Boomers: Blinded by idealism, unaware of their dreadful mistakes

Boomers: Blinded by idealism, unaware of their dreadful mistakes. By R.R. Reno.

With the exception of Jimmy Carter, who was at the time a midshipman at the Naval Academy, every president from Dwight Eisenhower to the first George Bush had served in active duty during World War II. … The leading figures of this cohort were not cocksure but confident. Their youthful experiences gave them a strong sense of how precarious peace and prosperity are. They also knew that life often involves hard choices and painful compromises. This truth is especially evident in times of war, when futile measures and great waste of life and ­resources are plain to see.

Reinhold Niebuhr … criticized what he called the Renaissance view of man as perfectible, and he argued for the biblical view, which he deemed more in line with an older, tragic sensibility than with the modern, progressive outlook.

According to the ancient Greeks, tragedy arises because heroic action always comes at a cost. The best and most honorable sentiments catapult us ­into impossible situations. Niebuhr adapts this view to a Christian perspective. He observes that moral idealism, though pristine in theory, disarms us in the face of human sinfulness and the persistence of evil. In the service of grand ambitions to “end all wars” or ensure “equity,” we are tempted to deny reality. As a consequence, at best, we fail to do what good can actually be done. …

1992, the year the boomers came to power:

In 1992, Bill Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush. Clinton’s presidency inaugurated a string of Baby Boomers in high office — not just in the White House, but in investment banks, corporations, media, and universities. With Clinton and his cohort came a changed moral outlook, one quite different from the tragic view Reinhold Niebuhr commended.

For college-educated Boomers, Vietnam epitomized the immoral methods used to promote American interests during the Cold War. The ­uncompromising moralism of the anti-war movement played an important role in the Boomers’ formation. It is telling that Baby Boomer presidents kept their distance from the U.S. military. Although Clinton, Bush, and Obama had distinct views and pursued different policies, over their combined twenty-four years in power, they all embodied their generation’s ambivalence about American power. …

The Clinton administration marked the arrival of globalism as a win-win justification for American hegemony. We were not an empire. On the contrary, we were the neutral umpire in a world order knitted together by commerce, overseen by international agencies like the WTO, and given moral luster by a commitment to human rights. American global leadership (always “leadership,” never dominance) would lift millions out of poverty, secure human rights, promote freedom, put an end to great-power competition, and make war obsolete. …

This fusion of what’s best for America with what’s best for the world was intoxicating for Baby Boomers. …

Baby Boomers were intoxicated by the fusion of hard responsibilities with the most exalted moral idealism. An intoxicated person has blurred vision and a tenuous grasp on reality, and he often makes bad judgments.

One need not be a foreign policy expert to recognize that the last thirty years have been marked by bad judgments. Our extended adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are obvious examples. Our engagement with China is another. In the 1990s, an end-of-history mentality convinced our leadership class that giving China preferential treatment in trade would lead to the evolution of that country into a liberal democratic partner. Events proved otherwise. Our policies over the last three decades have created a powerful adversary. …

Baby Boomer leaders, enamored of their moralism, have blundered because they lack a tragic sensibility. They refuse to acknowledge the realities that always limit what can be achieved, and they shrink from the often ugly, even cruel compromises that are necessary in a fallen world. …

A similar anti-tragic moralism has characterized our approaches to economic and cultural matters over the last thirty years. …

Enlightened self interest of the idealistic baby boomers:

Our center-left establishment has embraced “creativity” as the great gift that the winners in the new globalized and knowledge-based economy bestow on us all. Tech moguls are not plutocrats; they are “innovators.” A good history of the transformation of the Democratic ­Party into the political home of the richest and best educated Americans has yet to be written. When this story is told, the progressive strategies for redefining getting rich as one or another act of beneficent social transformation will play a leading role. “Woke capitalism” is simply the latest stage in the Baby ­Boomers’ transfiguration of their hunger for wealth into a great achievement of social justice. …

Previous realism faded:

Men of my father’s generation were ambitious, but they were not deceived about our system. They recognized that it does not work well for everyone.

By contrast, successful Baby Boomers desperately want to believe that their motives are pure and their gains come at no cost to others.

Sadly, the opposite is true. The Boomers have accumulated wealth at a terrible price. Bill Clinton was born in 1946. Economic data show that members of his cohort had a more than 80-percent chance of being wealthier at age thirty than their parents had been. This is the American dream: to do better and get ahead. But after the 1970s, the trend line went in decline. A person born in 1993 will turn thirty this year. Data suggest that an individual from this cohort has a less than 50/50 chance of making more than his parents did at the same age. Nearly all Baby Boomers have done better than their parents. At least half the members of the rising generation will do worse than theirs.

The win-win delusions of the Baby Boomers make it almost impossible for our leaders to acknowledge this reality. Consider the “makers and takers” comments of Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” remarks from 2016. These two politicians, both born in 1947, are peak Boomers. Their comments reflect their attempts to explain why things are not going well in our country. By their way of thinking, the problem is not globalization and its resulting economy, the foundations of which were laid in the 1990s. Romney and Clinton say, in effect: “Our leadership has been great. Unfortunately, a large sector of our society won’t take advantage of the great opportunities we’ve opened up for everyone.”

I believe in free markets, and I regard welfare programs as necessary, perhaps, but dangerous because they can create a culture of dependence that undermines human dignity. In that respect, Romney’s “takers” remark makes some sense. But our leaders need to face reality.


In my lifetime we have gone from a middle-class paradise in which high-school-educated adults could buy suburban homes, send their children to decent public schools, trailer a boat to a lake for summer vacation, and even save some ­money — and all this on one salary — to what is very nearly the opposite.

Recently, I had coffee with my niece in San Diego. She is a medical resident at UCSD. We talked about marriage and children. She sighed, “Yes, but I don’t think my fiancé and I will ever be able to buy a house.” If a young doctor is saying this, imagine what the UPS truck driver is thinking. …

The same Boomer mentality obtains in debates about immigration, multiculturalism, and other social issues.As I was growing up, America reached peak homogeneity. In 1970, less than 5 percent of the country’s population was foreign-born, a historic low. In view of this profound cultural stability, Baby Boomers entertained anxieties (some legitimate) about the conformist pressures and banalities of the vast middle-class consensus that held in their youths. They read Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and went to India to join ashrams. Patriotism was viewed as chauvinism. For a Baby Boomer, a society that is of one mind and united around a common cause feels claustrophobic, perhaps proto-fascistic.

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act inaugurated profound demographic change. We are now at a century-high level of heterogeneity, with nearly 15 percent of our population foreign-born. The once dominant middle-class consensus is denounced as racist, patriarchal, and homophobic. Our educational system preaches the gospel of multiculturalism. Whether on balance these are positive developments, or perhaps inevitable given historical realities, I don’t want to debate. My concern is with the lack of a tragic sense. The demographic and cultural transformations of American society are sold to us by Baby Boomers as a win-win. Obama, the master of this rhetoric, rang the changes on the absurd claim that “diversity is our strength.” (For the record, unity is our strength, as our venerable motto E pluribus unum reminds us.)

The Boomers sought to make American society less censorious and conformist, more open and inclusive. They have largely achieved this goal, but at a cost they refuse to acknowledge.

In 1960, 8 percent of births were illegitimate. Today the rate is 40 percent — worse when we control for education. If you were born in 2021 to a mother with only a high school diploma, the odds are against your being raised by your mother and father. Recent decades have also seen increases in destructive patterns such as drug abuse, lack of social involvement, and chronic unemployment.

Our Baby Boomer leaders have worked to liberalize attitudes, to the point of enforcing punitive political correctness, on the theory that more Americans will flourish and reach their full potentials. The reality is otherwise. Far more people are morally and personally shipwrecked today than were in the past. It turns out that an “inclusive” society requires destroying the social norms that discipline us. We have what Baby Boomers desire, an open society, and it is dysfunctional.

In 2021, the death toll from heroin and fentanyl overdoses exceeded 100,000. What has been ­done in response to a drug epidemic that has killed nearly a million people since 1999? Little. Meanwhile, Baby Boomers press forward with the legalization of marijuana. This measure fits with their win-win mentality. The best way to reduce crime is to decriminalize. If we make our society more accepting and less judgmental, more open and less conformist, then we’ll be more harmonious and happy. As the sour mood of the American public indicates, the opposite is true. …

Leaders of previous centuries would not have made these mistakes:

America needs leaders who accept the tragic character of human history. …

One does not have to have faith in order to be a good leader. But it certainly helps. A religious believer knows himself to be a sinner. He is aware of the persistence of evil and the fragility of the good. Such a person is capable of bad judgment. We’re all foredoomed to make mistakes.

But he is less tempted to blind himself with a self-­complimenting moralism that clothes his motives and actions in gimcrack virtues and seduces him with false descriptions of reality — as George W. Bush did when he imagined that by turning the Middle East into a warzone he was promoting the global triumph of freedom. A less moralistic and more tragic sensibility allows us to see that he was attacking our country’s enemies.

The same tragic sense allows us to see that when Barack Obama framed identity politics as a millenarian utopia of “diversity” he was obscuring the truth. The ideology of multi­culturalism disguises our ruling class’s mismanagement of an increasingly fractious and culturally disintegrated country.

hat-tip Stephen Neil