Ever take a look at hair styles of the 1970s? Or the clothes?
Maybe this will jog your memory. It’s a picture of me (the sullen one at the right) taken with my father and brother in 1976.
My dad at that time was 56, close to the age I am now. He was a conservative man, a small businessman. Note the leisure suit. Note the long hair on all of us. My brother, then 13, seems to be sporting what later came to be known as an “anglo,” a sort of white man’s afro, a round, curly confection of hair which at the time, I believe, was a sort of dirty blond.
We were dressed this way because that was what culture dictated at the time. This was after 8 years of Republican political dominance, which would be interrupted only briefly by Watergate and the Carter Administration.
America’s politics began moving solidly to the right in the late 1960s, and continued moving to the right through the George W. Bush Administration. The turn has just now come, and it’s tentative.
The same thing happened (ironically) at the dawn of the liberal era. All those movies featuring elegant people in ballrooms, dressed to the nines, existed against the backdrop of a nation in rags.
Or go back another 40 years. All the cultural touchstones of the “Ragtime” era were in direct opposition to what was really going on. The long dresses, the foppish hats, the attraction of opera, all were in opposition to the growing progressive and populist politics of the time.
Sure the Populists lost. They were hammered. Yet
William Jennings Bryan remained a very popular figure right up to his death. Mencken’s “booboisie” were populist in outlook, sometimes (not always) layered with progressive pretensions.
Or consider the Civil War. Did you ever ask yourself, why did the culture
of the north come to view the South as “the lost cause,” noble enough
in spirit to be canonized by “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the
Wind,” while the culture of the north from that time was consigned to
history’s dustbin? This during an era where the South gradually raised again the American flag and the country became more united, north and south?
As a new political thesis arrives on the scene, culture leans against it. In this case, culture becomes more conservative. And you can see that in popular views on social issues, which have (surprise) become slightly more conservative.
Culture leans against politics. Culture is, by its nature, counter-cultural.
This is a story the news media does not see, because it is embedded so deeply in the culture. They see the culture change and think, “ah ha, people love those teabaggers,” “they love Palin, “they hate the Democrats.”
That’s nostalgia, people. That’s an extreme reaction to what has been, in fact, a wrenching, long lasting change in the direction of our politics.
There is a reason for this. First, when your side is politically dominant you get busy in other ways, in cultural ways. Second, when your side is politically weak you seek a safe place in which to express your disaffection, and culture fills the bill. Third, there is always a sort of buyer’s remorse at work in politics. It’s how we keep change in the other direction always at the ready, even when we know we’re going down a different path.
This is especially true in the years shortly after a Thesis takes hold. Affinity for a contrasting culture becomes extreme. But if the new Thesis succeeds, this abates, and what abides are some identifying markers, remnants which remain long after the people who use them move back into the dominant culture.
Listen to Kid Charlemagne, released by Steely Dan in 1976:
Now your patrons have all left you in the red
Your low rent friends are dead
This life can be very strange
All those day-glo freaks who used to paint their face
They’ve joined the human race, some things will never change
What happens, what always happens, is you start with extremism, an extreme reaction to the new politics. You then move through time toward mere affectation. Those who identify with extremism are slowly marginalized, and real, lasting political power lies in this power to marginalize.
The last thing to switch is the culture. The movie Rocky is important because it reflected this change, conservative values triumphing in defeat against an Ali-like champion. The liberal view of that movie won’t come out for another 7 years, but watch for it.