As America enters a new era driven by the civic political orientation of the Millennial Generation and minorities, each party must decide the type of ideological and demographic coalition that will give it the best shot at future success. This week's elections provided some clear clues to both Democrats and Republicans on which strategic direction to take. Whether either party's national leadership has the political perspicacity to follow that path to success in the 2010 off-year elections and beyond, however, is far less clear.
The special election in upstate New York's 23rd Congressional District seemed to shine the brightest light on where the American electorate is headed. The state's local Republican Party leadership, mindful of Barack Obama's 52% majority in this once heavily Republican district, nominated a moderate, (some would later say liberal) candidate, Dede Scozzafava. Her political profile was similar to two of the most successful Republicans in New York history, Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Senator Jacob Javits, both of whom served in America's last civic era more than a half century ago. But the GOP base outside of New York's "North Country" had long since moved past these faded images from the 1960s and was more interested in supporting a candidate whose conservative fiscal policies matched his attitudes on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
Taking advantage of the presence of a separate ballot line, national Republicans led by Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh, rallied behind the candidacy of Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman, whose ideas fit their conception of the ideology that would unite and excite the GOP base. But even in a Congressional district that hadn't elected a Democrat to Congress since the formation of the Republican Party that approach failed to generate a victory for Hoffman, who got only 46% of the vote. Even after dropping out and endorsing the Democrat, Scozzafava got 5% of the vote from some very loyal Republicans, giving Owens a 3% margin of victory, very similar to Obama's margin in the district in 2008. While it would be wrong to extrapolate these results from such a unique district to the American electorate as a whole, the outcome does suggest that a strident and consistently conservative ideological approach will not be the way for Republicans to regain majority status anytime soon.
At the same time that they were losing in New York, Republicans were successful in both the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections. By running positive campaigns focused on job creation and lower taxes, while downplaying social issues, both Robert McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey, were able to stop a recent streak of Democratic victories in those states. All of this, as one of the smartest political journalists in DC, Ron Brownstein has pointed out, is reminiscent of the appeal and turmoil that Ross Perot's 1992 candidacy for President brought to American politics.
There is indeed much that is similar in the current Republican mantra against Democratic spending and Perot's message. Perot's appeal was based on his own "odd man out" persona and a megalomaniacal focus on the nation's budget deficit. But Republicans tend to forget that Perot supporters were relentlessly secular. They rejected both the social agenda of the Republican Party and the big government tendencies of the Democrats. This makes any attempt by the GOP to follow the approach they used in upstate New York of melding government restrictions on social behavior and small government economic conservatism both ideologically inconsistent and politically difficult.
Others have suggested that the correct path to Republican recovery lies in marrying libertarian notions of limited government with that philosophy's social liberalism. Certainly the close votes on gay marriage in Maine and Washington, not to mention the vote to legalize marijuana by the citizens of Breckenridge, Colorado, suggests there is at least as much political potential in advocating tolerance on social issues as there is in hewing to conservative doctrine.
Writing in this month's edition of Fast Company, Silicon Valley's ideological bible, Carlos Watson, a high tech and media entrepreneur, argued the next election would provide the moment to build a lasting coalition of fiscal conservatives and social liberals. While this week's special elections didn't offer the voter's such a choice, the candidacies for the California Republican gubernatorial nomination of both Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay and Steve Poizner, another former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who made his fortune monetizing GPS technology, may well provide a testing ground for this theory next year.
However, history and current polling data does not suggest this approach is likely to be any more successful for the Republican party than doubling down on conservatism was in New York's 23rd Congressional District. The most recent WSJ/NBC poll by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff suggested that the American public favors a quite different approach. A large majority (63%) of the electorate said the government had either "done the right amount of intervention [in the economy] or needed to do more." Even 42% of non-aligned or loosely aligned voters in the middle of the electorate agreed with this statement. In other words, while Republicans stick to Reagan era ideas on the size and scope of government, the electorate is actually more interested in voting for candidates who will support a larger role for government in restoring the health of the U.S. economy.
Democrats, instead of running away from President Obama, should follow his lead in offering even more positive ways that government can protect middle class Americans from the worst excesses of the free market. That may be the opposite of Libertarianism, but it's just what the public wants.
Despite yesterday's results, conservatives seem intent on launching an intense civil war for the hearts and minds of the Republican Party in a series of high profile primaries next year. Undeterred by the results from New York's 23rd Congressional district, or for that matter the election to Congress of California's Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi in a district that only recently become blue, the GOP seems only too willing to form the type of circular firing squads that used to characterize the Democrats when Ronald Reagan dominated U.S. politics two decades ago. Republican leaders should instead follow the more likely road to victory demonstrated by the pragmatic and practical politics of Virginia's Bob McDonnell. Only that type of candidacy, grounded in the new realities of the electorate, can provide a real opportunity for that party's recovery from its current, historically low levels of support among American voters.
The public's new found willingness to use government as an economic force is the direct result of both the arrival of the Millennial Generation and the increased representation of minorities in the American electorate. Together these forces are demographically destined to become a larger and larger part of the population, providing Democrats a wind at their backs for decades-- if they will only listen to the voters and read the lessons of this week's special elections correctly.
The likely defeat today of Democrat Creigh Deeds by Republican Bob McDonnell in Virginia's gubernatorial election sends an important message to both political parties, but it's not clear either one will listen to it. McDonnell's win will give Republicans something to crow about after three straight losing elections in the formerly dark red state, but his path to victory didn't follow the route currently being touted by conservatives in his party. Democrats are inclined to dismiss Deeds likely defeat as an isolated incident that reflects more of Virginia's tradition to vote for the out party in the off year or the result of a lackluster campaign on Deeds' part. For example, the Deeds campaign was nowhere to be found on the Net, even as McDonnell's campaign finished with a Google Ad blast, targeted at both voters spending the day in Virginia and those many Virginians who spend their days working in DC. (http://techpresident.com/blog-entry/importance-being-everywhere-vas-mcdonnell-and-nycs-bloomberg-go-full-google) The resulting failure of Democratic voters to turn out in sufficient numbers to make the election even close, however, sends an important message that Democratic leaders across America should not ignore.
Deeds began the general election campaign by using McDonnell's master's thesis at Jerry Fallwell's Liberty University in an attempt to paint his opponent as a right wing ideologue on social issues. In effect, Deeds adopted the traditional Republican campaign strategy of emphasizing social issues. But that approach lost its punch when American politics entered a new, civic-oriented era. In times like the present, broader societal concerns, not the politics of polarization carry the day. Just as the hot topics of the 1920s-Prohibition and the teaching of evolution -disappeared from the political debates of the 1930s, the favorite wedge issues of the 1990s-abortion, gay rights, and, once again, evolution or creationism--have fallen to the bottom of voter priority lists.
As a result, the initial success of Deed's attack was thwarted as McDonnell turned the electorate's attention to the more pressing question of jobs and the economy. His campaign themes were job creation, sound fiscal governance and bipartisanship-with no emphasis on the social issues that Republicans, like former Senator George Allen, had previously used in the state to define their party. Yet Deeds didn't seem to get the message, manifesting ambivalence about embracing President Obama and his domestic policies throughout the general election campaign.
Nor did Deeds put forward an alternative plan to provide a positive vision for the economic future of Virginia that would engage young voters and minorities. One self-described "Obama fanatic," who decided not to cast a vote for either candidate this year, put it best when she said, "I wanted to hear more from him [Deeds] about his plan to create jobs and address our taxes." (WSJ, Oct. 31, 2009, Corey Dade, "Virginia's Race Tests Obama's Staying Power). Some polls during the campaign even indicated that between a quarter and a third of African-Americans (a group that is normally 90%+ Democratic) contemplated voting for the GOP candidate.
As American politics enters a new era driven by the civic-orientation of the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003) and the rising number of minority voters, each party must rethink the composition of the ideological and demographic coalition on which it will build to ensure future success. One clear lesson that can be drawn from the results in Virginia is the need for both parties to base all four Ms (message, messenger, media and money) of their campaigns in the years ahead to reflect the new civic era America has entered. Candidates with a demonstrated desire to serve will need to deliver a message focused on greater economic equality and ethnic inclusiveness using all of today's new media in order to win.
The results in Virginia are likely to provide a good example of how that winning formula can be used not just by Democrats, but also by Republicans who are able to unshackle their campaigns from the ideological straight jacket their party's base is normally so intent on imposing. The outcome will also demonstrate that for Democrats to simply raise the party banner without embracing Barack Obama's formula for victory will not be enough to carry the day. The political equivalent of Darwin's law of "adapt or die," remains the fundamental truth of American politics in this new civic era.
The latest unemployment numbers and poll results have led most observers to predict a major setback for Democrats in the 2010 Congressional elections. But a year is a lifetime in politics and much can change between now and then to influence next year's vote. As Ron Brownstein recently pointed out, the demographic makeup of the electorate is likely to be a key factor in whether or not the Democrats can maintain their current majority margins in 2010. While traditionally Democrats have focused on turning out African-American and Hispanic voters to offset Republican strength among white male voters that equation is no longer the only calculation Democratic strategists need to make.
Today the level and intensity of interest among Millennials young voters 18-28, is equally important in ensuring Democratic victories. But for that group of voters to turn out in large numbers, Congressional Democrats will have to make a much more concerted effort than they have to date to deliver on a series of policy issues of major concern to Millennials, the generation that provided Barack Obama 80% of his popular vote margin over John McCain in 2008.
As with most other Americans, the number one concern among Millennials is the state of the economy and the need for jobs. But Millennials have a unique perspective on this issue, one that Congress must understand and address. Millennials believe there is a clear link between education and employment and are increasingly concerned that the pathway through the educational system into the world of work is becoming increasingly more difficult and expensive to navigate. Two-thirds of Millennials who graduate from a four-year college do so with over $20,000 in debt. A job market with Depression-level youth unemployment (18.5%) and a wrenching transformation of the types of jobs America needs and produces makes the implicit bargain of education in return for future economic success harder for Millennials to believe in every day.
Recently Matt Segal, Executive Director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE) and Founder and National Co-Chair of the "80 Million Strong for Young Americans Job Coalition" presented some ideas to the House Education and Labor Committee on what Congress could do to address this challenge. He advocated increased entrepreneurial resources be made available to youth; Senate action on the student debt reform bill recently passed by the House; more access to public service careers through internships and loan forgiveness programs; and the creation of "mission critical" jobs in such fields as health care, cyber-security and the environment that would tap the unique talents of this generation. Coupled with the recent passage of the Kennedy Serve America Act, enacting these initiatives would demonstrate that Democrats are serious about improving the economic situation of Millennials and, at the same time, provide organizing ammunition in the 2010 campaign.
Of course no economic program can ignore the impact of health care on this generation's-and America's-economic well being. Many of the entry-level jobs young people seek and obtain come from employers who simply can't afford to provide health care coverage under today's system. Young adults between the ages of 19 and 29 represent nearly a third of all uninsured Americans, and two-thirds of those uninsured young people reported going without necessary medical care in 2007 because they could not afford to pay for it.
As a result, polling has consistently indicated that a majority of young people support President Obama's health care proposal, especially if it contains a public option to control costs. One of the more compelling components of the president's plan for Millennials is that it would allow parents to cover their children through the family's health insurance up to the age of 26 instead of the current limit of 19. And Millennials expect Congress to act. Only a third of Millennials, as compared with half of older generations, are concerned that the government will become too involved in health care.
Yet many pundits continue to perceive health care reform as an "old people's issue," likely to increase the turnout of seniors, but not Millennials, in the 2010 elections. Some have even suggested that Millennials will object to a health care system that limits the differential in premiums insurance companies can charge relatively healthy young people vs. older, less well adults. But this theoretical inter-generational transfer of wealth is not likely to stir up much opposition among Millennials. Unlike the Baby Boomers of four decades ago, Millennials do not speak to their elders across a generation gap, but have actually formed strong and enduring bonds with their parents and come to the public arena determined to find solutions that work for people of all ages. Already, Young Americans for Health Care Reform has accumulated 1200 fans on Facebook since the group was formed less than a month ago. If Congressional Democrats can successfully negotiate passage of a health care reform bill that provides cost-effective coverage for the 30% of Millennials who currently are not insured, Democrats will have another major arrow in their quiver going into the 2010 election.
Millennials, like their GI Generation great grandparents in the 1930s, are facing economic challenges that caught them by surprise and for which no one prepared them. But Millennials aren't looking for a handout or sympathy. Instead, in the "can do" spirit of their generation, they are organizing to overcome the challenges created for them by their elders. It's time for Democrats in Congress to recognize these concerns and the loyalty of a generation that identifies as Democrats over Republicans by a 2:1 margin. One way to accomplish this is by passing meaningful health care reform while helping to create new pathways to economic opportunity, especially for young people who are just entering the work force. Doing so now, as the battle for 2010 shapes up, will help energize the newest and most loyal element of the Democratic Party's 21st Century coalition, the Millennial Generation.
While the nation has been right to focus on the most recent outbreak of incivility, if not downright hostility, directed toward President Obama generally and his health care proposal specifically, the diagnosis of what ails the country and what must be done to end this type of behavior has been way off target.
Republicans, who were quick to compare the actions of their party's fringe elements to harsh, sometimes over the top Democratic criticism of former President George W. Bush missed the qualitative difference between expressing strong policy disagreement with the opposition, which is fair game in any political season, and taking guns to Presidential appearances. Ironically, Republicans are guilty of the same "moral equivalency" judgment error that they accused Democrats who minimized Communist war crimes in Vietnam and the actions of urban rioters of in the 1960s of committing. Speaker Nancy Pelosi was closer to the truth when she likened today's vitriolic rhetoric to the hate speech directed toward gays in San Francisco in the 1970s, but she failed to pursue the historical analogy far enough.
This kind of anger, born out of a sense of fear of a rapidly changing world, and directed at those that seem to be causing the world to move both too fast and in the wrong direction, has erupted regularly whenever America has gone through the type of generational change it's now experiencing.
As generational theorists, William Strauss and Neil Howe pointed out, an idealist generation animated by moral beliefs, such as today's Baby Boomers, have, in their youth, regularly shaken American society by confronting the cultural values of older generations. Such generations have always been followed by an alienated, individualistic generational archetype, which tends to be rude and disrespectful, especially toward its elders. The most recent historical examples of this archetype are the Lost Generation who came of age in the 1920s and Generation X, born 1965-1981. As members of these two types of generations mature and assume positions of leadership, society coarsens and rhetoric escalates from being merely confrontational to speech that is deliberately designed to provoke and incite. It's the difference between Boomer rock n' roll and Gen X rap--or between Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin.
But inevitably, this harsh cultural style engenders a backlash from an emerging civic-oriented generation. The most recent civic generations are Millennials (born 1982-2003) and, in the 1930s and 1940s, the GI Generation. Historically, the type of generational alignment we see now is associated with the most traumatic and significant crises in American history: the American Revolutionand adoption of the Constitution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and World War II. The way this generational confrontation has been resolved in American history should give pause to those who encourage incivility, either by their silence or their direct involvement.
Popular opinion was sharply divided during the Revolutionary War. Between a fifth and a third of the population of the Thirteen Colonies supported the British. Estimates are that after the war, between sixty and one hundred thousand Loyalists fled the newly born United States. Nor did the Constitution's ratification end our divisions. In spite of George Washington's warning against the "partisan spirit" and the intentional failure of the Constitution to mention them, nascent political parties- Republicans and Federalists -formed by the end of his administration to confront one another on the issue of the proper role and size of the federal government.
Roughly eighty years later, seemingly irreconcilable differences between generations and regions led to the Civil War. Once Lincoln assumed the presidency, he faced opposition from all sides. The words, if not the deed, of his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, "Sic semper tyrannus" ("Thus always to tyrants") succinctly expressed the thoughts of most white Southerners about Lincoln. In the North, much of the criticism was intensely personal: Lincoln was called an "ape," a "baboon" or worse. Many opposed what they perceived to be a war sacrificing the blood of white men to free blacks. Riots protesting the military draft broke out in Northern cities. In New York blacks were lynched and the city's Negro orphanage burned. Even within his own Republican party, a faction called him timid for failing to emancipate the slaves sooner than he did or to pursue a more vindictive policy against the secessionist states.
When the generational archetypes were again aligned in a similar way in the early 1930s, the country was confronted by the greatest economic crisis in its history. While a hero to many, a month before his inauguration, Roosevelt was nearly the victim of an assassination. Giuseppe Zangara, an unemployed bricklayer with anarchist leanings, fired at FDR but hit Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago instead and killed him. Once in office, Roosevelt was personally criticized from the right for being a "traitor to his class." In shrill language that is once again being tossed cavalierly around Washington today, FDR's policies and programs were labeled "foreign," "socialist," "communist" and "fascist." His Social Security proposal was derided as a severe invasion of privacy. At the same time, from the other side of the political spectrum, Roosevelt was criticized for not doing enough to dismantle the capitalist system and, in the words of Huey Long, "Share the Wealth."
History demonstrates that the first years of a transition from an ideological era, such as the one Boomers and Xers dominated from 1968 to 2008, to an era dominated by civic generations, like the GI Generation and Millennials, are initially among the most rancorous, contentious, and sometimes violent, of any in American history. But history also provides valuable lessons for how to deal with these tensions in order to increase civic unity.
The Founding Fathers worked hard to promote an "era of good feelings," admonishing citizens to maintain decorum in their public debates, even as they privately excoriated their opponents. Lincoln confronted his detractors directly, most famously with his principled stance that "A house divided against itself cannot stand." And FDR condemned "economic royalists" intent on defending their privileged position to the detriment of the "forgotten man."
As the newest civic era begins, both Republican and Democrats must, in President Obama's phrase, "call out," those who engage in lies and demagoguery or threaten physical violence toward governmental institutions and leaders. Both sides need to brand such actions, not just wrong-headed, but a threat to the nation's ability to successfully sail through the troubled waters of our current generational alignment. History suggests that a true sense of national solidarity will return when the nation successfully confronts the major challenges it will continue to face. But in the interim the least that must be done is to denounce actions and behavior that will make future unity more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
1. Young people think and behave the same at all times. One generation is just like the one before it and the one that follows. False: Each generation is different from the one before it and the one that follows. Today’s young people, the Millennials (born 1982-2003), are a “civic” generation. They were revered and protected by their parents and are becoming group-oriented, egalitarian institution builders as they emerge into adulthood. Millennials are sharply distinctive from the divided, moralistic Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) and the cynical, individualistic Gen-Xers (born 1965-1981), the two generations that preceded them and who are their parents.
2. Millennials are narcissistic, self-indulgent kids who think they are entitled to everything. False: Millennials have a deep commitment to community and helping others, putting this belief into action with community service activities. Virtually all Millennial high school students (80%) participate in a community service activity. Two decades ago when all high school students were Gen-Xers, only a quarter (27%) did so.
3. Millennials volunteer and serve because they are "forced" to or are trying to polish their college application resume. False: Millennials volunteer for community and public service in large numbers long after their “required” initial high school experiences. In 2006, more than a quarter (26%) of National Service volunteers were Millennials, at a time when Millennials comprised no more than 15% of the adult population. By contrast in 1989 when all young adults were members of Generation X, only 13% of National Service volunteers were in this age cohort.
4. Millennials became Democrats and liberals because they are hero worshipers of Barack Obama. False: Millennials identified as Democrats and liberals well before Obama emerged as a major political force with significant name identification. In 2007, Millennials identified as Democrats over Republicans by 52% to 30% and as liberals over conservatives by 29% vs. 16% (the rest were moderate). At that time, Barack Obama’s name identification was barely 50%, well below that of Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, his chief competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination.
5. Millennials will become more conservative as they age.False: Party identification and ideological orientation are formed when people are young and are retained as they age. Prior “civic” generations, with similar belief systems to Millennials, kept that philosophy throughout their lives. The only two generations that gave John Kerry a majority of their votes over George W. Bush in 2004 were the first sliver of Millennials eligible to vote and the last segment of members of the GI Generation, all of whom were at least 80 and many of whom were casting their final presidential vote.
6. Millennials, like all young people, are apathetic and uninterested in voting. False: Young people’s proclivity to vote or not is not based upon their age but their generation’s belief in the efficacy of voting. Millennials are members of an activist and politically involved “civic” generation. They have voted heavily in the past and will continue to do so in the future. According to CIRCLE, an organization that examines youth political participation trends, 6.5 million people under 30 voted in presidential primaries and caucuses in 2008, double the youth participation rate of 2000. Fifty-three percent of Millennials voted in the 2008 general election (59% in the competitive battle ground states), up from 37% in 1996 when all young voters were member of Generation X.
7. Like Boomers and Gen-Xers before them, Millennials are cynical and disillusioned by the problems facing them and America.False: In spite of the fact that they are far more likely to be unemployed and far less likely than older Americans to have health insurance, Millennials are more optimistic than older generations. A May 2009 Pew survey indicates that about three-quarters of Millennials in contrast to two-thirds of older generations are confident that America can solve the problems now facing our country.
8. Millennials care only about what happens in their own country, community, and lives and not on what goes on in the rest of the world. False: Most Millennials have visited foreign countries and through social networking technology, are connected to friends around the world. They are open to working with people in other countries to solve the problems of the world community. Millennials are far more likely than older generations to support free trade agreements like NAFTA (61% vs. 40%) and far less likely to believe in military solutions to international concerns (39% vs. 58%). Millennials are also about three times more likely than seniors to have opinions on major international concerns like Israeli/Palestinian relations.
9. Millennials, like all generations, are rebels who are hostile to civic institutions and government. False: Millennials have significantly more positive attitudes toward government and its activities than older Americans. Millennials are much less likely to believe that if the government runs something, it is usually wasteful and inefficient (42% vs. 61%) or that the federal government controls too much of our daily lives (48% vs. 56%). They are much more likely to feel that government is run for the benefit of all (60% vs. 46%).
10. Millennials are more focused on trivialities such as celebrities than on the big issues facing America. False: Unlike some previous generations, Millennial celebrities and musical tastes are more acceptable to and compatible with their parents’ values because they reflect the generation’s love of teamwork and service to the community rather than rebellion. For example, a recent Pew survey indicates that rock music is the preferred genre of Millennials, Gen-Xers, and Boomers. Rock, the music of rebellion in the 1950s and 1960s, is now mainstream. Moreover even as early as 2006, two years before Barack Obama’s candidacy, more than twice as many Millennials had voted for president than had voted on American Idol.
The most recent survey of volunteer activity across the nation released by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) demonstrates the "spirit of service" which animates America's newest generation, Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003. Approximately 1.3 million more Millennials offered their time without compensation to non-profit organizations in 2008 as compared to 2007, providing over a billion hours of volunteer service to our nation's communities. This increase among Millennials represented all of last year's gain in volunteerism; other generations combined showed no increase in participation levels.
The increase in volunteerism among young people was most pronounced among those attending college, who registered a 10% gain in participation. But even teens between 16 and 19 years old, many of whom were still in high school, increased their volunteer rates by 5%. Reflecting the difficult economic times, the single largest increase among types of volunteer activity was for "working with neighbors in the community." Young people also consistently demonstrated their desire to share their knowledge with other young people. Activities described as mentoring other young people or tutoring and teaching others for free garnered a combined 42% of Millennial volunteers' time. Almost two-thirds of this youthful volunteer activity was done through religious or educational non-profit institutions. All of this Millennial volunteer work contributed over $22 billion worth of economic activity to the nation's non-profit sector (based on independent evaluations of the estimated monetary value of a volunteer hour, $20.25). (link to our earlier NDN Blog on role of service in the economy).
While Millennials are overwhelmingly Democratic in their partisan allegiance, the geographic pattern of volunteerism does not break down along red state/blue state lines. Retaining a lead established in 1989, the Midwest had the highest levels of volunteerism among all regions. The only non-Midwestern states to rank in the top ten in percentage of volunteer participation were Utah (#1), Alaska (#4), and Vermont (#9). Yet the South, with the largest population of any region, has the highest overall number of volunteers and the West, led by Utah with its large population of service-oriented Mormons, put in more volunteer hours per person than any other region. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, the single largest number of volunteers was in the country's two most populous states, Blue California and Red Texas. America's shared belief in the efficacy of volunteer activity, led by Millennials, therefore provides a great opportunity for building bipartisan support for increased incentives to expand this key part of the nation's economy.
The trend toward increasing volunteerism is likely to continue. The percentage of college freshmen believing that it is "essential or very important to help people in need" rose to its highest level since 1970 (70%) when the last of the idealistic Baby Boomers entered college. Between that year and this, America experienced a generation long withdrawal from community life. Generation X, the generation between the Boomers and Millennials, led by the pronouncement by its political hero, Ronald Reagan, that "government was the problem, not the solution" focused more on the individual economic success of its members than on civic life.
Reflecting the Millennials' belief in civic engagement, the same survey of college freshmen showed "a revival of interest in political involvement, at a level comparable and in some cases surpassing the baby boom generation of college freshmen," according to Sylvia Hurtado, co-author of the report and director of the Higher Education Research Institute. "I think this last election, and the need to attend to the nation's problems, has captured the hope and imagination of college students who will be committed to helping to devise solutions." Interest in "keeping up to date on political affairs" has risen 40% since 9/11. All of this focus on civic involvement and working together is reflected in changes in ideological self-identification, with 31% of the 2008 freshman class identifying as liberal, the highest percentage in 35 years, while conservative identification dropped slightly to 21% down from 23% just one year ago.
Millennials are now the single largest generation in America. Their contribution to the electorate will sharply expand for the next decade. As a result, their demonstrated belief in the efficacy of collective action and their liberal political philosophy will produce a re-ordering of America's priorities. The only question remaining is how long it will take the older generations now in power in Washington to recognize this change in America and shift their public policy approach accordingly.
In 1969, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published a groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying, suggesting that people facing death went through five emotional stages before they could accept their fate. While never proven by subsequent studies, the five stages of grief have entered the realm of conventional wisdom and are often cited to explain the behavior of groups, as well as individuals, facing a life-threatening crisis. The actions of Republicans, and their conservative supporters, in attempting to disrupt Town Hall discussions of President Obama's health care reform proposal suggests that the concept is alive and kicking in politics as well.
According to Kubler-Ross, the first stage in dealing with impending doom is to deny it's happening. We witnessed this behavior in the immediate aftermath of the Democrats' overwhelming victory last November. Republicans reacted almost identically to the way Democrats did after Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980. The election results were attributed to poor campaign tactics by the loser, or the failure to develop a winning message by the campaign's media strategists, or a plot by reporters to ensure the victory of the winning candidate, if for no other reason than to give them something new to write about. In the classic words of death deniers throughout history, Republican leaders continued to insist well into January 2009 that they "felt fine" and the results had "nothing to do with me" -- the Republican party and its message. The only thing that was about to die, we heard GOP leaders like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Steele assert, was the muddled attempt at moderation by Senator John McCain and the failure of their party to adhere to its most conservative principles.
The second stage of grief according to On Death and Dying is anger, and this summer the Republican Party and its minions have clearly moved beyond denial to anger. Enraged mobs of extraordinarily well informed "average" citizens have descended on Democratic Town Hall meetings to demand that their Representative not follow Speaker Nancy Pelosi's party line and instead vote against specific provisions of health care legislation that would, for instance, incent the writing of living wills, or substitute the judgment of health insurers for that of objective government entities on what treatments would be allowed based on their cost effectiveness. Above all the evil of government involvement in the health care system is to be labeled for what it is - the work of the devil, who is clearly a socialist, through his agents in the U.S. Congress. The fact that many of those most vociferous in their opposition to government supported health care are carrying their sacred Medicare card in their wallet is only ironic if you ignore the degree to which anger and denial are related emotions. In fact, Kubler-Ross points out that people often oscillate between those stages before moving on. This makes the denial of Barack Obama's Hawaiian birth by many of these same angry protesters understandable, if not any more credible.
So what can the country expect once the Republican Party moves on to the next stage of dealing with the demise of its former electoral dominance? According to Kubler-Ross, the third stage of grief is "bargaining." Here the individual or group hopes that it can at least postpone or delay death by promising to reform or turn over a new leaf. There are already early signs in the writings of Peggy Noonan, President Reagan's speechwriter, that this next stage is coming to the fore. She suggests that if only President Obama would rethink the broad scope of his proposals and join in true bipartisan negotiations, Republicans in Congress would support a bill that leaves most of today's health care system in place but without the nasty practices of denying health coverage to those with pre-existing conditions or canceling people's insurance at the first sign that they might actually need medical treatment. The country can expect to hear more such offers from Republicans this fall when Congress returns and the real bargaining over the scope of health care reform takes place. But the party's past misdeeds in building a majority coalition based on the racist premise of its Southern Strategy or its failure to appeal to the civic beliefs and attitudes of the emerging Millennial Generation or its most recent decision to sacrifice its future among Hispanics by voting against the nomination of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, make any such offer a fool's bargain. The demise of GOP dominance is inevitable and Democrats should take no part in postponing the inevitable.
If congressional Democrats have the courage to use their majority to pass health care legislation and then go to the voters with an economy on the mend, the 2010 elections should serve to move Republicans to the fourth stage of grief-depression. Suffering from a series of unexpected and unexplainable defeats, Republicans are likely to go off on a prolonged period of silence, punctuated by bouts of crying over just how unfair politics has become. Kubler-Ross suggests that it is important not to try and cheer up the person in this stage of grief, but to let the individual work his or her way through the inevitable depression on their own. That way, her book says, the dying can finally come to the final stage of grief-acceptance.
This stage represents the end of the struggle and a willingness to accept one's fate. The Republican Party as we have known it since 1968 will die for lack of political support. It may not accept that fate until after President Obama's re-election, by a landslide, in 2012 just as the Democratic Party's New Deal liberals did not accept their fate until after Ronald Reagan's complete demolition of Walter Mondale's candidacy in 1984. Still the end is inevitable, as many of today's leading thinkers in the GOP are beginning to realize.
But Republicans can take heart in what Democrats were able to do after reaching the clarity of mind that comes with accepting one's fate. By recognizing the death of its old ideas and rethinking their approach to the electorate after their landslide defeat in 1984, the Democrats eventually found a new road to victory-tentatively in 1992 with Bill Clinton and then more confidently with Obama's victory in 2008. At that rate the GOP only has to wait until 2020 to have its next real shot at winning the presidency. If Republicans want to get to that goal sooner, psychologists might suggest that they move quickly out if their "summer of anger" phase, don't bargain or obstruct too much over health care or anything else when Congress returns, and get ready for a good cry in 2010. Even better, such a course of therapy will improve the rest of the country's mental health as well.
Note: a version of this essay ran in today's Roll Call. You can see it here.
Millennials, young Americans under 28, provided President Barack Obama most of his popular vote margin over John Mc Cain in 2008. Now their belief in the need to involve the federal government in comprehensive health care reform may become the President's most powerful argument in persuading Congress to deliver on that campaign promise this year. But to do so the President will have to overcome some serious differences between members of older generations in both parties, and in both houses of Congress, on just how accomplish that task.
The Senate is almost equally divided between members of the Silent Generation, born between 1925 and 1945 and Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964. Recent elections have raised the percentage of Boomers in the lower house to almost three fourths of all members.Of course, partisan allegiance and local politics play an important role in determining a legislator's voting decisions. But the differing perspectives of these two "leadership generations" have already influenced each house's approach to the policy debates on a number of issues so far this year and are likely to do so again on health care this summer.
Democrats in the House of Representatives, for all of their ideological posturing, are actually led by members of the Silent generation, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (1940), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (1939), Democratic Whip James Clyburn (1940), Dean of the House John Dingell (1926), and committee chairmen such as John Conyers (1929), Pete Stark (1931), Ike Skelton (1931), Charles Rangel (1932), John Murtha (1932), James Oberstar (1934), Dave Obey (1938), Henry Waxman (1939) and Norm Dicks (1940). The parents of the "adaptive" Silent Generation protected, some would say smothered, members of this generation during the traumatic childhood events of their youth-the Great Depression and World War II. As a result members of the Silent generation are often risk averse as adults and tend to prefer the of bi-partisan compromises that John McCain, a Silent born in 1936, talked about so often during his campaign.
By contrast, almost all of the House Republican leadership is from the Baby Boomer Generation. Boomers are the latest incarnation of what William Strauss and Neil Howe, the originators of generational theory, call an "idealist" generation. Members of this generational archetype tend to believe deeply in their own personal values and seek to use the political process to implement their personal ideological convictions for the whole nation to follow. Because the Boomer generation has been divided about equally between the two ideological poles and parties(half of them voted for Obama, half for McCain in 2008), America has experienced political gridlock for the past four decades.
Boomers have spent a lifetime rebelling against the Silent Generation's belief in institutional allegiance and compromise and will find themselves once again having to accommodate the older generation's sensibilities if they actually want to pass legislation such as health care reform. Democratic Boomers will need to find common cause with the Silents in their party, while Republican Boomers are likely to emphasize their ideological differences from their Democratic counterparts. Republican Boomers will want to demonstrate their ideological commitment to lower taxes and a less active federal government. Moderate Democrats from the Blue Dog and New Democratic caucuses, who share some of these concerns with Republicans, are likely to be more willing to compromise on these issues with their Silent Generation leaders than liberal Boomers might want or be willing to.
In the Federalist Papers, James Madison said that the Senate would be a "necessary fence" against the "fickleness and passion" of members of the House of Representatives. Either George Washington or Thomas Jefferson was reputed to have called the Senate a "saucer" designed to "cool" House legislation. Whether the Senate was meant to be a fence or a saucer, in this Congress it often operates as a generational bulwark against the increasingly hot passions and partisan bulldogs who serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Senate has already played this role during this session of Congress. In the debate on the President's Recovery Act, Silent Generation Senate leaders forced the House to accommodate some of the demands of the Senate's most moderate members. During the course of that debate, House Democrats were able to prevail in the name of party unity on their Senate counterparts to accept a "recission rule" in the budget resolution that would allow Democrats, if they so chose, to ignore the Republican minority and pass health care reform with only 51 votes. But even after that agreement, Silent generation Montana Senator Max Baucus (1941) has been determined to find a bi-partisan bill that his Republican counterpart and Silent, Charles Grassley (1933), can support. Meanwhile, Senator Chris Dodd (1944), thrust into the health care debate due to the illness of Senator Edward Kennedy, has played the very typical role of those born on the cusp between both generations--seeking to find a solution that leans more to his ideological beliefs, but one which still contains an element of compromise for the other side.
But how this inter-generational interplay between the two houses and the two parties will actually play out in the health care debate will depend on how much President Obama uses his instinctive knowledge of what Millennials want to convince the Congress to get something done. Born in 1961, on the cusp between the Baby Boomers and Generation X, the President's generational style is hard to pin down. Liberal Boomers appreciate his idealism and commitment to economic equality.On the other hand, like many Gen Xers, Obama has sought to distance himself from the divisive, ideological debates of the recent Boomer past. At the same time, Obama's political behavior does not square with the harsh and cynical approach of clear-cut Gen Xers like Sarah Palin. Whether it's because of his unique upbringing in Indonesia and Hawaii, removed from the debilitating debates of the 1960s; or whether it's because his chief speechwriter is a precocious Millennial; or because of his intellectual tendency to search for consensus, President Obama's political style consistently seems to capture the very traits that his loyal Millennial supporters most admire.
Millennials are not interested in letting ideological posturing stand in the way of "getting stuff done," as Obama likes to say, especially in an area as crucial as health care. Like the members of other generations, virtually all Millennials (90%) believe that it is time that health care is made more accessible and affordable for all Americans. However, only a third of Millennials, in contrast to about half of those in older generations, are concerned about the impact of greater governmental involvement in the health care system (36% vs. 47%). And, Millennials are far less likely than older generations to prefer once again deferring health care reform to avoid higher taxes or larger deficits.
The fundamental question that members of Congress from each generation, and each party, will need to answer during this summer's health care debate is just how much they want to accomplish as opposed to scoring political points or pursuing ideological agendas. It's a classic question to which members of the Silent Generation are likely to respond with offers of compromise, even while Boomers on both sides of the aisle insist on what they consider to be non-negotiable principles. For Millennials, however, the answer is clear--reform the nation's health care system now as the next step in delivering on the kind of "change we can believe in" that their leader, Barack Obama, promised and now asks Congress to deliver.
In last weekend's YouTube talk to the nation, President Obama addressed the nation's growing concern over the continuing loss of jobs even as the economy shows signs of stabilizing. Providing new job opportunities and the skills required to get them for working class youth will be a key test of the Obama administration's desire "to build a firmer, stronger foundation for growth that not only will withstand future economic storms but help us thrive and compete in a global economy." On July 14/15, 2009 Millennials from across the country are coming to Washington, DC to participate in the "80 Million Strong for Young American Jobs" summit, to develop collective solutions and federal legislation "aimed at putting young people to work and launching our economy in a new direction." In response, the President is focusing on two initiatives, both of which have been a key part of NDN's policy recommendations over the last two years, to achieve the group's goals.
On the Monday after his weekly address to the nation, the President's Council of Economic Advisors released a report outlining the importance of community colleges in making America's workforce more competitive in the global economy. "We believe it's time to reform our community colleges so that they provide Americans of all ages a chance to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to compete for the jobs of the future." Echoing ideas first proposed by NDN fellow Robert Shapiro in 2007 that have been incorporated in House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson's bill, The Community College Technology Access Act of 2009, the report proposed ways to meet the President's goal of graduating five million more Americans from community colleges by 2020. Then on Tuesday, the President headed to hard-hit Michigan addressing a crowd at Macomb County Community College to underline the key role community colleges will play in "rebuilding a better economy."
Earlier, as she kicked off the President's summer service initiative, United We Serve, at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service in San Francisco, first lady Michelle Obama made an equally significant pronouncement on another Obama administration strategy on how to create a better economy for this country and its youth.
"This new Administration doesn't view service as separate from our national priorities, or in addition to our national priorities - we see it as the key to achieving our national priorities. We believe that the only way to build that new foundation for our economy is to establish a new role for service in this country."
She wasn't talking about the kind of consulting services or information technology services that have made fortunes for companies like IBM or McKinsey, nor about the American public's current bête noire, financial services. Rather, she was explicitly invoking the role of community based, non-profit service organizations and the public's participation in activities designed to supplement the expanding role of government as key to America's economic health.
The two initiatives are inter-related. In expanding the opportunity for young people to serve their communities and providing money for their education afterwards, the Obama administration is seeking to create community based service experiences to provide skills for future job seekers. Millennials (born between 1982-2003) are experiencing unemployment rates more than 8% higher than the national average, while carrying an average of $27,000 in student loan and $2000 in credit card debt. They need policy ideas, such as those suggested by NDN and the President, to address the economic challenges they face.
At the same time, the First Lady's proposal speaks directly to the spirit of service that is such a distinguishing characteristic of this generation. While in high school, Millennials participate in community service activities at three times the rate that members of Generation X did in the 1980s (80% vs. 27%). Virtually all Millennials believe that volunteer service activities are a good way to solve both local and national problems.
The notion that voluntary service can help remake America harkens back to the sense of common purpose that pervaded the country during our last civic era. During the Great Depression millions of young people served in the Civilian Conservation Corps. During WWII Americans on the home front were encouraged to "Buy Bonds" rather than spend money on themselves. And in the 1950's many people in virtually every American community participated in the efforts of service organizations like Kiwanis or the Elks club to help the most needy in the community.
The Obama administration believes that instead of returning to traditional sources of employment such as manufacturing or construction trades that were often the entry point for young people in the old economy, Millennials will need to acquire the kind of skills taught in community colleges and/or learned by helping community-oriented non-profit organizations if they hope to advance economically. In the Obama administration's conception, it won't be just government providing a "stimulus" that will get the country back on its economic feet, but also the initiative of individual citizens in finding work that will improve their local community. As the First Lady put it in San Francisco:
Our government can rebuild our schools, but we need people to serve as mentors and tutors in those schools, to serve on the PTA and chaperone those field trips.
Our government can modernize our health care system, but we need people to volunteer to help care for the sick and help people lead healthier lives.
Our government can invest in clean energy, but we need people to use energy-efficient products, keep our public spaces clean, and train for the green jobs of the future.
Whether these two strategies will produce enough jobs to significantly reduce unemployment and once again provide upward mobility and economic stability for young working Americans remains to be seen. For the sake of the Millennial Generation's economic future and America's economic vitality, we can only hope the administration's plan works.
These young people have twice the presence in the population of that country as America's largest generation, Millennials (born 1982-2003), has in ours.
In the immediate aftermath of Iran's disputed presidential election, text messages became the tool for organizing post-election protests. Hundreds of thousands of tweets provided more, if not clearer, information about what was happening each day than traditional media. Opposition and government Facebook pages poured out dueling messages on the Internet. It suddenly seemed as if not only had American democratic values erupted on the barren landscape of a theocratic society, but also that young people's technological capabilities might produce a regime change that no one anticipated. Clay Shirky announced, "This is it. This is the big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media." And the notion that this was a "Twitter Revolution" quickly became the meme for the entire series of post-election events.
But then the entrenched establishment fought back using the very same Internet-enabled technologies to isolate, spy on, and ultimately shut down the resistance. Thanks to new capabilities recently acquired from two European telecom companies-Nokia and Siemens-as part of their country's upgrade of its mobile networks, the Iranian government was able to monitor the flow of online data in and out of sites like Twitter and Facebook, from one central location. The Iranians deployed a technology called deep packet inspection, first created to put a firewall around President Clinton's emails in 1993, to deconstruct digitized packets of information flowing through the government's telecom monopoly that might contain what they considered to be seditious information before reconstructing and sending it on to destinations they were also able to track and monitor. The result was a 90% degradation in the speed of Internet communications in Iran at the height of the unrest, and a previously unseen capability to determine who the government's enemies were down to the individual IP address level.
Once again the world learned that technology does not arrive with a built-in set of values that makes it work either for good or evil. Even though Internet technology has many virtues, it is not inherently liberating or enslaving. Instead how it is used is determined by the values of those who access it. Libertarians celebrate the individual empowerment that the Internet makes possible. But even though Ron Paul supporters used the technology to take on the Republican establishment in 2008, the end result that year was the election of a group-oriented, civic-minded candidate, Barack Obama, whose campaign used the very same technology to guide millions of people to undertake a collective agenda of change that Libertarians certainly did not "believe in."
The difference between what libertarians wanted and what Obama achieved came from the generational attitudes and beliefs of Millennials, Obama's key supporters, not from the technology that generation was so adept at using.
One of the founders of generational theory, Neil Howe, points out that the under-30 population of Iran grew up during a religious awakening in the Islamic world that came later than America's "cultural revolution" of the 1960s. As a result, Iranian youth resembles Generation X, Americans now in their 30s and 40s. Like our own Gen X, these young Iranians are "pragmatic, individualistic, commercial, and anti-ideological (which is why they hate Ahmadinejad so much)."
Those values make them anti-establishment in the current crisis. We are fortunate that they feel deeply enough about the potential of democracy to risk their lives to "tear down that power structure," to paraphrase what President Ronald Reagan, Generation X's political hero, said in a different context. But now the central task of our government must be to translate that democratic impulse into a deeper belief in Millennial Generation values, such as the power of consensus, the peaceful resolution of differences and the need to find win-win solutions to our problems.
That is why the President Barack Obama's recent Cairo speech should be the bedrock on which America continues to engage large young Muslim populations throughout the world, including Iran:
"No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.
This statement has the potential to become a governing creed for a new generation of young Muslims. If they come to have, as President Obama does, "an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose," then the power of 21st century technologies will be used to advance the cause of freedom in Iran, rather than suppressing it. But tweeting those words won't make it happen. Believing in them will.