Did 1960s liberals become today’s conservatives?

The answer splits into two trajectories. The simplest trajectory is where those individuals changed their values as they aged into what are traditionally conservative values – favoring lower taxes, preferring stability to dynamic change, etc. This treats “conservative” and “liberal” as constants, and remarks the change in individual behaviors.

The second and more interesting trajectory looks at how the definition of “liberal” has evolved. A second contingent of those old 1960s hippies has stuck to their hippie values, but has seen the definition of “liberal” separate from, and then become antagonistic to, those values. The new “liberalism,” to them, seems restrictive, segregationist, and puritanical – in a word, the antithesis of a 1960s liberalism that was restriction-busting, radically integrationist, and non-puritanical. This branch of 1960s liberals indeed no longer fit the category “liberal,” but nor have they altered their values in the direction of conservatism. Unlike those in the first branch, these 1960s liberals have simply become outsiders, equidistant from today’s conservatives and today’s liberals. They see today’s liberals and conservatives both as essentially reactionary formations, restrictors of freedom, each trying to enforce its own norms against all dissent, with no one left to represent the more radical liberation of the 1960s vision.


16 thoughts on “Did 1960s liberals become today’s conservatives?

  1. Brilliant, Gary! I will write more on this one later today — somebody’s about to come get me to drive me to church. But I had to stop and say something about it. It does recall a famous Winston Churchill quote in the first trajectory, you know. I’ll cite the quote and address both trajectories forthwith.

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      • “If you’re not a liberal by the time you’re twenty, you don’t have a heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re forty, you don’t have a brain.” That would address the aspect of one’s changing from “liberal” to “conservative” over the course of twenty years in one’s lifetime. However, it presupposes that the acting definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” themselves have not changed. But they have — at least in America, throughout the past fifty years or so.

        Many conservatives these days view today’s liberals as “uptight” — overly concerned with political correctness, precise language, and cultural accommodations of various kinds. Too many conversation stoppers at a time when we really ought to be about communicating. But the other side of that coin is that many liberals see conservatives as having become too loose in their bashing of opponents, name-calling, and co-signing of licentious moral behavior (as recent events in the news have brought to the fore.)

        So it does almost seem as though the conservatives were positing themselves as the vanguards of righteousness back in the 60’s, while liberal watchdogs stake that claim in 21st Century America. Again, I say, “almost.” —

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        • Can’t say I agree with Churchill (he’s describing my “trajectory 1” group, as you note) but appreciate his wit. Yes, there is some irony to liberals being the perceived “uptight” ones now, watching for every false move, while conservatives advocate for free speech. At least in this sense (but not in every) the two parties have danced themselves around to opposite positions. Both sides have an excellent eye for flaws in the other (liberals today ARE too uptight and conservatives today DO bash their opponents with too much personal vilification), but neither can see the mote in their own eye.

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          • Can’t say as I agree with him either, and in fact I worried that someone would think of me as a Churchillian conservative, just for having cited the quote. But I do think it illuminates how one often ceases to identify as a liberal and proceeds to identify as a conservative in early adulthood. So this would be consonant with your first trajectory group.

            I think I told you the story earlier how a liberal priest in my experience wouldn’t permit me to use the word “gay” while describing a child molester who had taken an underage victim of the same sex. The priest interrupted me to say: “He’s not gay! He’s a pederast.” I’m like — “uh — I think he was a gay pederast.” In other words, the notion that the orientation of the predator had to be eliminated from the discussion, lest somebody come up with the false notion that all gay men are pederasts. There is nothing classically liberal about that kind of restriction, yet it runs rampant these days, and more among professed liberals than conservatives, I believe.

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            • Yes, it was a little odd that the same liberals who were at pains (rightly) to point out that Kevin Spacey’s offenses were not an indictment of the gay mindset were equally at pains to declare that straight guys’ crimes are absolutely an indictment of the straight male mindset’s complicity in “rape culture.”

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  2. Freedom and liberal are loaded terms. Those who advocate for their concept of freedom but reject freedom’s corollary of personal responsibility are merely advocating for licentiousness. Much of the 1960s hippie movement was about pursuing hedonistic lifestyles and licentious behavior. As well, let’s not lionize nor glorify the social revolutionaries of that time.

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    • Hi Larry. I would say “radical liberation” is loaded (in the sense that it implies a value judgment). By “freedom” I just mean fewer restrictions. One is welcome to dispute the value of fewer restrictions, but I I think the term is straightforward, not loaded. I also don’t think “liberal” is loaded — it’s just a descriptive category that changes its values over time. You are welcome to dispute the values it’s associated with at any given time (as you question the values associated with 1960s liberalism and I question the values associated with today’s liberalism), but I don’t think it’s loaded. So I think “radical liberation” is my only loaded term, and you rightly infer that it marks how you and I disagree about whether the positives outweigh the risks in that revolutionary 60s mindset.


    • True, Steve. Some people are in trajectory 1, some in trajectory 2, and some “a bit of both.” I think of myself in trajectory 2, but I might actually be in a third stage of trajectory 1, as I had my hippie years, then a couple of decades of acquired responsibilities, which I am now shedding for the vagabond life and for a renewed appreciation of Timothy Leary’s “drop out, turn on, tune in” dictum 🙂

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  3. I think those who are liberal don’t feel irresponsible. The ones I grew up with in the 70’s are the ones who build houses for Habitat for Humanity and donate their time at soup kitchens. . . I think being anti-war may make the military upset but this doesn’t mean I don’t give to the wounded warriors, paralyzed vets and salute the flag.
    I don’t think giving up on our country is a good idea, since the intelligent people are needed to Not drop out! We need you to help keep the environment and clean fuel, clean water, etc. on the forefront of those staunch conservatives who think they need to keep their money for themselves and their heirs. God love ’em.

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