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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

July 15: Ideology of the Old

The sudden and fateful separation of the two parties by the variable of age has created a lot of speculation about the future of a GOP that could literally die out some day. But it’s not a generational accident, as I noted briefly today at Washington Monthly:

Matt Yglesias riffs a bit today on a theme he’s developed in the past: the price Republicans are paying for the old-white-folks “base” that is so helpful to them in midterm elections:

There’s something very oldsterish about contemporary conservative politics. The constant bickering about Ronald Reagan is very odd to anyone too young to have any particular recollection of the Reagan years. Calling a group of people “Beyoncé Voters” as an insult is weird. Some of this oldsterism is just ticks, but some of it has policy implications. The sort of budgetary priorities that call for huge cuts in all domestic spending, except no cuts at all for anyone born before 1959 is kind of weird. The huge freakout over New York City starting a bicycle program last summer was bizarre. It’s easy to imagine a political party that’s broadly favorable to low taxes and light regulation without sharing this particular set of ticks.

That’s all true, but there’s something a bit more profound going on in the conservative “base” that makes this “oldersterism” so evergreen. The cultural wing of the Right has been for years in active revolt against much of what’s happened to social norms since the mid-twentieth century. You could make the argument, in fact (I’ve been making it for nearly a decade), that the original sin of the Christian Right is to confuse the Will of God with pre-mid-twentieth century family structure and gender relations (and a generally authoritarian civic life). Now the “constitutional conservatives” (most of whom have roots in the Christian Right) have come along and made the same culture the eternal measurement not just of divine providence but of national identity. This is “oldersterism” that’s more than a demographic accident; it’s a powerfully-held ideology.

As anyone familiar with the twentieth-century concept of “the politics of cultural despair” remembers, threats to “eternal” cultural patterns are felt intensely and can produce quite literally reactionary political movements that can sometimes jump the rails into dangerous extremism. That’s worth remembering when thinking about today’s increasingly radical Right.

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