The Tin-Drum Progressive Boomers

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.


Like the hero of Gunter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum, America’s progressive Baby Boomers chose not to grow up. Why should they? They decided that their development was complete when they graduated from college. All they needed to do was affirm their magnificent, world-historical identity. No surprise, then, that we are currently afflicted by the juvenile politics of the Democratic Party, the policies of which embody the Boomer creed: we all have a right to eat our entitlement and hedonism cake and have it too––as long as it’s subsidized by the evil rich.

Boomers, of course, had a lot of help in postponing adulthood. The ever-extending length of adolescence partly accounts for this. Post-war affluence made it affordable to prolong further this historically unprecedented time of life between childhood and adulthood. Consumerism took advantage of this new market, one prone to impulse buying and enjoying access to lots of surplus wealth. So they elevated in social importance the transient whims, banal ideas, and foolish desires of a group flush with disposable income. The result was the most pampered, obsessed over, and indulged generation in American history.

As a consequence, the Boomers developed the unearned sense of entitlement and unrealistic expectations more typical of spoiled children. And the culture went right along with them and pandered to their juvenile taste, mainly because there was money to be made. The traditional moral limits on materialism and freely indulging one’s appetites had always gotten in the way of profit. Starting in the 50’s, the old taboos about sex, public vulgarity, and drugs all began to be swept away. “If it feels good, do it” became a new human right as well as a potent source of profit.

Hence the “eerie vulgarity,” to use Nabokov’s phrase, of our popular culture, which has managed to trivialize the “edgy” and “transgressive” into the dullest of clichés, and reduced what was once the sordid practices of rakes and roués into the mass-marketed fashion accessories of pre-teens, and the subject of smutty jokes on prime-time sit-coms. And anyone who tries to stand athwart this locomotive of degradation is dismissed as a fascist square or a religious fanatic who wants to “turn back the clock” to the dark days of sexual oppression and repression.

This cultural debasement was helped along by the destruction of our educational system. The postwar university’s abandonment of traditional schooling in history, language, philosophy, literature, and basic skills created a vacuum filled by leftist ideology and identity politics, both of which debased history into a cheap political melodrama of oppression, institutionalized victim politics, abandoned training in critical analysis, and promoted utopian standards of happiness and justice never to be met in a complex world of flawed humans. Yet chanting the slogans, jargon, and clichés embodying these unrealistic goals allowed callow Boomers to preen morally on the cheap, and to justify their destructive politics as earnest idealism. The intensity of feelings and passionately held opinions, not the intellectual or moral coherence of thought or ideas, became the currency of worth and authenticity––another characteristic of children, one now reinforced and cultivated by figures of presumably adult authority in politics, schools, and the media. Better yet, the privilege of bourgeoisie Boomers was now compensated for by the ostentatious endorsement of “social justice” for people living two zip codes over.

The worst effects, however, of this indulgence of a whole generation and the failure to educate it can be seen in politics. Traditional political thinking had always been predicated on a tragic view of human nature, one recognizing that what Madison called the “passions and interests” of human nature impose limits on what governments can accomplish. Loss, failure, disappointment, poverty, injustice, and suffering can never be eliminated from human life, only mitigated at best. Evil is a constant reality battling against the good, sometimes requiring destructive force and suffering for its elimination. Earthly perfection, in short, is a delusion, and utopia nowhere.

This was the philosophy of the Founders, as can be seen everywhere in the Federalist essays and the assumptions underlying the Constitution. For example, Hamilton in Federalist 6 reminds us “that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” In 10, Madison’s famous discussion of “faction”–– the political groups “actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens”–– likewise reflects a realist view of human nature and the power of “opinions” formed by a “fallible” reason and influenced by “passions”: “The latent causes of faction,” Madison summarizes, “are thus sown in the nature of man.” That’s why the Constitution codifies the separation and balance of powers, so that faction will block faction from threatening the freedom of the whole citizenry. As John Adams said, dismissing the notion of human perfectibility given the permanent human passions like envious rivalry: “Emulation next to self-preservation will forever be the great spring of human actions, and the balance of a well-ordered government will alone be able to prevent that emulation from degenerating into dangerous ambition, irregular rivalries, destructive factions, wasting seditions, and bloody civil war.”

With progressive Boomers, though, this traditional American political wisdom was corrupted by utopianism, a childish belief that perfect justice, perfect equality, absolute freedom, and a world without losers or violence would come about just because we desired it so. Unrealistic standards of state behavior and goals alien to the tragic truths of human nature became the touchstone of political virtue. At the same time, government has to grow more and more powerful in order to accomplish lofty goals like eliminating poverty, discrimination, or war, in the process threatening political freedom and personal autonomy. This demand for absolute personal freedom and greater government power to achieve unrealistic goals reflects the incoherence typical of childish reasoning.

This is the world the Boomers have created. Popular and “serious” culture alike reflect a highly polished mediocrity, its stale and questionable ideas and creaking clichéd plots and characters––psycho white guys, CIA agents, corporate CEOs, repressed Christians–– given a patina of technical high finish and spurious innovation. Our politics embodies a juvenile utopianism expressed in bumper-sticker bromides ––“Hope and Change!”––dangerous in a world of hard men, conflicting goods, tragic limits, and fanatical evil. These are all the expressions of an over-indulged, badly educated teen-aged mind.

But the ultimate blame for this generation’s pathologies lies with bad ideas birthed long before 1946 and spread by grown-ups who should have known better. Romanticism midwifed the cult of feeling and solipsistic individualism. Positivism popularized the notion that science and technology could liberate us from suffering, want, and failure. Communism, socialism, and progressivism all pursued the impossible dream of perfect equality and justice and eternal universal happiness. Secularism and the decline of faith empowered pseudo-scientific substitutes like psychology and sociology. All these diseases of modernity slumbered in the body politic, infecting mostly the intellectual and artistic elites, until they broke out into an epidemic nurtured by post-war wealth and mass media, eventually leading to the presidency of Barack Obama, a walking symptomatology of the progressive Boomer disease. And here we are today, like Livy’s Romans so far gone that we can stand neither the disease nor the cure.

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  • http://www.adinakutnicki.com AdinaK

    While the above is certainly the case, it is also less a matter of fantastical thinking, and more a case of malevolence. While some truly believe in said "utopia", the ones leading the charge absolutely do not. These are their leaders – http://www.americanthinker.com/2013/04/bringing_d

    As such, nothing short of American's downfall will suffice. Nothing.

    Adina Kutnicki, Israel http://adinakutnicki.com/about/

  • john butala

    This essay is as much a distortion and generalization of Boomers as leftist critiques of American society. Apparently Thornton thinks all Boomers were coddled and pampered. Only a tiny percentage of Boomers I knew growing up were "pampered" or coddled. Most were like me: children of larger families than today's children who like me were given more hand-me-downs and no money rather than bequeathed large amounts of swag. If he believes that the majority of Boomers were spoiled rotten, he's as ignorant as most of the leftists he condemns. Only a tiny percentage of Boomers were committed leftists, hippies, or amoral hedonists. In short, Thornton is either an ignoramus or an outright liar.

    • AnOrdinaryMan

      "Only a tiny percentage of Boomers I knew growing up were "pampered" or coddled." Well, this translates into a microscopic sized swath of the population. How can you then make the generalization that "If he believes that the majority of boomers were spoiled rotten, he's as ignorant as most of the leftists he condemns?" You then say, "Only a tiny percentage of Boomers were committed leftists, hippies, or amoral hedonists." What's your source? What Thornton says makes a lot of sense, actually.
      He says that cultural debasement and the simultaneous decline of our educational system combined to destroy the once-strong American work ethic, American exceptionalism, and our sense of the common good. An example is how we lost the Vietnam war; that wouldn't have happened "if only a tiny percentage of boomers were committed leftists." Your argument results in meaningless moral equivalency; much like the education our children receive today.

    • country girl

      I believe he is speaking comparatively. It would be hard to argue that the Boomer generation has not been much more materially blessed than previous generations. If the shoe doesn't fit, don't wear it, for gosh sakes!

    • Yoshi11

      Is this a variation of the "It's only a tiny minority of extremists" argument?

  • pierce

    When are the American people going to wake up?
    We are going to have to keep beating the drum into 2014. And just why 2014? Why, 2014 is our next National Election, and Barack needs a majority in both houses of Congress so he can do his thing.
    It is not working Barack, it just plain is not working.
    Give us a break.

  • kasandra

    Excellent column. As a boomer myself I saw, and continue to see, everything Mr. Thornton describes. When, during the Clinton administration, Newsweek magazine still had a page titled "It's Your Turn" I was going to submit a column concerning the boomer generation. The title was to be "People try to put us down" and the first sentence was going to be "And why shouldn't they?" Didn't finish it but you get the idea of where it was going. While it is true that not every boomer was anything, the part of my age cohort that was most nurtured and rewarded by our culture, and whose values, in turn, became reflected by our culture, consisted of just those described in the column.

  • elishawah

    WHAT A DELUSION

  • Owen

    There's a lot of truth in the piece, but ultimately it is misleading with only the last paragraph hinting at what came before. Wilson's was the first "progressive" administration, not just in ideas, but in actions such as creation of the Fed plus the income tax. At the same time, Dewey and his ilk were working on their socialist takeover of the nation's educational system in order to mold the kiddies. Later came FDR and the "New Socialist Deal" while the "Greatest Generation" wanted no part of any European war let alone taking on Japanese expansion until Pearl Harbor forced the U.S. into the quagmire. Next came the JFK/LBJ period which gave us unionized federal workers (something even FDR wouldn't do), Medicare and Medicaid, plus an explosion of the welfare state. By then, the U.S. fiscal goose was pretty much cooked and the entitlement culture well established; obviously, Boomers didn't create any of the welfare state superstructure. Oh, and the U.S. didn't "lose" the Vietnam War, it was actually won and North Vietnam had basically quit (remember those peace talks of Kerry fame?). But then in the aftermath of Watergate the Dems voted to cut off funding to South Vietnam, probably the most despicable act the U.S. has ever committed in its history, and we were able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and get a new SE Asia bloodbath started.

  • Donald DaCosta

    Brilliant piece, in my opinion, I suppose because it aligns perfectly with what I've come to accept without being able to put it into such effective prose.

    Problem is that while some have come to recognize the source and depth of the problem, few are actively attempting to change the ingrained culture created by the institutions that were infiltrated by the hard left decades ago and that remain a bastion of Progressivism still. Like a rabid virus they have spread their Utopian idealism into nearly all of the networks that dominate the dissemination of their carefully controlled message. The professional, journalistic and documentarian's quest for truth based on irrefutable facts, based on unfabricated evidence, has been replaced in large part by the twisting, distorting and fabrication of “facts,” as required, to promote their ideology. Real facts, no matter their validity or relevance, are portrayed as the irrational, invective of the delusional, mentally and morally corrupt: "Tea Baggers," facists, racists, bigots, Islamophobes, right wing nuts, loons, etc. Alternatively, the progressive liberals are the true purveyors of the politically correct, multiculturalist, compassionate, intellectual, unchallengeable, diverse view of the human condition and the social justice required to fix it. We rant, they "pontificate." and consider themselves and their views more sacrosanct than those of the Pontiff himself. They worship at the altar of diversity while immediately dismissing any opinion or thoughts that diverge from their own which they have proven themselves incapable of defending in any rational, intelligent, perceptive manner. Hypocrisy, stupidity and bigotry reign in the land of "diversity."

  • tagalog

    The degradation of our culture has many causes, but one of them is the Boomer presumption that anything they think is good, is good, and anyone who has a contradictory idea about that is evil.

    The thing that is truly mind-boggling is the huge body of evidence that Boomerism threatens utter destruction of our republican system that half of our population blithely ignores.

    I have new respect for the old fable about kiling the goose that lays the golden eggs. In my younger, more naive days, I never accepted the truth of that tale. I never thought then that people would be so blind.

  • Tony Christensen

    Great article once again. Progressivism seems to be akin to a cult that one must overcome in oneself in order to regain health.

  • Climber

    Donald DaCosta's comment, despite minimizing his ability to use effective prose, hits the mark. Our own David Horowitz explains a prevalent worldview and thinking process in America as Gnostic. See http://discoverthenetworks.org/articles/THE%20REL

    A highly intellectual description and application is found here: http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/4466
    Previous articles by the author, Thomas F. Bertonneau, are linked at the bottom.

  • Climber
  • marios

    Boomers was thought and brought up by radical leftists who seized control on MSM and Educational institutions. Result is obvious. Why conservatives were sleeping that 50+ years and did not noticed that catastrophe is impeding? Still the most Rep's cannot comprehend that political correctness is killing truth, that they should've been organized and support more courageous among them as congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, for instance? The most Rep's are kind of opportunists and liberals kind of Sen. McCain or Lindsay Graham… With such "conservatives" how Rep's can win? Dem's=socia..sts lead us to catastrophe and it is understandable as socialism failed everywhere.
    Dem's corrupted time ago such a robust American nations. Now at least 50% of American is "takers" pampered, and zombied by commies ideas that those who work hard must provide
    them everything they wish.

  • pinnie

    This boomer had nothing …my dad worked like a dog…. and I appreciated every meal…..

    the Tea Party is crammed with "me's"…… the cheesy limo liberals are the druggies I hated…They are warped degrading sex a holics…make me as sick as the days they all doped out…

    In the 60's.College???? they would have been better off sleeping for 4 years….They are all in our govt and the hell with America the Beautiful and its Constitution. Warped drug burnt out frauds and dumb as hell. Ive never seen such a collage of stupidity in my life … They are still throwing thier tantrum…Marxists want-a-be's- ..

    They write the insane legislation and we are paying thier bills …Flush Washington….It sucks out loud.!

  • Sonnys Mom

    Bravo, Bruce! Hands-down excellent analysis of my failed generation…