Will the Real Generation Obama Please Stand Up?
"Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what's needed to be done. Today we are called once more--and it is time for our generation to answer that call," declared Barack Obama, uttering the word "generation" no fewer than thirteen times in his speech announcing his intention to run for President. There is no mistaking his campaign theme: it's time for the old to move over and make way for the new.
Obama's book The Audacity of Hope makes it clear just whom he's calling old: "In the back-and-forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation--a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago--played out on the national stage," writes Obama. It's a theme he's returned to with increasing frequency lately. "There's no doubt that we represent the kind of change Senator Clinton can't deliver on. And part of it's generational," Obama told Fox News in early November. "Senator Clinton and others have been fighting some of the same fights since the '60s. It makes it very difficult for them to bring the country together to get things done."
For Obama, who is 46, and his followers, boomer politics clearly have to go. What is less obvious is whom Obama represents. He often speaks to the Millennials, recently telling cheering college kids in South Carolina, "It's your generation's turn." But rarely mentioned is Obama's own generation, i.e., Generation X, the Lost Generation, whose name has been virtually erased from the national conversation.
"We hear plenty about people in their teens and twenties, and even more about people in their fifties, but the stodgy old species known as the thirtysomething has been shuttled off, like Molly Ringwald herself, to some sort of Camp Limbo for demographic lepers," fumes Details editor at large Jeff Gordinier in his upcoming book, X Saves the World. A recent Chicago Tribune article on Obama's message of generational change focuses exclusively on 18- to 30-year-olds, discussing every other living generation in passing but with nary a mention of his own peers.
The irony is that X-ers--a sociocultural label typically used to describe those born between 1961 and 1976--have become invisible at a time when they are changing the face of politics. As Jerome Armstrong, founder of MyDD.com and best known as the Blogfather of the progressive netroots, says, "It's people drawn from Generation X--the people who have gotten involved in politics this decade--who have brought about the whole new movement of progressive Democrats."
A 1990 Time magazine cover story described the then-twentysomething generation variously as "lazy," "passive" and possessing "only a hazy sense of their own identity." As the decade rolled along, the same kids would soon be dubbed "conservative." But many of the X-ers were less lost than lost in translation, their rejection of politics-as-usual mistaken for apathy, their questioning of liberal credo interpreted as "backlash" politics, their anxiety about economic security condemned as materialism and their reluctance to be identified either by labels or with larger institutions dismissed as a lack of commitment.
The conservative image was largely a creation of what we now call the right-wing noise machine, which took aim at programs like Social Security and Medicare in the name of generational "fairness." For much of the '90s headlines were saturated with stories fed by Gen X organizations--the vast majority funded by right-wing and corporate sponsors--eager to pillory their greedy, spendthrift (read, liberal) elders. That the polling data revealed no such generational divide in support for these programs, merely greater doubts about their future among the young, hardly mattered. The X-er economic philosophy was better described by Ted Halstead in The Atlantic Monthly as "balanced-budget populism," combining fiscal responsibility with a concern for income inequality.
In its voting patterns, moreover, Gen X defies its rightward-leaning rap. The generation that John Judis and Ruy Teixeira recently referred to in The American Prospect as a "bulwark of the Republican vote" has in fact voted Democratic in every presidential election, with the exception of 2004. And that includes 1992, when Gen X came out in large numbers and voted for that GOP favorite, Bill Clinton. There hasn't been much difference between our generation's voting record and that of our boomer elders.
Indeed, many of the political and cultural orientations of Gen X have been recast as the "new progressive" politics. The scalding contempt for the mainstream press expressed by bloggers was ingrained in the Gen X point of view long before the Iraq War. The failures of Judith Miller and the New York Times could hardly surprise the likes of Mark Saltveit, who offered this eerily prescient media critique in 1994:
Today's press corps is largely worthless--a pack of shallow conformists so easily manipulated that it's a joke.... Maybe the [boomer] Pepsi Generation is doomed to shallow group thought and trend-mongering through years of training by MCA, CBS, and Time. New technology for cable TV, desktop publishing, and cheap recording studios arrived just in time for slackers.
When not ranting bitterly against real or perceived injustices, X-ers have relied on their other favorite mode of social critique: political satire. In his book, Gordinier points to a generational legacy of a distinctive brand of political humor that blends angry idealism with a studied disdain for ideology and partisanship--exactly the kind that's gone mainstream with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Where Gen X comedians have remained above the partisan fray, many of their peers have become die-hard Democrats over the past seven years due mainly to their outrage at the George W. Bush presidency. Generation Y may hold the numerical key to a Democratic victory in future elections, but it's those pesky thirty- and fortysomethings who seek to shape the future of the party and redefine the word "progressive."
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."
With this pragmatic approach comes a certain impatience with the "romanticism" of boomer lefties. X-er progressives are far less inspired by the idea of "saving the world" than fixing the local school system or creating a green transit alternative that can be replicated across communities, as long as it's a specific problem with a concrete solution. "We're not trying to change things. We're trying to fix things," Anne McCord proudly told Time in 1990. "We are the generation that is going to renovate America. We are going to be its carpenters and janitors."
It's a roll-up-your-sleeves, nuts-and-bolts politics, built on collaboration. "Before I had a political ideology, I had a process," says Batista Schlesinger. These process-oriented values are reflected in adjectives--collaborative, open, transparent, bottom-up, fair--rather than big vision statements or policy slogans like Limited Government or Global Peace. The netroots' "user-generated politics" is a natural extension of these values. "What they stand for is different from traditional liberalism. And the influx of the Millenials, who are now aligning themselves with Democratic politicians and policies, is a direct result of that shift," says Armstrong.
X-er ambition is perfectly embodied by the now infamous anti-Hillary spoof of Apple's "Big Brother" ad, created by 33-year-old Phil de Vellis, who declared it a victory for citizen politics. "The underlying point," he says, "was that the old political machine no longer holds all the power." No one, however, picked up on the subtext of generational change--a message that has become the rallying slogan of the Obama campaign.
But does Obama represent a new generation of lefty politics? The Audacity of Hope certainly hits all the same notes as many of his X-er peers: the journey from political alienation to commitment; an impatience with the ideological legacy of the '60s; measured skepticism toward liberal verities; a push for a new paradigm for a new millennium. And he displays characteristic X-er impatience with the traditional left/right divide on policy matters. As Obama told a New Hampshire audience, "I'm a Democrat. I'm considered a progressive Democrat. But if a Republican or a conservative or a libertarian or a free-marketer has a better idea, I am happy to steal ideas from anybody, and in that sense I'm agnostic."
But Obama's vision of generational change has been remarkably thin on the details. For all the fuss over his Facebook following, his netroots strategy looks a lot like old-fashioned marketing. "He's skipped right over the blogosphere to the younger social networking sites, where he can be embraced in a way that he is more comfortable with," says Armstrong, arguing that Obama's boomer campaign managers prefer to sell him to the Millennials as a cool brand name with its very own catchy slogan, "Generation Obama," that they can embrace.
It may be one reason X-ers have not overwhelmingly embraced his candidacy. Hillary Clinton is way out ahead in polls among all age categories except the Millennials, who favor Obama. Of course, there is a vast gap between national polls and the voting preferences of activists. In a straw poll conducted at the Take Back America conference this year, John Edwards was far more popular with X-ers than any other age group, perhaps because he has been far more willing to openly challenge the Democratic establishment than his rivals. Their second choice was Obama. The boomers split their votes more evenly among the three candidates.
The latest research conducted by the Pew Research Center picks "Anxious Xers" as the swing voters to watch in 2008. "They're at a stage in the life cycle where they get into citizenship and voting in ways they weren't four or even eight years ago," says president Andrew Kohut, though they're anxious about the same things they worried about as twentysomethings: income equality, lack of wage growth, the environment and, more recently, rising healthcare costs. The good news for Democrats, says Kohut, is that they're leaning progressive.
One way or the other, progressive X-ers will likely find themselves back in the headlines over the coming years. A new generation of leaders--be it Obama or netroots bloggers or social justice activists--is at the right age and moment, with the skills and knowledge required to change the political landscape, plus the gift of historical hindsight. It's an important moment, but its outcome remains uncertain. The netroots may fall prey to technological triumphalism and narrow definitions of gain, much like those who got swept up in the dot-com boom. Generational change may also quickly devolve into political infighting if X-ers and boomers are unwilling or unable to find a way to build on the old toward the new. Or X-ers may end up like the Silent Generation, who, sandwiched between the GI Generation and the baby boomers, were simply squished into obscurity.
If all else fails, there's this small consolation: At least we lowly X-ers can swing-vote our way out of Camp Limbo in 2008. Move over, Security Mom--here comes Molly Ringwald.