A hedge fund manager asked me if there was a generational conflict between the baby-boom generation and the younger Americans; also mentioning that there is a great deal of animus now being directed against Wall Street. In his view, such attacks were quite antisemitic. So I wrote something that would address the question of “the Jews” and American politics since the American Civil War, a conflict that unleashed the forces of industrialism and expansion that the South, in charge of the antebellum government, had opposed unless the industrial economy would retain slave labor. What follows is that compressed history.
The WASP ruling group in America (including segments both of the Northeastern establishment and the Southern agrarians) compromised in the face of industrial capitalism and the swarm of immigrants that it attracted, as the industrial society dramatically accelerated after the Civil War. The WASP populist-Progressive strategy (beginning with some Mugwump reformism, then the Progressive institutions that took off in 1900) was to oppose unbridled capitalism (nailing it on the profit-crazy Jews), and to concede the great cities to the Democratic machines, with all the corruption and patronage that entailed. The Irish and Italians carved out their own urban mini-empires, while the immigrant Eastern European Jews, predisposed to socialism (especially after the Soviet coup of 1917 that promised an end to antisemitism), joined Roosevelt’s New Deal with joy, thinking that this patrician was their special friend and protector; moreover that social democratic remedies would end the depression (it didn’t: the war did). Or they went all the way to become communists, and were parents to the most activist and effective organizers of the 1960s generation: their offspring had no trouble finding favor with an already antisemitic, anticapitalist, “liberal internationalist” Northeastern establishment, and instead of being crushed, went on to take charge of the mass media, the humanities, the schools of education, and journalism, supported morally and financially by the “liberal” foundations, such as Rockefeller and Ford (derived from famously anti-Semitic families). In other words, these “moderate conservatives” a.k.a., social democrats, were very skilled at co-opting and defusing oppositional individuals and movements, and rewriting prior American history to make “the American empire” [sic] uniquely imperialist, evil, and deadly to minorities.
The “moderates” would change all that, and they have been in charge for some time. What they appear to fear most is growing “inequality” for that portends revolution or other servile revolts. The super-rich and their heirs will sacrifice much of their wealth to reduce the appearance of inequality. (Indeed, the latest cover of Harvard Magazine (July-August 2008) shows a bloated bird with a mouthful of worms, oblivious to three skinnier birds fighting over a single worm: The headline: “Unequal America, The growing gap.” The birds stand on an American flag. The Harvard Corporation does not harbor supply-siders, apparently.
So the defense of free markets and equal opportunity was relegated by default to the anticommunist Right, that was, until recently, almost entirely isolationist, nativist, and heavily antisemitic too (the neocons call this old guard paleoconservatives). The “neocons,” many of whom are former (Jewish) Trotskyists or ex-social democrats, want both social liberalism and pro-growth economics, understanding that there is a positive role for the state in regulating and stabilizing markets, but that a balance must be struck, so that the state does not discourage investment and self-reliance. But safety nets are also a requirement, for innovating markets can be brutal in their effects. To achieve such a balance (or an approximation thereof), old policies and programs require constant reevaluation and tweaking.
Sadly, the social democratic (redistributionist) establishment has hardened its positions, demonizing “neocons” and sponsoring reparations of various kinds to abused minorities, rather than cleaning out the corruption of the cities and in the unions. Thus we have the national polarization of today, with populists in both the extreme Left and the extreme Right attacking each other but also attacking the centrists (who want to devise a more rational capitalism in line with such as Hayek and Milton Friedman). Populists are always at least latently antisemitic, for they have internalized a discourse that conflates all Jews with what used to be called “the money power,” and, like the Jew-hating European Right, populists (perhaps unconsciously) identifying “the Jews” with Wall Street, the profit motive that causes class warfare, control of mass media, and the popular culture that has, in their view, caused decadence and coarsened the culture.
I have laid out an all too compressed way of defining social history since the Civil War with its often embedded antisemitism. To answer the question originally posed to me by a hedge-fund manager, I don’t think that an historian would see the “baby boomers” as a unified group, but rather as a highly diverse large population that will, as a class, bankrupt entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.