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 todayâ€™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.