Looking at who doesn't vote in America can be a kind of Rorschach test for political commentators. Confronted with the dark splotch of the politically disengaged, they discern all kinds of shapes--here a complacent consumer, there an alienated cynic, and over there a volunteer who values public service over voting. As more people avoid the polls, it perhaps becomes easier to characterize the people who do follow politics. In my experience, they tend to care for an actual reason, or multiple reasons:
They grew up in a household of lively debaters, or a certain presidential administration pissed them off, or they became concerned about the environment or about taxes, or they had a socialist boyfriend in college. Self-interest may grease the wheels of American politics, but I know of few people who got involved in politics just because somebody else told them it was generally in their own self-interest to get involved. (George W. Bush is an exception that springs to mind.)
It is nonetheless the premise of We've Got Issues by Meredith Bagby that young disengaged nonvoters might be inspired to change their ways by a general, nonpartisan appeal, written in very spunky prose, warning them that if they don't do anything, no one will take care of the country and the place will go to hell. Americans will have no choice but to "move to New Zealand where the taxes are low and the climate temperate." If young Americans hope to live happily in this country, Bagby declares, they must become more invested in politics. "To keep the engine going we have to get involved. That sounds cliché, but it is as sure as the foam on your latte," writes Bagby, who notes in her dedication that the book was written in a Starbucks.
So let's assume that such an appeal might work, or at least might not deter people from reading on. The next step in the conversion process, according to Bagby, is for the heretofore-disengaged young adult to figure out what the important political issues of our time are. The bulk of We've Got Issues is divided into short chapters, concise and clearly written, on the federal budget, Social Security, Medicare, income inequality, education, and so on, in which Bagby tries to lay out the current terms of debate and note why a youngish person ought to be concerned. She manages to pack a lot in, not only "issues" but also quotes from various young Americans--who are pictured in the margins posing with flags--and a multiple-choice current-events quiz at the end.
The generation sometimes known as X is the focus here, and Bagby seems confident of her ability to assess and address the political inclinations--or lack thereof--of adults under age 35. Though some might take issue with the idea that the nearly 50 million Americans born between the mid-1960s and late 1970s constitute any sort of coherent political category, that assumption has enabled Bagby to build up her impressive résumé, copies of which were helpfully sent out by the publisher along with the book's advance galleys. Bagby wrote her first book, The Annual Report of the United States of America, in 1994 while she was still an undergraduate at Harvard (where she studied economics, won debate awards, and worked as a research assistant for former Reagan adviser Martin Feldstein). The Annual Report, an analysis of the national economy written for the citizen-shareholders of "America, Inc.," garnered praise from Ross Perot and the Heritage Foundation, and has been published annually ever since.
In the meantime, Bagby has worked as an analyst for Morgan Stanley in New York and as a reporter and Gen X commentator for CNN financial news. In 1998 she published Rational Exuberance: How Generation X is Creating a New American Economy; and this year she graduated from Columbia Law School. She serves on the board of Third Millennium, a Gen X policy think tank. She has worked summers at Skadden, Arps. She has testified before a Senate committee. She has been on all the political talk shows. Bagby is, in other words, a part-time pundit, part-time wonk, and newly minted corporate lawyer. This may lend her some insight into the sensibilities of certain members of the younger generation, but surely it distances her from many others.
The argument that Gen X has its own set of issues is likely to be most plausible to an economist: If the long-term consequences of the national debt and the future of Social Security are what you are most interested in politically, then your natural allies are young people who, in theory, should be most attentive to long-term economic forecasts. (In practice I'm not sure if they are so interested or ever will be; meanwhile, if you care more about traditionally Democratic issues like improving public schools than about paying down the debt, you probably don't feel much political solidarity with, for example, a conservative Christian even if you and he share the exact same birthday.) Bagby does not go so far as to suggest that young people should unite under one political banner, but the very nature of her approach--politics for the young--predisposes her to try to define some common ground. From there it's a hop, skip, and a jump to factoids about the budget and the sort of analysis you might read in a vintage pamphlet from the Concord Coalition.
Polls have indicated that a large majority of young adults do in fact want the budget surplus to go to improving schools, paying down the debt, and fixing Social Security. This sort of result can be misleading, though; if what really moves you is a candidate's environmental record or health care proposal, not her intentions regarding the surplus, then what you told the caller from Gallup may not reflect your actual or potential voting decisions. This is the problem with demographically defined politics: It's poll-based and theoretical--and boring. On the one hand, Bagby seems to recognize this: "Give me a leader with a concrete plan, a person who has his own voice, not a composite speech written from polling data," she writes. But she proceeds to outline one political issue after another, citing lots of survey results and keeping her own political opinions to herself, so that We've Got Issues rather resembles a composite speech written from polling data. As for voice, Bagby's sometimes warbles. Here she sings of the budget: "What the gosh-golly do I mean? I mean that our government is robbin' our collective 'hood by transferring huge quantities of money from young working Americans to the elderly." And in reference to the Monica Lewinsky media circus: "These puffy politicians and their pungent paramours, the media-makers and their mother-monsters, the fat cats and the men with hats, all happily marched together toward the ultimate graveyard of scandal--a two-hour Barbara Walters special... ."
Some of these flip passages, which read like a big showy wink to her young target audience (young folks, as any marketer will tell you, just love irony), are enough to make you wonder: Just who are the "we" of We've Got Issues? At times "we" seem to be well-off, happy consumers: "gainfully employed, with this month's rent check in hand and enough Starbucks coffee, Krispy Kreme donuts, and IKEA furniture to keep us very, very happy--at least for now." "We" believe America to be a great country, says Bagby, because "where else can you kick back in a La-Z-Boy, sip a Big Gulp, and chow down on delivered pad thai while ordering the latest DVD on your laptop, watching Letterman, and listening to the gurgle of your double latte brewing in the kitchen?" (I hope Starbucks is underwriting the book tour, at least.) Still, Bagby does acknowledge that not everyone is so lucky:
We are creating two Americas. There is the techno-savvy, uber-educated, upwardly global, managerial elite. You know who you are with your PalmPilot tucked in your coat pocket, your iMac on order, your Star Tac gently nuzzling you when the Dow dips too low... . Then there are the other Americans--those who didn't graduate from high school, much less college: The overly-pierced, drooling checkout-counter operators who freak out when your cereal box won't scan. The McJobbers. Those kids who disappeared from my high school class and yours and just got lost.
You, dear reader, own a PalmPilot, while those other Americans are zombies. The McJobbers are apparently not part of the "we" who have the issues, presumably because they are too busy wiping the spittle off their cash registers to worry about the future of Social Security. And you can forget about rural Americans or blue-collar workers or recent immigrants. Bagby's young American population is made up of servers and servees. When she discusses welfare reform, she introduces us to "George," the homeless Vietnam veteran who used to live near her apartment building and then disappeared--not to a Gen Xer trying to get off welfare. (Can a Gen Xer in fact be on welfare? Or does the very term, like Bagby's book, define a generation by referring only to its urban/suburban, relatively well-off members?) Nor does Bagby mention all the twenty- and thirty-somethings who are in prison because of minor drug convictions. Reforming the nation's drug laws, though certainly a concern for many young adults, is not one of the "issues" on Bagby's radar screen.
Also absent from this book are some of the important movements driven by young people. In considering who the political activists of her generation are, Bagby refers to a number of inside-the-Beltway types, but she omits the campus antisweatshop campaigns and the Nader movement. (She does briefly mention youth support for the Reform Party.) More telling is the way she glosses over last year's WTO protests in Seattle: "A weird federation of 247 consumer groups from 111 countries literally shut down the city. Streets were crammed with beer-swashing labor unionists, Teva-wearing crunchies, environmentalists in giant green turtle costumes, and students dressed as monarch butterflies." The Seattle protestors, then, were drunk union guys and eccentric environmentalists, not politically active Gen Xers. Despite the failure of the trade talks, she says on the following page, "some have a more optimistic view of how businesses and protectionists can work together." Then she writes about how companies like DuPont are becoming more fuel-efficient.
Bagby does not seem to recognize the notion of politics as a struggle for power or the idea that 40,000 people showed up in Seattle because the power of corporations and global capital has gotten out of hand. The economic divide between rich and poor people may be worth an ironic sound bite, but it's generational economics that really matters: "Imagine that it is 2015," she writes. "Amid higher taxes and a depleted government treasury, Gen X is asked to pay for the retirement of its parents. What happens? That is the primary political question for this generation."
The primary political question? Sigh. It's enough to turn a person off politics entirely. Ah well, maybe things will be a little more interesting over in New Zealand. ¤