Will the Real Generation Obama Please Stand Up?
There's no better example of a "new progressive" than Jerome Armstrong. Born in 1964, he long identified as an independent, working for environmental groups or public-service organizations like the Peace Corps while remaining wary of party politics. "My view was, Well, if I was in politics, boy, would it be different. It would be something very idealistic. But that didn't really seem possible at the time, so why start down that path," he says.
Bill Clinton was at least partly responsible for the lack of political engagement that characterized the '90s. His election in 1992, when he pulled in 52 percent of the under-25 vote, marked a hope-stirring thaw during a long winter of conservative dominance. Gordinier says Clinton was in many ways "our first political love who broke our hearts. We've never been able to trust any politician quite in that same way again." The sense of betrayal combined with the ugly partisan politics of the era reinforced the sense of disillusionment. Gary Ruskin, who directed the Congressional Accountability Project at the time, told The Atlantic Monthly, "Republicans and Democrats have become one and the same--they are both corrupt at the core and behave like children who are more interested in fighting with each other than in getting anything accomplished."
But then came a governor from Texas who changed everything. "In 2000, there was this realization for people my age: Hell, there is a difference between Democrats and Republicans. George Bush proved that," Armstrong says. It was also clear that the only force that could stop the Bush bandwagon was, for better or worse, the Democratic Party. Third parties were no longer the answer--even though many X-ers had voted for Ralph Nader in the past--and X-ers had never embraced street protests like the boomers. So they turned to the medium most of them knew best: the Internet.
If George Bush introduced X-ers to the value of partisanship, the Internet offered something just as valuable in the jittery aftermath of 9/11: community. "It's easy to forget how amazing this felt back then. But for many of us there was a feeling of being lost and politically isolated," Armstrong says. The feeling was not limited to X-ers, but they were a generation that had long been defined by an aversion to groups. "It was more anti-fake community," says Armstrong. "We didn't like being controlled or defined by an association with these fake communities like nationality, or religion or [corporate] brands." The Internet always carried the potential for connection, but X-ers would use it to create a vast array of political and purely social blogs, networking sites and other forms of community, which we now refer to as Web 2.0.
As the "stolen" elections were quickly followed by 9/11, its aftermath and then the invasion of Iraq, X-ers were uniquely situated to create a new form of activism that blended technology with political resistance. "The Millennials were too young to be heavily into politics at the time," says Armstrong. "But we also understood the technology in a way that baby boomers did not." X-ers were better able to develop the potential of online activism--from raising money to organizing meet-ups--having been present and intimately involved in the development of the web during the dot-com heyday. To be clear, the X-ers are not the netroots--which includes progressives of all ages--but they are indisputably its creators.
By 2002 Armstrong had embraced his newfound identity as a Democrat and joined the Howard Dean campaign, where, along with fellow X-ers like Markos Moulitsas and Zephyr Teachout, he helped shape the first netroots-driven presidential candidacy. "Technology gave people of my generation the revolutionary opportunity to get involved in politics so late in our life, and enter it at a fairly high level," he says.
The "new progressive" sensibility, however, extends far beyond the netroots. It includes leaders like Andrea Batista Schlesinger, the 31-year-old executive director of the Drum Major Institute (DMI), who is helping transform the civil rights-era foundation into a progressive public policy organization. Or David Callahan, who started his political career protesting a local nuclear power plant as a 14-year-old, and went on to establish the think tank Demos. While members of this new generation of activist leaders are likely to hold different opinions on specific political issues, what binds them together is a political orientation that is distinct from boomer politics.
"My generation has more of an interest in rethinking ideas," Callahan says--figuring out "whether the big liberal ideas of the twentieth century are in fact appropriate for the twenty-first." While much of the media attention is given to establishment-baiters like Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, authors of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, a better example of a Gen X challenge to liberal credo is 40-year-old Majora Carter, whose Sustainable South Bronx is re-envisioning environmental and racial justice not "as a moral crusade but as an economic-development" issue. Carter's activism has all the hallmarks of Gen X politics: from her outsider status in the green movement to her entrepreneurial spirit, community-based focus and emphasis on fiscal responsibility and real-life outcomes.
X-ers take a novel view of the relationships between ideology, identity and activism. While Armstrong calls himself "non-ideological" and Batista Schlesinger is a "full-blown ideologue," their paths to progressive politics were oddly similar. Both were progressive in their activism long before they embraced that identity. "I don't come from a lefty background, nor was I always a lefty," says Batista Schlesinger, who says she didn't "become progressive with a capital P until seven years ago."
These "practivists," as Jessica Clark described them in In These Times, "see politics as a fluid field of choice rather than a hard-and-fast test" of ideological commitment. DMI, for example, describes itself as dedicated to "challenging the tired orthodoxies of both the right and the left." And Callahan's latest book, The Moral Center, takes the left to task for ignoring issues of personal morality, long seen as a "conservative" issue.
This is also a generation of progressives intensely focused on outcomes. None more so than netroots activists like Armstrong, whose identity as a "partisan progressive" is best captured by this Harry Truman quote: "The Democratic Party does not dodge issues or seek to gloss them over. We state them boldly. We propose concrete and practical action to solve them.... It is a program of what should be done and what our experience tells us can be done."