O’Rourke’s decision to kill his campaign is evidence that we now live in separate dimensions and speak different languages, defined mainly by generation. On the surface, it would be hard to poke even a pinprick into most of what was said by boomer analysts about why O’Rourke is out.
Money machine ran dry. No distinctive banner to wave on programs. Organization not tight enough. Failed to ignite in debates. Didn’t find a way to beat back the Vanity Fair rich kid slam.
True, so true. And so monumentally irrelevant. In fact, you could drive an 18-wheeler through the big hole in the center of all that. O’Rourke never happened for those kinds of inside-baseball, 20th-century, old paradigm reasons. And even though his presidential campaign is dead, he’s coming back, again and again.
Maybe the best path into it is one I resist for obvious reasons –- the “OK, boomer” thing. I am talking about the anathema that people like me, boomers, have become to people who are Gen X and younger.
The bible for this point of view is Bruce Cannon Gibney’s 2017 book, A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America, which I have not read. I did read a good Q&A with Gibney on Vox, which I believe fulfills my duty and is about as far as I intend to go.
My problem is that I agree with so much of what he says, but I still would like to poke him in the eye with my thumb. He has this worship of the World War II-sters, the so-called greatest generation, which I can’t help suspecting is based more on Tom Hanks than a reading of history. He kind of skips over the racism, the gluttonous consumerism, the jingoistic nationalism and, hate to say it, the wars.
Ah, but is that all just geezer talk? He’s so right about so many other things, mainly the silver spoon syndrome. Here we were, born into life’s big easy. Our parents had mediated capitalism after the Great Depression. They had defeated Hitler, which is sort of hard to cavil with.
And then, if you were born here, in America, there was a whole lot more unearned good luck. The European and Asian economies were decimated. All of our factories over here were still up and running, glutted with resources. And if we didn’t have enough workers, we could get them here by the boatload.
We boomers were born onto one of the longest, hottest economic booms in history, and we thought we were geniuses. We thought we were especially genius if we were white. And you know what? None of that was our fault. That was how the great croupier in the sky threw down our cards.
What the anti-boomer sentiment gets right about us is our lifelong deplorable failure to come to grips with just being lucky. Not genius. We failed to grasp that luck like that doesn’t last forever. It runs out.
Where Gibney nails us is on our feckless refusal to recognize that our luck ran out, somewhere mid- to early-'90s, I guess, and things from that point on got harder. We don’t really do harder.
His most salient evidence is about debt and taxation. I have some quibbles with the debt part. Gibney points out that the ratio of federal debt to gross domestic product was 35% when he was born 41 years ago. It’s 103% now and rising.
But when I was born at the beginning of the post-war boom, the ratio of federal debt to GDP was 119%. Many factors drive that balance up and down.
Gibney says, however, that while the national debt was climbing, we boomers came up with the distinctly sub-genius idea of cutting taxes to keep our pockets jangling. He’s right. We have insisted that the way to reduce the debt is to cut taxes, which basically means we don’t give a damn about the damn debt as long as we have money in our pockets, and we will invent whatever kind of Looney Tunes, self-deluding, voodoo economic theory it takes to get out of paying what we owe.
The physically unavoidable evidence of what we owe, as Gibney observes, is the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. All our lives we ran up and down those highways and over those bridges. We’re the ones who wore out those sewers, and it was our job to keep them in good repair so that they could be passed on. We didn’t do it. We skated.
That’s just the part we can’t avoid noticing, because we keep stubbing our toes on it. Maybe more egregious though not physically visible is the debt we have piled on our own children as the cost of upward mobility, which, excuse me, I thought was the American dream. Or was the dream just swimming pools?
Many of us attended state colleges and universities during the boom years where we paid a rate that young people today would regard as free. Even though we lived comfortably as a result, few of us have amassed the kind of wealth that, in and of itself, would shield our offspring from economic hazard. So the one thing we could have passed on to them was what was bequeathed to us — free or very cheap higher education. Instead, many of our own progeny stagger off the graduation stage already burdened by student debt equivalent to our own biggest house mortgages.
Then you have the recent renaissance of white nationalism. And we haven’t even gotten to the part about the planet burning up. And maybe the younger generations are beginning to think we suck?
Are we surprised? No, not me. I still get pissed when they say that really irritating “OK, boomer” thing, but that’s just my geezer temper talking. I won’t be surprised when they load us all onto trucks and take us to Arizona for political re-education. I’m thinking about compiling a little black book of all my boomer friends who are way worse boomers than me, so I can trade their names for shower privileges.
In maybe his most devastating point, Gibney observes that the boomer response to everything, including racism and the planet burning up, has been what we boomers insist on calling our rugged individualism, which we think we learned from Ronald Reagan. The individualism thing is like tax lowering. It’s completely inchoate and illogical, and what it really says is that we don’t give a damn and nobody can make us. (And, as an aside, if our national moral exemplars really have to be actors, I’ll go with Tom Hanks any day over Ronald Reagan, thank you.)
Two things I heard from O’Rourke really stuck in my mind. One was a speech about being from El Paso. He said growing up right across the border from Mexico and living among two commonly spoken languages was a rich inheritance, a wonderful asset that gave him a better understanding of humanity and how the world really works. This was in the context of a president of the United States calling Mexicans rapists and criminals.
The second was, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”
We boomers, typically, focused on the AR-15 and AK-47 part of the sentence. The part we should have been worried about was the “Hell, yes.”
The Beto O’Rourke message and his appeal from the beginning are moral assertion. He was never speaking the talking-head argot of contemporary politics, the TV debate gotcha lines or the poll-driven promises. Instead, he consistently vows to bring disruptive moral change, a new way for human beings to think about being alive and living with each other on this planet.
To the extent nationalism is calling people from other nations sub-human, then O’Rourke’s El Paso Doctrine attacks the value of that nationalism. And the "Hell, yes" thing. The most important message there is not the guns. It’s the hell yes. It’s about anger, because patience and forbearance run out, too, at a certain point, and that point is coming on fast, kicked along by climate change and race.
I think they over-blame us boomers, these younger ones, mainly because we are the only generation they can see in their rearview mirrors. Sorry to be a broken record, but the best antidote for that is history books. We didn’t invent consumerism, pollution, racism or war.
But I also think we don’t blame ourselves anywhere near enough for the mess we are leaving them. How many times was the truth right in front of us? Can we even remember? Forget about the planet burning up for a minute, just look at the money.
We all remember subprime loans in the early 2000s, right? The idea was that you could lend hundreds of thousands of dollars to people who had no wild prayer of ever being able to pay back a nickel, and it would all work out great. Warren Buffet called it “financial weapons of mass destruction.” We shrugged, said, “Eh,” and blew up the economy anyway.
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I hope that, especially here in Texas, we also remember that we had done exactly the same thing just 10 years earlier in the savings and loan crisis. Same idea: money grows on trees; loans are a joke; water’s fine, everybody dive in.
But how many people remember the FHA scandal another decade earlier? Vast stretches of American cities were reduced to rubble by a federal loan policy designed to finance white flight. Same idea. Loans weren’t really loans, and repayment was a joke.
And, by the way, all three iterations — FHA scandal, savings and loans, subprime — were created under Republican regimes, by the side of the aisle that is supposed to be our more businesslike and responsible aspect. Hate to think what the other aspect is. Well, I guess I sort of do know that one. Mind if we change the subject?
That’s the stuff Beto is about. It’s why we boomers couldn’t understand a word he said. It’s why his campaign failed. It’s why he will be back. With a vengeance.