A Lost Political Generation?

The Doofus Generation. That's what The Washington Post calls those of us in our twenties, who came of political age during the 1970s and 1980s. In the eyes of many observers, we are indifferent and ignorant -- unworthy successors to the baby-boom generation that in the 1960s set the modern standard for political activism by the young.

To an extent, they are right. My generation has become acquainted with political realism, and cynicism, early in life. But it is a mistake to equate such cynicism with a lack of moral compassion or concern about public issues. As much as previous generations, we have ideals -- strong ones, in fact. Most of us just do not expect to achieve those ideals through electoral politics, and that expectation frames our distinctive generational crisis: Although we want desperately to act according to our ideals, we lack the experiences to turn our idealism into an activist politics.

This perspective on politics transcends traditional ideological labels and is the product, largely, of our historical circumstances. Although we read about Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, the New Deal and the Great Society, we came of age at a time when government neither undertook bold new initiatives nor gave definition to the nation's long-term purpose. Now, reared in an environment devoid of effective government activism, we have come to see politics as irrelevant to achieving the ideals that matter to us. We remain generally sympathetic to egalitarian values, but have no patience for government as an instrument of reform.

If political life in the 1970s and 1980s elicited similar responses from other generations, its impact on my generation was unique in one crucial respect. Accounts of the baby boomers tell a story of disaffection, of idealistic expectations gone awry, but we never developed their illusions in the first place. Unlike the boomers, we never thought that government could be a positive force in our lives.

To be sure, my own outlook reflects an upper-middle-class bias. But polling data and conversations with dozens of young people over the last few months -- from the New Hampshire campaign trail to the New Jersey industrial belt -- show these sentiments are not limited to one end of the socio-economic spectrum. For all of our differences, we still articulate one strikingly coherent theme: that government is increasingly remote, and that politics is no longer an avenue for achieving progress.

The mixture of moral idealism and political cynicism that many of us feel is inherently unstable; how long we can sustain it is difficult to tell. One thing is certain, however: With few exceptions, we have disengaged from politics, and that is something that should worry all Americans. Our disaffection should serve as an imperative for more inspiring national leadership -- if not for the sake of progressive reform, then for the sake of democracy, whose very legitimacy depends on an electorate far more involved with politics than we are.

Visions of Camelot
This notorious distaste for politics was not readily apparent in New Hampshire this winter. Twenty-four years after the invasion of "Clean for Gene" McCarthy kids, a new army of student volunteers arrived to make their own mark on the New England landscape. Drawing sustenance from a steady diet of corn chips, pizza, and politics, these stubbornly energetic young people -- dubbed the "foot soldiers of democracy" by one local newspaper -- dedicated themselves to the perhaps naive notion that they could change the nation's future. And after one chilly morning of canvassing through Manchester, a few of these activists took great offense when confronted by the conventional assessment of our generation's political commitment.

"What, have you been talking to baby-boomers or something?" bristled Stephanie Miner, a twenty-one-year-old volunteer for Bob Kerrey. Shivering over a cup of coffee -- her first nourishment in nearly a day -- Miner wrote off the dismissals as more hypocrisy from the hippie-turned-yuppie children of the 1960s. "Here they always talk about how they marched and protested, and now they're the same ones who are stepping over homeless people to buy Rolexes. We're better than that."

"Don't tell me my generation isn't doing anything," agreed Alison Fong. A week after arriving in Manchester, Fong, twenty-three, already showed the symptoms of campaign exhaustion -- bleary eyes, a hoarse voice, and a red nose -- and offered up her bedraggled condition as proof that the stereotypes are wrong. "We don't wave around huge words and slogans that, in and of themselves, don't get anything done. But we're much more realistic about what we can do. And we do it."

By their own admission, Miner and Fong are atypical. Their enthusiasm for politics (and mine, I suspect) is very much the product of the unusual affluence and education that are standard among New Hampshire volunteers. But the undercurrent of realism in their outlooks reflects the pervasive cynicism that infects most people our age. That cynicism is the basis of our unique generational perspective, and it is what links activists like Miner and Fong to Carolyn Berrios, a shopping mall employee from a working class community near Trenton, New Jersey.

Berrios, eighteen, professes an ignorance of national affairs. When prodded, however, she offers some strongly held opinions on such issues as abortion, the environment, and even the economy. So why not pay attention to the candidates and the parties? "It just doesn't seem to matter," she says. "Maybe if someone like Kennedy were around. From what my parents have told me about him, he really touched people. That would make a difference."

Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy. Even before Oliver Stone made his controversial film, and punctuated it with a dedication to the nation's young, the legacy of JFK loomed larger than life over our childhood and adolescence. On college campuses, posters of his likeness adorn dormitory walls (they are among the best-selling items at Harvard's student store, the Coop). On the radio, hit songs resurrect his name (the lyrics from a recent Guns'n'Roses track: "In my first memories they shot Kennedy...").

Whether JFK the man was anything like JFK the myth is the topic of frequent debate. Detractors note his inability to complete a legislative program, his inconsistent foreign policy, and his extramarital affairs. Yet those shortcomings make the obsession with Kennedy all the more telling. Those of us who look to Kennedy as a hero do so because we lack any similarly inspiring figures of our own. If Kennedy has assumed a legendary status disproportionate with his achievements, it is precisely because his successors in the White House (not coin-cidentally, I think, his predominantly Republican successors) have so consistently failed to arouse our passions. "Political leaders are not only failing to impart citizenship values," observe the authors of "Democracy's Next Generation," a 1989 survey of youth opinion issued by People for the American Way, "they are actually alienating young people from public life."

* * *

My generation woke up to politics amid the worst scandal in American history. "Mommy, who's that?" I remember asking as I watched the gaunt figure on television. "That's Tricky Dick," she replied. "He's bad." And so went a simple but pointed lesson, taught in millions of households: The President of the United States was not a man to be respected. Our parents perhaps meant only to indict one individual, but for a grade-school population still learning the basics of American government, an indictment of the President was an indictment of the entire system.

Richard Nixon's successors restored trust in the government. But they did little else to raise our still malleable expectations about what politics could actually accomplish. We remember Gerald Ford, if at all, as a bumbling "Saturday Night Live" caricature. We remember Jimmy Carter as a weak leader, who wore cardigan sweaters around the White House and let a fanatic Islamic leader hold us hostage for more than a year. By 1980 our parents lamented how bad things had gotten, but for us it was just more of the same.

And then there was Ronald Reagan, who told us it was morning in America. As much as older Americans, we were fans of the Gipper. Unfortunately, the most basic tenet of Reaganism was a distrust of government, and under Reagan we either came to disrespect government because it did not touch our lives or respect it for the very same reason. Either way, the effect was the same, as former Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart told me recently: "My generation got into public life the degree to which it did because of John Kennedy and the inspiration about citizen obligation. The next generation was turned off to public service... [Reagan] in effect told people not to become involved in government."

Hart is right. Twenty years ago, an inspired baby boom generation came to politics amid great expectations of their electoral potential. Patrick Caddell, George Mc-Govern's pollster and later Hart's top adviser, eventually suggested generational politics as the centerpiece of Democratic strategy in the 1980s. A platform that appealed to boomers' generational identity and longing for "new ideas," Caddell said, could put the right candidate over the top.

Of course, those hopes were never fulfilled, as the baby boomers became increasingly disinterested in politics. Now, lacking a catalyst (a role Hart once was poised to fill) and with the 1960s fading into historical memory, the chances that political leaders will ever fully capitalize on the baby boomers' distinctive yearnings seem increasingly remote.

Still, even the boomers never disengaged as dramatically as we have. According to "The Age of Indifference," a 1990 survey conducted by the Times-Mirror Center for the Press and Politics, "Today's young Americans, aged 18 to 30, know less and care less about news and public affairs than any other generation of Americans in the past 50 years." Similarly, Linda and Stephen Bennett, authors of a recent book, Living with Leviathan, write that "among the youngest, best-educated segments of our society, the concept of democratic citizenship is in serious decline."

Analyses like these suggest our generation's cynicism about politics is fundamentally different from the cynicism that characterizes the baby boomers, who still have what Caddell once described as a "dormant idealism" -- a sense that political leadership, in the right hands, can make a difference. Politicians can appeal to the boomers' sense of civic obligation knowing that somewhere, buried beneath the thinning hair of middle age, the activist flame flickers. That seed of idealism is a crucial ingredient in political enthusiasm, and it is almost completely absent in my generation's consciousness.

When our elders grew up, government was a consistent part of their lives, launching bold initiatives or calling upon citizens for broad sacrifice. The New Deal. The mobilization for World War II. The GI Bill. The Great Society. These government initiatives reinforced the connection between citizen and state and infused young people with a sense that government could advance their lives. We never had such experiences. While the programs of the New Deal and Great Society continued to affect us -- arguably, government was more active during our childhoods than ever before -- we took those programs for granted, and, absent any new initiatives to grab our attention, we came to believe politics was tangential to our lives.

* * *

Other factors have contributed to our sense of distance. Kennedy successfully connected with youth in part because he, too, was young. Since his day, however, the White House has aged along with the country. Every president since Eisenhower was born in the same sixteen-year period, from 1908 to 1924, and that has widened the perceived gap between the presidency and the young electorate. "Fresh ideas can come from tired old politicians," says Peter Cleary, a young staffer at the Environmental Defense Fund. "But they don't have the same fresh appeal that will make a difference with young people."

Identifying with government has been even more difficult for women and members of minority groups. Reared in a climate of increasing multiculturalism (particularly on college campuses), they are now heirs to a political establishment inconsistent -- particularly at its highest level, the presidency -- with their expectations of diversity. As a result, activists like Rusty Terry -- a black volunteer for the Tom Harkin campaign -- are very much the exception in places like New Hampshire. "Within the Black Students Union, they don't get involved with politics," says Terry of his classmates at the University of Rochester. "They say it's not for them, so why should they even get involved in the first place?"

In the end, though, this is all part of the same phenomenon: Government for my generation has become a distant, insignificant entity. We are thankful if it is merely free of corruption and expect it to produce little progress that will affect us. That sentiment may belie the extent to which government does improve our lives, but it is the only logical conclusion most of us can draw from our experience.

Liberal Ambivalence
Paul Tsongas is an unlikely generational hero. Relatively uncharismatic, he relies on a puritanical, "take your medicine" tone to woo voters -- hardly a formula for capturing the imaginations of young people. But Tsongas has enjoyed widespread support among youth throughout the campaign. His "Economic Call to Arms" struck a chord with intellectually minded college students early on, and since then his no-frills campaign style has played perfectly to my generation's deep-seated cynicism about slick politicians.

At a New York fund raiser in February, that support was evident. New Hampshire's momentum had brought Tsongas to Astoria, Queens, which boasts one of the largest Greek populations outside Athens. But conspicuous among the boisterous ethnic crowd was a regiment of Tsongas student volunteers -- mostly white, pre-profes-sional types from Columbia or New York University. Bitter weather and rush-hour congestion had made the half-hour commute from Manhattan all the more difficult, but the Tsongas message and peculiar brand of charm had the students far too mesmerized to complain.

"I chose this party because it was my parents' party, but I have yet to see a candidate who was forward thinking and was honest about what needed to get done," bubbled Joanie Patterson, a twenty-three-year-old student at Columbia. "Tsongas isn't afraid to tell the truth, and, for the first time, I can vote and enthusiastically support a candidate who has something to say and something to do that will actually make a difference in the country."

Patterson's qualified liberalism is typical of our generation. Although we led the nation in our support for Reagan, we harbor no great love for the Republican Party. In fact, we overwhelmingly reject the social agenda of Republicanism and are comfortable voting for Democrats (indeed, for anyone) who offer us hope of improvement or mere competence. But our disengagement from politics -- our refusal to see politics as the path for achieving our ideals -- makes us hesitant to embrace platforms of wide-ranging progressive reform. Thus, like Patterson, most of us find more appeal in a Paul Tsongas -- as opposed to a Mario Cuomo, a Jerry Brown, or even a Bill Clinton -- because his agenda embraces our social attitudes but stops short of affirming government as a positive force.

* * *

Most everybody concedes that young America's love affair with Ronald Reagan during the 1980s had more to do with the man and his leadership style than with his conservative social agenda. "I fell in love with Ronald Reagan in the fifth grade," confesses Steve Satran, executive director of College Republicans of America. "He made quite an impression. I just liked the things he said about America and the future." And so did the rest of us. Says CNN's Guy Molyneux, formerly a leading activist with Democratic Socialists of America, "Those party attachments [of the 1980s] were more performance-based than ideology-based. That makes it a lot more fragile."

Well, not totally fragile. Conservatives note correctly that young voters have bought into one prominent area of Republican social ideology: law-and-order issues. We have much less patience for the rights of criminals than our elders did, and give unprecedented support to the death penalty. Also, we oppose legalization of marijuana and profess more concern about drug abuse than did people our age a decade ago.

But the conservative views of law and order are the exception. Strip away our fear of crime and what remains is a generation as liberal as any before it, if not more so, at least on issues not specifically linked to money. According to the UCLA/American Council on Education national survey of college freshmen, first conducted in 1966, student support for abortion rights hit 64 percent four years ago and has remained stable ever since. Today, 76 percent of freshmen think health care should be a right -- the highest ever -- while only 42 percent think government should pass laws banning gay relationships -- the lowest ever (although an alarmingly high figure, nonetheless).

Such liberal social attitudes should come as no surprise. Folk wisdom has long held that young adults, still in the throes of post-adolescent rebellion, are the most predisposed toward challenging the status quo. And while this purported receptivity to change is occasionally disputed, there is another, even more plausible explanation for our progressive ideals: We are the product of the most explicitly open-minded culture in American history.

Many of us attended integrated schools, and thus knew only an environment officially, if not actually, intolerant of blatant discrimination. During our lifetimes, Heathcliff Huxtable of 'The Cosby Show" replaced Howard Cunningham of "Happy Days" as our national surrogate father, while Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan succeeded Joe Namath and Pete Rose as our national sports heroes. Most of us received from our parents and culture a clear message about social values -- a commitment to egalitarianism and tolerance unprecedented in the nation's history. That message may not have meshed with reality, and may have reached some of us more powerfully than others, but it left nearly all of us with something to which we could pin a strong liberal social identity.

But Americans vote with their pocket-books, too, and it is on the fiscal front my generation's striking conservatism emerges. Although we endorse the philosophy behind the social safety net, we remain skeptical about welfare programs and other specific initiatives. We profess egalitarian attitudes but are unwilling to spend taxpayer money to realize such goals.

* * *

One possible explanation for our fiscal attitudes is the difficult economic circumstances that confront us. As young people entering the work force, buying our first cars and maybe even homes, we are particularly vulnerable to the middle-class squeeze. With wages shrinking and job opportunities lacking (thanks to the dwindling industrial sector and the boomers occupying all the good mid-level positions), we have always looked to the financial horizon nervously. Now, the recession has realized our worst fears and, so it would seem, made us all the more stingy. According to the ACE/UCLA survey, young people increasingly cite financial well-being as a goal in life (from 44 percent in 1966 to 78 percent in 1992), and show less support for welfare state programs. As Lorraine Voles, press secretary for the Harkin campaign, says, "You'd be surprised at just how conservative young people can be." But how so? Our fiscal conservatism clearly does not represent a rejection of social or even economic egalitarianism. According to the Bennetts, "measures tapping egalitarian opinions show the young to be more in favor of expanding equality than older cohorts." Citing national election surveys by the University of Michigan's Center for Political Studies, they found that my generation expressed "the most egalitarian opinions" of any. While such a discrepancy between philosophical and actual support for social welfare programs is not unusual, it is telling. It suggests that our low opinion of government -- not some crude economic selfishness or a lack of class consciousness -- is the major reason we are so skeptical of the social safety net and other government spending programs.

This, of course, is still Republican political territory, and that points to the real problem my generation poses for liberals. Even though our sympathies lie with the liberal causes traditionally championed by the Democratic Party, our refusal to believe in government is positively Reaganesque. Political liberalism requires not only a desire but a willingness to act. By straddling the ideological divide over fiscal and social attitudes, we demonstrate no such willingness. The fact that our attitude reflects a skepticism about government efficacy and not a true sympathy for the status quo is of little relevance once we get to the voting booth.

We are not alone in this disposition. As recent elections have shown, the "centrist" message of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism has broad appeal, particularly among disillusioned baby-boomers. But that, alas, is to be expected. Generations are supposed to get more fiscally conservative as they grow older. My generation has no such excuse. Our acceptance of that outlook while still so young does not bode well for the progressive causes.

The prospects for liberal reform in America, then, rest on one hope: that our egalitarian sensibilities run deeper than our cynicism about politics, and that our sense of social justice makes us uncomfortable bridging this ideological divide. If that is the case, our current disposition may be more unstable than anybody realizes.

Music Video Politics
Two Sundays before the New Hampshire primary, television's talk-show circuit was abuzz with the usual campaign gossip. On ABC, the venerable David Brinkley pressed Bob Kerrey on whether he could win an election on national health care alone. Over at the McLaughlin Group, the feisty Fred Barnes dung to his prediction that Mario Cuomo would enter the race. And on MTV, the trendy Tabitha Soren reported that a well-crafted appeal on education and the environment could swing New Hampshire's youth vote.

Welcome to politics, music video style. Over the last year, MTV -- much maligned as the bane of contemporary youth existence -- has attempted to resurrect the marriage of pop culture and politics consummated in the 1960s. Sporting brightly colored attire (Soren seems partial to loud green and orange), the MTV News crews are a conspicuous if irregular presence on the campaign trail, and have managed to produce a considerable body of coverage.

Granted, Soren is no Walter Cronkite. Discussion of economic stimuli and trade policy juxtapose uncomfortably with dizzying cutaways and thumping rhythm tracks. The broadcasts don't exactly challenge the intellect, and person-on-the-street quotes like "I think Dan Quayle is hot" serve primarily to reinforce the most negative stereotypes of our generation.

Yet MTV's broadcasts are refreshingly upstart. Overcommercialized cable networks may be no substitute for underground newspapers, but MTV does reach a lot of us. The mere fact that this profit-minded enterprise would even contemplate a political agenda at all suggests that an audience exists. It suggests that we, too, are uncomfortable with our professed indifference to politics, and that we cannot forever stay disengaged from politics when we want so badly to make a difference.

Our continued activism outside of electoral politics substantiates this prognosis. According to the national survey of freshmen, the probability that we participated in national, state, or local political campaigns during the last year has fallen by nearly half over the last two decades -- from 16.5 percent in 1969 to 8.7 percent in 1988. Yet, while this may surprise baby-boomer activists, we are more than twice as likely as they were to have participated in organized demonstrations. In 1966 only 15.5 percent of the survey's respondents reported having participated in a protest during the previous year; by 1990, that proportion had jumped to 39.4 percent (Oddly, the organized demonstration question was not asked during the late 1960s, when the antiwar movement was at its peak.) Perhaps the most telling statistic of all is the observation that "students are becoming increasingly interested in bringing about social change." Although interest in electoral politics continues to fall, the percentage who say they want to influence social values has increased from about 35 percent in 1968 to roughly 43 percent in 1991.

In Washington, grass-roots activists tell a similarly confounding story. Ask us to campaign for an elected official or a new bill in Congress, and we respond with what Molyneux terms "a kind of militant apathy." But ask us to work on something in our home or community, and our attitudes change dramatically. Says Cleary of his experience at the Environmental Defense Fund: "Young people, especially, have latched onto the environment as an issue because it's something they feel capable of affecting themselves, in their day-to-day lives."

The same goes for campaigns that channel deep-seated feelings about so-called moral issues into small communities where young people know their voices will be heard. Contemporary college campuses may not witness the Vietnam-inspired revolts that marked the 1960s, but they still see vocal activism on everything ranging from acquaintance rape to faculty diversity. Last fall, Ms. Magazine chronicled the rise of "New Campus Radicals," feminist students committed to changing the social environments at their schools. The article sensed "change is in the air" -- a prediction since realized in the policies on acquaintance rape adopted on many campuses.

We profess indifference but hear the call of our socially idealistic upbringing. Activism still captures our imagination. 'The problem," says Mary Beth Maxwell, organizing director for the United States Student Association, "is people are not seeing a connection between the ballot box and the issues they care about." Given the extent to which my generation remains interested in issues, this is likely a temporary situation. And if leaders can somehow reestablish the connection between issues and voting, we might well embrace -- indeed, insist upon -- an activist government committed to our own progressive agenda.

The New Generational Politics
Shortly before his death, an unusually philosophical Lee Atwater said he detected something missing in the American consciousness. For all the success of Reagan, he said, Americans wanted something more out of life. He was right. Americans are missing something -- a sense of direction and progressive evolution -- and no generation feels that longing more powerfully than the young, who maintain high ideals for society but see politics as irrelevant to realizing those dreams.

The recession has, for the moment, staved off our civic decline. Like all Americans, we have looked to the government for economic recovery. As a result, people who might not otherwise have given politics a chance -- people like Jim Finn, a twenty-five-year-old volunteer with the Kerrey campaign -- have waded into the political waters. "I saw that politics in general needed to make a difference. That's why we're all here." "The people here are true believers," adds Bill Crowley, a twenty-three-year-old staffer for Tsongas. "They know they're making a difference. They'd kill or die for the cause."

But crisis-driven civic virtue is not enough, for when the crisis evaporates -- as it will eventually -- so will the enthusiasm. To save the political spirit of young America, government must do more than cure the current recession. Even as it acknowledges our low expectations of government activism -- an acknowledgement upon which my cynical generation will insist -- it must address some broader goals that embrace our generation's relatively high ideals, and restore to this nation a sense of long-term direction. Only by doing that can government capture our attention and enthusiasm.

And only from the left can such initiative come. For all of our conservative attitudes toward the role of government in society, we have a profoundly different notion than conservatives do about what our society should look like. Even as we say we are content to solve public problems without engaging in politics, we long for the very public solutions -- equal economic opportunity, a clean environment -- that only politics can achieve.

We want desperately to act, to make a difference in the world during our lifetimes. A liberal political agenda not only relevant to our daily lives but also committed to our high ideals would capitalize on this instinct. When government seems to us both capable of and willing to embrace those goals, we will reengage with the political world.

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