Obama As Millennialist Aspiration

We live in an age of Millennial aspirations. 

Everywhere you look you can see signs of widely disparate groups of people who believe they are living in an age where established norms will be destroyed by this or that newly arisen force.  This can take the usual religious overtone, as witnessed by the Left Behind devotees, but we are increasingly seeing non-religious forms of Millennialism play out even in the main stream press.

In my local paper today I was treated to a dead serious take by the AP on survivalists up in the mountains:

On the PeakOil.com Web site, where upward of 800 people gathered on recent evenings, believers engage in a debate about what kind of world awaits.

Some members argue there will be no financial crash, but a slow slide into harder times. Some believe the federal government will respond to the loss of energy security with a clampdown on personal freedoms. Others simply don't trust that the government can maintain basic services in the face of an energy crisis.

The powers that be, they've determined, will be largely powerless to stop what is to come.

Determined to guard themselves from potentially harsh times ahead, Lynn-Marie and her husband have already planted an orchard of about 40 trees and built a greenhouse on their 7 1/2 acres. They have built their own irrigation system. They've begun to raise chickens and pigs, and they've learned to slaughter them.

The couple have gotten rid of their TV and instead have been reading dusty old books published in their grandparents' era, books that explain the simpler lifestyle they are trying to revive. Lynn-Marie has been teaching herself how to make soap. Her husband, concerned about one day being unable to get medications, has been training to become an herbalist.

By 2012, they expect to power their property with solar panels, and produce their own meat, milk and vegetables. When things start to fall apart, they expect their children and grandchildren will come back home and help them work the land. She envisions a day when the family may have to decide whether to turn needy people away from their door.

"People will be unprepared," she said. "And we can imagine marauding hordes."

So can Peter Laskowski. Living in a woodsy area outside of Montpelier, Vt., the 57-year-old retiree has become the local constable and a deputy sheriff for his county, as well as an emergency medical technician.

"I decided there was nothing like getting the training myself to deal with insurrections, if that's a possibility," said the former executive recruiter.  

While you are contemplating who would win the iron cage death-match between "marauding hordes" and "executive recruiters," notice how this type of thing has come a long way from the "raving loon" territory it would have been consigned to just a few years ago.  As a society we seem to be more willing to entertain such Millennial fantasies, whether it be the belief in "peak oil" or in some "anthropogenic global warming tipping point," that will in effect destroy the Western world as we know it.

Now, part of this might be baby boomer nostalgia for the days when the nuclear holocaust was always due "any day now, so you'd better learn to Duck & Cover," and while it is certainly a horrible prospect it did assign a level of importance to the generation(s) destined to live through it.  Sure, they actually lived lives of suburban contentment, but Jimmy's dad down the street was building a bomb shelter in the basement which was something the boring schmucks growing up in the 1910's or 1920's never got to witness.  So, the baby boomers considered themselves to be the first (and only) generation living in a state of near perpetual existential angst.  As such they created a mythology of their own "specialness" that seems destined to govern the broadcasting decisions of PBS for decades to come. 

So, it shouldn't come as a great surprise that such folk view damn near everything that effects them as being "unprecedented" in some important way.  For that reason, history has no lessons to teach them.  "Those are the old rules!" they protest, "Everything is different now."  And how exactly do they know that?  Well, it seems to be taken as axiomatic.

It also seems to be a belief the boomers have successfully transfered to the present college age generation who seem similarly convinced of their own "specialness."  Take the efforts of E. J. Dionne:

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. predicted in his commencement address to Wake Forest University’s 2008 graduating class that they are part of a group that will become the next “greatest generation.”

Dionne’s comments garnered an enthusiastic response from the crowd of about 15,000 people

They were willing to applaud praise of themselves for their soon to be revealed greatness?  How noble and selfless of them!

Dionne is at least up front about his Millennialism, and he enlists that great prophet, uh…I mean president, FDR for support:

Dionne explained that he drew the title of his address, “The Reform Generation and History’s Mysterious Cycle,” from a speech Franklin D. Roosevelt gave at the 1936 Democratic National Convention, at which Roosevelt said “There is a mysterious cycle in human events.  To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

“I believe those words apply more truly to your generation than to any other since FDR addressed them to what came to be known as the greatest generation,” Dionne said.

Yes, the generation that was forced to live through the horrors of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl is the perfect analogy for this generation which was forced to live through the horrors of Paris Hilton and Brittany Spears. 

One is left with the impression that much of the baby boomer "specialness" is little more than a defensive reflex to hearing their parents drone on about how rough they had it during the depression or WWII.  The historical truth is moments like the Great Depression or World War II are unique in their import and their impact.  Not every generation is going to see the like.  (I wonder if the generation that came immediately after the 30 Years War in Europe reacted the same way.) 

So you are left with a group of people whose very self worth is bound up with an overwhelming need for a heroic quality.  Thus, their wants and desires are not just the expression of their ego, it is the spirit of the age!  And, it isn't just any chronological age. It marks, so the good little Hegelians tell us, the beginning of a new epoch in humanity, for good or ill.  Its a psychology tailor made for Millennial thought.

Such thinking dominates not only in the desire for catastrophism of various kinds, but also in more mundane political considerations.  Historian Sean Wilentz picks up a good deal of this in the current beliefs infusing Obama supporters:

With her overwhelming victory in Kentucky on May 20, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has completed her sweep of the crucial primary states adjoining the Ohio River — and the fight for the Democratic nomination has entered its final phases. Having picked up a net gain of nearly 140,000 votes between Kentucky and Oregon, Clinton is now well poised to win the Puerto Rico primary on June 1 – and clinch a majority in this year's popular vote, even if the disputed returns from Michigan are discounted. Under those pressures, the Barack Obama campaign and its sympathizers have begun to articulate much more clearly what they mean by their vague slogan of "change" – nothing less than usurping the historic Democratic Party, dating back to the age of Andrew Jackson, by rejecting its historic electoral core: white workers and rural dwellers in the Middle Atlantic and border states.

Without a majority of those voters, the Democrats have, since the party's inception in the 1820s, been incapable of winning the presidency. The Obama advocates declare, though, that we have entered an entirely new political era. It is not only possible but also desirable, they say, for Democrats to win by turning away from those whom "progressive" pundits and bloggers disdain variously as "Nascar man," "uneducated," "low information" whites, "rubes, fools, and hate-mongers" who live in the nation's "shitholes." [emphasis added]

It is this fervent belief that the rules of the political game will change for them merely because of the force of their generational personality that is driving the Obama moment.  It is essentially the same idea that enabled the boomers to walk blindly into the Democratic electoral disasters of 1968 and 1972.  It is also the same force which precludes Obama supporters from learning from that history in the first place. 

Wilentz sums it up nicely:

In every presidential election they have won, the Democrats have solidified their historic link to white workers, not dismissed them. Obama and the champions of a new party coalition appear to think that everything has suddenly changed, simply because of the force of their own desires. In any event, Obama had shown no ability thus far to attract the one constituency that has always spelled the difference between victory and defeat for the Democratic Party. The party must now decide whether to go along with Obama and renounce its own heritage — and tempt the political fates.

The fact is Millennialism is about embracing opposites.  Just like their Chistian analogues, they not only accept a positive view of their destiny (the "Reformist Future" as "Second Coming"), but they also embrace a negative one akin to Armageddon.  For many of these zealots, they would rather walk with righteous fervor into an electoral buzz-saw than bow to the practical necessities of political reality.  Ordinary people would take such repudiation as a signal that their beliefs were misplaced, but we are not dealing with ordinary people.

They will tell you so themselves.   

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9 Responses to Obama As Millennialist Aspiration

  1. Bleepless says:

    If the catastrophists really believed that everything is going to crash, they would not limit themselves to chickens and tomatoes.  If food is going to get scarce, they will not keep the hungry hordes away by thinking green thoughts.  They will need firearms, at the very least.  So either they are suicidally unrealistic or they are just play-acting.  Either way, they are disgusting.

  2. Mwalimu Daudi says:

    Bleepless, most of the catastrophists act like a collapse of civilization is some kind of Hollywood "B" movie where it is all special effects and thrilling music and no one really gets hurt. That’s why they make weird choices about what would be needed to survive.
     
    Most of the lame Hollywood attempts to depict post-Apocalypse life (like Mad Max and Jericho) almost never mention the ravaging effects of disease and accidents. It’s not the deranged maniacs dressed in rags and who ride motorcycles that you have to worry the most about, it cholera, pneumonia, influenza, and accidents that are your deadliest enemies.

  3. Former Republican says:

    There are strong rational arguments to be made both for anthropogenic climate change and for near-term peak oil. (On the latter, see the WSJ article on May 22 about the leaked International Energy Agency report.) IMHO, both are highly probable. But “highly probable” does not mean the same thing as “certain.” And neither problem would plausibly bring down civilization. Just for example, Germany in WWII kept up production pretty well notwithstanding a severe shortage of petroleum, a point I’ve never seen discussed by peak oil enthusiasts.

    Your broader point is interesting. The prospect of Armageddon, Biblical or secular, seems to appeal to something in the American psyche. I don’t understand why, and I’ve never seen a satisfying explanation. It used to be pretty much confined to the right side of the political spectrum. Now you find it on the left as well, as your post points out.

  4. Actually, I just stopped by to wish you a great Memorial Day, but I’m pleased to report that this is an awesome essay – and believe me, you’re hitting the nail pretty hard.
    Thanks and be a peace today.

  5. martian says:

    The catastrophists are being fueled by popular culture. Just go to the History Channel and see how many shows there are about Apocalypse and Armageddon. They even ran a special recently about all the "signs" and prophecies that the world will end in the year 2012 (on Dec. 21 if you believe the Mayan calendar). There have been whole books dedicated to proving this as a reality. This tends to keep the nutcases frothing at the mouth.

  6. Rich Horton says:

    My larger point is that there is a reason why various catastrophe scenarios, from the kinda plausible (e.g. peak oil or AGW) to the really lunatic (e.g. the Mayan calendar), find ready mainstream audiences.  It feeds the vivid fantasies of folks who want to believe that the age is headed for disaster, unless of course everyone adopts their particular moral principles…then we may all be saved.  (Gee, thanks.)
     
    Nutcases have always and will always be with us, but this is much more widespread I’m afraid.

  7. North of 49 says:

    A thoughtful essay. I agree with your view about the potential impact on the political process, but I am not sure the cause, millenarianism is unique to this confluence of events. There has always been a strong streak of Millenarianism in the United States.  I believe the standard work on this was Cohen- Pursuit of the Millennium.
    It may also be arguable that exceptionalism of the boomer generation was born out of affluence and economic growth. Our parents survived the war, depression, and we were the beneficiaries of unfettered opportunity  and exceptionalism like millenarianism has  always been an American trait.

  8. Bleepless says:

    In some box somewhere, I have a pamphlet proving, beyond any doubt at all, that the world will end in 1927.

  9. Former Republican says:

    North of 49: Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millenium is about millenarian movements in Europe in the Middle Ages, not the United States. But it’s a brilliant and fascinating book and certainly illuminates millenarian movements anywhere, anytime.

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