American Culture

Obama and the false war of generational dynamics

By Martin Bosworth

Pundits are much like birds flocking south for the winter…they travel in large groups, directed a certain way by a few leaders that twist this way and that, directing the rest of the flock to follow. It seems that if you watch the flock, it looks like they have no idea which way they’re going, so willy-nilly and arbitrary are their changes of direction.

And so it is that this week we get no fewer than four distinct flocks flying around this week, each one presenting a very different directional tilt on the topic of whether or not Barack Obama is a candidate for “Generation X,” the “Millenial” generation, both, neither, or something totally different.

First we have Andrew Sullivan’s “Goodbye To All That,” which paints Obama as a post-Baby Boomer messiah that can deliver the country from the Boomer struggles that are still being fought today through proxies. Iraq isn’t about Iraq, Sullivan argues, but about Vietnam and the continuing inability of many members of the ‘Nam generation to accept the loss. Sullivan’s thesis is that the divisiveness engendered by the conflicts of the ’60s and ’70s are being fought today still, and Obama represents the chance to move on to truly new ground. “The war today matters enormously,” Sullivan argues. “The war of the last generation? Not so much. If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today’s actual problems, Obama may be your man.” It’s a compelling argument, and one I’d be more keen to buy if the guy making the argument wasn’t infamous for engaging in his own proxied battles of personal destruction against Bill and Hillary Clinton. I may not be old enough to remember Vietnam, but I definitely AM old enough to remember Sullivan’s frothing hatred for the Clintons as a prime example of the coarsening of the discourse, and it’s bizarre to see him write about the vicious smear campaigning as if he had no part in it.

Next up there’s Lakshmi Chaudhry’s take on the matter, wherein she argues that though Obama is chiefly appealing to Millenials (18-30 year olds) in his stump and vision, the real appeal–and real support–for Obama lies in the Gen X crowd, whose all-encompassing cynicism and distaste for established models led it to reinvent political action via the Internet and espouse new frameworks of activism. I can believe this too–looking at the institutions forged by the likes of Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong, which emphasize infrastructure and victory over ideology, and using compromise Democrats to build platforms that more progressive Democrats can stand on, I can see this as an expression of Gen X rejection of the “old way of doing things.” Obama’s message of pragmatism, bipartisanship, and results is very appealing, but does “practivism” actually mean anything if the means to achieve results are compromised by selling out the ideals you claim to stand for?

Michael Currie Schaffer’s “Hard To Say Goodbye” casts a cynical look at generational politics, noting that succeeding generations are often all too willing and eager to pick up the flaws and foibles of their forebears, and that it’s impossible to paint individual actions with a broad generational brush–and that Obama’s strength will come from his own individual ability to forge his path. I tend to hew to this argument the most–I know many right-wing friends of mine who parrot the “Democrats tax and spend” line as if they hadn’t lived through eight years of Bush’s gargantuan deficit spending, so strong is the cultural meme in their mind. But I also know just as many people who make these arguments–or reject them–based on individual empirical exploration. Obama’s weakness in his campaign has been his wide stance–trying to be all things to all people without building a coherent framework to pull these disparate beliefs together. It’s an individual action of his that makes him strong when he does pull it together (as he did here), and it’s individual actions of the voters that will make them support or oppose Obama, fueled by factors a lot more complex than labels like “Gen X” or “Millenial.”

Finally, Paul Waldman argues that whether Obama is a Boomer, Gen X’er, or some amorphous fusion of the two, it’s right for him to court the youth vote–not only is under-25 voting on the rise, but those that are voting are doing so as a generation who sees the culture war as over. Gay marriage, equal rights, and interracial dating are no longer issues to this generation, and someone like Obama represents a truly transformational phase for them, a way to remind our country and the world that we’re not all a bunch of redneck Arab-hating bigots, despite the best efforts of PNAC, AIPAC, and the Bush junta. I’m skeptical about this too, especially in light of events ranging from the ongoing saga of the Jena 6 and young voters who might sell their vote for an iPod Touch, just as I’m skeptical about the “change value” of a candidate simply for their skin color or gender. I criticized Garance Franke-Ruta about this line of thinking back in July–it does a terrible disservice to Obama and Clinton by assigning them change potential simply because they showed up to the dance and happened to be black and/or a woman. If Clinton votes with the Reich Wing on practically every issue of national security and economic mobility, does that make her–or Obama, or Edwards, or anyone–a change candidate? I think not.

In the end, that’s what I take away from these many essays about generational dynamics…people are looking at Obama and assigning to him the values they want him to represent, be they generational, cultural, political, and social. This is both something that can work in Obama’s favor, as he strives to be all things to all people, but it’s also a weakness–for when you are painted as the avatar of a generation’s values, what do you do if you don’t live up to them?

That’s why, in the end, I will vote (or not vote) for a candidate based on what they stand for and how they live up to it. Not because a generational dynamic tells me to, or a self-projecting pundit believes I should, or because they happen to fulfill a token demographic. But because they can prove to me that they are deserving based on their own merit. As a guy who comes in on the tail end of Gen X, I’m old enough to be cynical of what people tell me, but young enough to still want to believe in it. I think that’s a fair compromise, and putting aside generational prognostications and cultural assignations to focus on what matters most–the issues–is equally fair in my view.

13 replies »

  1. But Martin, how about a moment of self-examination?

    That’s why, in the end, I will vote (or not vote) for a candidate based on what they stand for and how they live up to it. Not because a generational dynamic tells me to, or a self-projecting pundit believes I should, or because they happen to fulfill a token demographic.

    Now, let’s see, what do we know about Xers? Pragmatic? And, as Howe and Strauss note, the only thing you can get Xers to agree on is that Generation doesn’t even exist?

    Of course this is what you think. You’re an Xer. At least acknowledge that you’re looking at the issue through a particular context.

  2. Nicely done and nicely researched. I wonder, sometimes, if we don’t make too much of generational differences. The 60s and 70s tended to see us talk a great deal about the “generation gap,” and yet the boomers went on to be much like their parents in their drive to succeed. What seemed significant at the time seems insignificant now.

  3. Sam,

    But does the dog wag the tail–am I thinking this way because of my generation–or does the tail wag the dog–are my thoughts becoming representational of my generation as a whole?

    I would never cast myself as emblematic of my generation, even IF I believed we had some commonalities that could be cast across the whole breadth of the experience–I’m just too weird. But then again, I’m sure everyone thinks they’re the special one. 😉

  4. JS,

    Ironically, generational lessons are what cause that. Kids learn from their primary influences–their parents, friends, and social groups–and develop behaviors accordingly. That’s why you see so many young right-wingers who weren’t even in grade school when Reagan was President picking up the worst habits of the Me Generation.

    But they also reject those values as wholeheartedly as they embrace them. You should have seen Sam and I argue about an article describing so-called “Millenial” behaviors in the workplace, and how the current generation prefers friends, fun, and social activity to the corporate lifestyle.

    The world is just too complex to tar with that broad a brush.

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  6. Martin: I’ve been studying X hard since the early ’90s. I’m not THE expert, by any stretch, but understanding a bit about generational behavior is part of what I do for a living. For what that’s worth, I’d say your answer is precisely what I’d expect of a smart member of our generation. You didn’t get to be the kind of thinker you are by accident, and what you’re doing here isn’t new – it’s been a recognizable trait of the cohort for a long time.

  7. Returning to the baby boomers for a minute, one of my first impressions on reaching political maturity in 1968 at age 18 was this: most of my generation was into the counterculture for the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. They had no interest in politics (though some liked throwing fire bombs at campus buildings).

    Others were interested in the environment and organic lifestyle; others the spiritual, such as post-psychedelic Zen. (If you’re wondering where I’m going, hold on, I’m getting there.)

    Virtually nobody I ever met (just those I read about in magazines) combined free sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll, the spritual, and the environment and vegetarianism in one.

    To most, the counterculture was just one big buffet. And the political was like a Waldorf salad, passed over by most.

    In other words, they weren’t holistic, if you will.

    Obama, with his views all over the place, seems just as fragmented. Like the average citizen — no matter what his generation — he doesn’t seem to understand the importance of making his views consistent.

  8. Excellent post. I’ve been amused by the generational conflict angle creeping into this election cycle. Obama may be a fool for concentrating his efforts on the “youth” vote; after all, they are notorious for being electorally significant until they have something better to do on voting day.

    A recent article (i cannot remember what or where) suggested that the X voters are concerned with practical problem solving over political victory. I am not an avatar of my generation, but that is, indeed, how i feel. After seeing Obama on the Daily Show, i came away with a different view of him. Rather than policy pronouncements, he seems to be concerned with process. If that is the case, it explains some of his fluid policy goals. If this whole paragraph is true, then it points to the nexus of Obama and generation X.

    However, turning that nexus into a generational conflict for electoral purposes is deeply flawed. Preaching to a small, often politically amotivated choir will only land Obama in the dustbin of history. Rather than letting himself get tangled in policy debate that he cannot win by virtue of being process, rather than policy, oriented, he should be standing on his process orientation. He wouldn’t lose the youth vote, and he might gain a wider audience. After all, it is not just the young who are fed up with politics as usual.

    And the fact of the matter is that he will lose a generational battle. Jim Morrison, in the throes of his revolutionary youth divinity complex, cried that “they got the guns, but we got the numbers.” History has turned we into they; now they have both.