A specter is haunting the 2008 presidential campaign. It is a terrifying beast that walks through mud, dances to eerie music, wears strange garments, and copulates wantonly. It smells vaguely of patchouli.
I speak, of course, of the hippie.
Or rather, the conservative image of the hippie, grafted onto a woman who could barely have been less countercultural back in the times when the actual species roamed the Earth: Hillary Clinton. If you thought we'd get through this campaign without the people who were too square to be down with the scene in the 1960s once again venting their resentment at their cooler peers, think again. But this time around, it's even less likely to work than it has in the past.
Not that they won't be trying. Imagine the quivers of delight over at RNC headquarters when they learned last week that back in June, senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton inserted a $1 million earmark into the health and education appropriations bill for the Museum at Bethel Woods in upstate New York, commemorating the Woodstock concert that took place there in 1969.
Cue the wa-wa pedal, bust out the love beads, stay away from the brown acid, blah blah blah -- these moments call for a full-scale mobilization of clichés. The best may have come from the conservative magazine Human Events, which blared on its website, "Earmarxists Commemorate the Hippie Summer of Love." They must have been waiting a long time to use that one.
Like phototropic plants, the presidential candidates were irresistibly pulled toward the culture war light. "Senator Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock concert museum," said John McCain during Sunday's GOP debate. "Now, my friends, I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time."
"Wow," marveled the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza. "A subtle reference to his time as a POW in the 'Hanoi Hilton' that the crowd slowly but surely caught on to and eventually rewarded McCain with an extended standing ovation." If that's what Cilizza considers "subtle," one supposes McCain would have had to have come to the debate wearing his flight suit to qualify as blunt. (One of the great media myths about McCain is that he's too modest to bring up his Vietnam service without prompting. In truth, he brings it up all the time. As soon as the debate ended, his campaign sent out a fundraising email with the words "I was tied up at the time" in the subject line.)
It wasn't just the Republicans who were having fun with the earmark. In a bit of video Photoshopping, CNN actually took a shot of the crowd at Woodstock and placed Clinton and Schumer's faces inside it, as though they were there. It was crude enough not to be meant to fool anyone, but the point was as subtle as McCain's well-rehearsed line.
Of course, Hillary Clinton wasn't at Woodstock. Clinton arrived at Wellesley in 1965 as a "Goldwater girl," and though her politics grew more progressive during her time there, then as now she was a creature of the establishment, seeking change within the system and warning against advocating radical ideas. Not one for experimenting with drugs or sex, she charted a sensible and serious course through the Sixties.
This personal history could barely be less relevant, of course. As far as many on the right are concerned, Clinton might as well be campaigning in a tie-dye peasant blouse and leading the crowd in a rousing rendition of "The Internationale" before every speech. Clinton is without question the most conservative Democrat running for president, a foreign policy hawk, death penalty supporter, and abstinence advocate who attends Bible study with Sam Brownback. Yet she is nonetheless slammed again and again by the right as not just someone with character flaws, but as an ideological radical whose true danger lies in her policy agenda.
The argument they make is that every centrist position Clinton takes is part of an intricately constructed ruse, meant to lull the American voter into thinking her politics are less than insanely radical. Google "Hillary Clinton" and "socialist" and you get over a million hits explaining how just about everything she advocates is but a prelude to all of us being herded into backbreaking labor on collective farms. After being sworn in as president, she will presumably cast off all pretensions to moderation and unleash this terrifying program. Right-wing radio and television host Glenn Beck recently called Clinton "Stalin in a pantsuit."
To hear the GOP candidates and their supporters invoke "socialism" again and again, you'd think it was the most potent attack one could offer, despite the fact that it happens to be 2007, not 1967. But how many people are really afraid of socialism anymore? Anyone under 35 -- over a quarter of the adult population -- hadn't reached voting age when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. For them, socialism isn't a malevolent force slithering through the countryside, infecting disgruntled employees and worming its way into our government. It's something they learned about in history class, a foreign ideology that had something to do with people in grey, shapeless coats waiting in long lines. Today, it's about as threatening to America as the Hapsburgs.
That isn't to say there aren't significant portions of the Republican base who look at Hillary Clinton and see a combination of Rosa Luxembourg and Joan Baez. But today, who is it that embraces the idea of counterculture with the greatest fervency? It's conservative evangelical Christians, who can now be heard to say again and again that their lifestyle choice is a radical act that threatens society's dominant mores. This isn't just a clever rhetorical ploy to perk up an audience's ears, it has become a deeply felt piece of self-identification, nowhere more so than in the chastity movement. Forty years ago, hippies believed that having sex was an act of rebellion, a way of sticking it to the suffocating dominant culture by violating their sacred taboos. Today's chastity activists believe that not having sex is just as much a rebellion.
Except it isn't, not really. Their rebellion is against habits and mores, while the hippies were rebelling against not just those things but actual power. No one will arrest today's rebels for being chaste, and if, 20 years from now, some of them decide to run for office, their wanton youthful virginity will probably not be held against them. And nothing could be less rebellious than the pose of rebellion itself, something that has been co-opted and commodified within an inch of its life. Sure, you can rebel by staying a virgin -- but we're also told you can rebel by drinking Sprite or buying a Cadillac. Counterculture long ago became simply culture.
The evangelical embrace of the language of the counterculture points to one more reason the conservatives still hate hippies so much: The hippies won. Sure, they're easy to make fun of, and the era saw plenty of excesses now properly regarded as such. But most of the core cleavages of the 1960s culture war have been decided in the hippies' favor. Their ideas about race, about child-rearing, about much of politics, and even about sex have become mainstream. The number of people who would actually want to return to the conservative Eden of the 1950s dwindles with each passing year.
As for Hillary Clinton, whom some would nominate as Hippie-in-Chief, she may not have gone to Woodstock, but she does represent a threat. Not because of who she was 40 years ago, or because of the policies she actually advocates today, but because if she wins it will be one more sign that the cries that Democrats are a bunch of socialist hippies increasingly fall on deaf electoral ears. And for the conservative culture warriors, that's the most terrifying thing of all.