One week after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, it is clear that his election and ascension to the presidency have moved America from one political era to another. Realignments like these occur about every four decades with the coming of age of a new, large, dynamic generation of young Americans whose political participation is enabled by a new communication technology. The most recent makeover stemmed from the emergence of the "civic" Millennial Generation (born between 1982 to 2003) and their use of social networks. Civic generations, like the Millennials and the GI Generation before it, are group-oriented, cooperative, and pragmatic. Their behavior stands in stark contrast to the individualistic and ideological Baby Boomers, who dominated American politics for the previous 40 years.
Makeovers or realignments change almost everything about U.S. politics -- election results, public policy, and presidential behavior. Apparently not everyone has noticed this change.
Perhaps the sharpest criticism of the Obama transition came from an unexpected quarter -- "progressive activists" and some of their congressional allies. These disappointed critics thought Obama’s cabinet and corps of advisors contained too many Clinton era pragmatists and too few minorities in high positions. Author and New York Times Magazine writer Matt Bai captured the obsolete nature of their complaint perfectly:
"That sound you hear is the last wheezing gasp of boomer-age politics, the cataloging of individuals according to their areas of oppression the endless process of tallying cultural differences rather than aggregating common objectives. It is a political philosophy that probably made sense 30 years ago but that seems sort of baffling at the dawn of the Obama era."
Bai compared those who criticized Obama to liberals of the early 1960s, such as Norman Mailer, who expected John F. Kennedy, as America's first Catholic president, to act like a political "outsider." But even though he is America's first African-American president, Barack Obama is no more an outsider than was JFK. Just like Kennedy, Obama's transition decisions were thoroughly consistent with the civic era we have now entered. And Obama’s behavior during the transition provides clear indicators of how the President will govern and the nation will respond in this civic Millennial era.
Here are just a few of the things to expect:
Limited or no use of ideological labels. Unlike his predecessor who consistently described himself as a "compassionate conservative" or Democrats who spent much of the past four decades seeking a label for themselves that would replace the discredited "liberal," Barack Obama never labels himself ideologically or even uses terms such as conservative, moderate, or liberal. As the President said in his inaugural Address, "On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics."
Avoiding moral absolutes as the primary standard by which to structure and evaluate policy. In his farewell address to the nation, George W. Bush said, "America must maintain our moral clarity. I have often spoken to you about good and evil . . .. Good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise." In fairness, Bush was referring to global terrorism in his remarks, but the moralistic tone that characterizes idealist eras typified the approach of his Administration in almost all policy areas, especially social issues. President Obama signaled a far different and more pragmatic tone in his inaugural address "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."
Working across partisan and institutional lines to get things done in the common interest. Obama’s successful campaign put an end to Karl Rove’s "play to the base" strategy that Democrats also attempted at great cost in many of their recent presidential campaigns. Unlike candidates in the idealist era that just ended, Obama ran a truly national campaign and competed in formerly rock-ribbed Republican states. He was rewarded with victories in nine 2004 red states. The same approach continued during the transition with Obama actively courting die-hard Republican Senators like Oklahoma's Tom Coburn over the release of the second half of the TARP funds and the thought leadership of the conservative movement over dinner at George Will’s house the Thursday night before the inaugural. The end result was bipartisan support for Obama's first legislative initiative with six Republicans, some very conservative, voting with Obama, offsetting the eight Democrats, some very liberal, who voted against the President-elect. It was an outcome reminiscent of the bipartisan votes of the 1950s and something that will continue to occur in this civic era.
The end of identity politics. Even as Obama appointed the most demographically diverse Cabinet and set of personal advisors of any American President, the Obama team avoided the identity politics trap into which Boomer President Clinton had often fallen. Any mention of ethnicity or lifestyle differences was made from the perspective of unity and what all Americans have in common. As Obama said in his inaugural address: "We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness . . . We are shaped by every language and culture drawn from every end of this Earth…we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself."
A new emphasis on personal and societal responsibility, service, and sacrifice. The ideas that individuals have the responsibility to behave properly to serve their community and nation and to sacrifice for the common good are all key civic era values. President Obama emphasized these values at many points during the transition, personally demonstrating his commitment to making Martin Luther King, Jr., Day a National Day of Service when he and his wife, Michelle, participated in DC area community renovation activities on the day before his inauguration. He returned to these themes throughout his inaugural address: "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility--a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship."
Last November marked the electoral realignment of the United States from an idealist to a civic era. It changed voting patterns and party coalitions for at least the next four decades. But that was only the beginning of the change that has come to America. With the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first president of the new civic era, the rules that guide the behavior of our leaders and eventually all Americans have changed as completely and substantially as have our politics. The nation is fortunate to have as its new leader a President prepared to teach by example how to live by these new rules for a new era.
The election of Barack Obama signaled the beginning of a "civic" realignment, produced by the political emergence of America's most recent civic generation, Millennials (born 1982-2003). Civic generations, like the Millennials, react against the efforts of divided idealist generations, like the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) to advance their own moral causes. Civic generations instead are unified and focused on reenergizing social, political, and governmental institutions and using those institutions to confront and solve pressing national issues left unattended and unresolved during the previous idealist era. The goal of a transition during such realignments has to be to lessen the ideological splits that have divided America during the preceding idealist era and take steps to unify the country so that the new Administration can more effectively deal with the major issues it faces.
Reducing ideological divisions and unifying Americans to achieve important common goals has been a focus of Barack Obama since even before he announced his presidency. It is one of the key reasons his campaign had strong appeal to the emerging civic Millennial Generation, which he carried by a margin of more than 2:1. When CBS’s Steve Croft asked the then-candidate in a pre-election interview what qualified him, a junior senator with limited governmental experience, to be president of the United States, Obama led off his reply by citing his desire and ability to bridge differences and bring people together.
Through Your Actions
One way a civic era president-elect can demonstrate the importance he places on the need for national unity is to name members of the opposition party to his cabinet. The actions of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the only two other Presidents to preside over transitions to civic eras, demonstrate how this game should be played.
For all the media commentary on Lincoln's first cabinet, deemed a "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, it should be noted that it contained no one from the discredited Democratic Party, even though it did have representatives that spanned the breadth of opinion within the relatively new GOP. However, Lincoln did add a Democrat, Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, to his cabinet less than a year after taking office. Stanton, a strongly pro-Union Northern Democrat, had opposed Lincoln's election and had served as Attorney General in the final months of the Buchanan administration. However, Lincoln’s selection of pro-Union Democrat, Andrew Johnson, as his vice-presidential running mate in his 1864 re-election campaign demonstrates that it’s sometimes possible to take even a good idea too far. FDR appointed two Republicans to his initial cabinet–industrialist William H. Woodin, who as Treasury Secretary helped FDR implement his economic and fiscal program at the outset of the New Deal, and Harold L. Ickes, who served as Interior Secretary throughout the entirety of the Roosevelt administration. Both Woodin and Ickes were progressives who had supported FDR in the 1932 election. While neither was a member of the Republican Old Guard, together they demonstrated Roosevelt's willingness to reach beyond his own party to enlist what today would be called "moderate Republicans" in a unified effort to overcome major national problems.
Reflecting America's changing demographics and social mores, Barack Obama has chosen the most diverse cabinet and set of top advisors of any president in U.S. history. Two members of Obama's larger number of appointees -- Robert Gates and Ray Lahood -- are not Democrats, the same number for which FDR found room. This represents a greater number of members of the a different or opposing party than were present in the Cabinets of any of Obama’s idealist era predecessors.
President-elect Obama’s attempt to include a wide range of political opinion and backgrounds in his Cabinet and White House team has generated criticism from the most ideological members of his party, just as FDR and Lincoln faced such criticism from the extreme partisans of their day. Obama's appointment of many "centrist" cabinet-level officers who previously served in Congress, the Clinton Administration, or as governors suggests to his critics that he is abandoning his pledge to bring about significant change in economic, foreign, and social policy. But as political scientist Ross Baker points out, "In uncertain times, Americans find it much more comforting that the people who are going to be advising the president are steeped in experience. A Cabinet of outsiders would have been very disquieting." And civic realignments like the present one have come at the most uncertain and stressful times in America's history.
Through Your Words
Lincoln and FDR are also renowned for their ability to use their words to rally Americans to a common cause. Both did so at the very outset of their terms. Both of these great civic presidents’ first inaugural addresses addressed the fears of a nation in crisis with rhetoric that has continued to ring through the ages.
Lincoln, in another last-ditch effort to forestall secession, told the South that neither he nor the Republican Party would make any attempt to undo slavery in states where it already existed. But he also reminded the South that, while only its actions could ultimately provoke civil war, his "solemn oath to preserve, protect, and defend" the Constitution would require him to prosecute that war if it came.
Lincoln concluded his address with an appeal to the secessionists to rejoin the Union:
We are not enemies, but friends…Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Roosevelt used his inaugural speech to rally the country to the task ahead by telling it, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He reminded his listeners that at previous dark moments in our national history vigorous leadership joined with a supportive public to win ultimate victory in the nation's trials. Perhaps most important, FDR gave clear recognition that the United States and its people had moved from what we have called an "idealist" era of unrestrained individualism to a "civic" era of unity and common purpose:
If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective.
Even before President-elect Obama had a chance to utter similarly comforting and inspiring rhetoric, his inaugural plans came under fire for inviting Pastor Rick Warren, a fundamentalist minister and activist in the passage of California's Proposition 8 outlawing gay marriage, to give the invocation at his inauguration. But the selection of Warren should not have been surprising to careful observers. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Obama signaled his desire to find common ground on divisive social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and gun control.
By bookending his inaugural with a benediction from Joseph Lowrey, a minister who favors legalizing gay marriage among other liberal causes, Obama has signaled his determination to put an end to the debates over social issues from an idealist era that is ending and enlist all those willing to join his cause to rebuild America’s civic institutions.
For in the end, it is the American people that Barack Obama must rally to his side. It is they who will ultimately decide the effectiveness of his transition as a springboard to a civic era Administration. So far their judgment is overwhelmingly positive. A late December 2008 CNN national survey describes "a love affair between Barack Obama and the American people." That survey indicated that more than eight in 10 Americans (82%) approved of the way Obama was handling his transition, a figure that was up by three percentage points since the beginning of the month. Obama's approval is well above that of either Bill Clinton (67%) or George W. Bush (65%) at that point in their transitions.
More specifically, the poll suggests that the public approves of Obama's Cabinet nominees, with 56 percent saying his appointments have been outstanding or above average. That number is 18 percentage points higher than that given to Bush's appointments and 26 points above that of Clinton's nominees. To quote CNN polling director Keating Holland: "Barack Obama is having a better honeymoon with the American public than any incoming president in the past three decades. He's putting up better numbers, usually by double digits, than Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, or either George Bush on every item traditionally measured in transition polls."
Of course, the final judgment of the Obama presidency by the American people and history will be based on his performance in office starting on January 20. Still, these polling results clearly suggest that Barack Obama has internalized and put into operation the historical transition lessons provided by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the presidents who led America's two previous civic realignments. If his inaugural address comes close to matching their first inaugural speeches, President-elect Obama will begin one of the most important administrations in the nation’s history with an enormous reservoir of political and public support that will serve him well in the crucial early days of his Administration.
The selection of former Secretary of State Colin Powell to announce the Obama Administration's national service initiative, "Renew America Together" (USAService.org), is much more than a smart political move. It’s a perfect down payment on the promises Obama made to his most ardent supporters, the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003).
The support of young voters was decisive in Obama's narrow nomination victory over Hillary Clinton and their 2:1 margin for him over John McCain accounted for 80 percent of his nearly nine million national popular vote lead last November. By giving Powell this important and visible role, Obama simultaneously burnishes his bipartisan credentials and demonstrates his understanding that the United States has moved to a new era dominated by the outlook of a new generation determined to make America a stronger and more unified country.
Millennials are of an archetype labeled "civic" by the seminal generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe. Like all other civic generations throughout American history, Millennials are defined by their strong desire to advance the welfare of the entire group and, by extension, all of society. The willingness of Millennials to help make things better was reflected in their enthusiastic reaction to Obama’s call during the campaign for a program aimed at young people that would help them pay for college in exchange for two years of public service, either in the military or one of the federal civilian service organizations. While the financial concerns of a generation heavily burdened by educational debt may have partially accounted for the loud applause this idea always generated, there is far more to it than self-interest.
A 2004 Harvard University Institute of Politics survey indicated that 85 percent of college-age Millennials considers public service an effective way to solve problems facing the country. A virtually unanimous 94 percent say that volunteer activity is effective in dealing with challenges in their local community.
Millennials have already clearly demonstrated their strong willingness to put these attitudes into action by participating in service programs in large numbers. In 2004, 80 percent of high school students, all of whom were Millennials, participated in community service activities. This contrasts with only 27 percent of high school students, all whom were members of the much more individualistic Generation X, that did so in 1984. Stemming from the virtually total public service participation of Millennials, by 2006 more than a quarter of those who volunteered for one of the federal government's National Service organizations (26 percent) were 16-24 year olds. That was twice the contribution of young people in 1989, when all of those in the 16-24 year old cohort were Gen-Xers.
But this won't be the first time that a civic generation has rallied to the service of America. And, it won't be the first time that a grateful country has rewarded this service. After the GI Generation great-grandparents of today's Millennials helped to defeat the Axis in World War II, the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, better known as the GI Bill of Rights, sent millions of returning veterans to college. This was not only a just reward for a job well done; it was also excellent public policy. By exponentially increasing the number of American college graduates and the size of the country's middle class, it paved the way for the long period of post-war growth that made the last half of the 20th century the American Century. If history is any guide, the Millennial Generation will follow in the footsteps of the GI Generation and through its dedication to public service will leave America an even stronger country than the one they inherited.
Almost before the echoes of Barack Obama's Grant Park victory speech had died away, pundits and the blogosphere began to keep score about the effectiveness of his transition. In a way, a presidential transition is like a political spring training that gives the incoming manager and his team a chance to prepare and set the tone for what amounts to a four-year long regular season. Every transition presents opportunities for an incoming Administration to put together a game plan to deliver hardball policy ideas to give the new team an early lead in the beginning of the regular season. One danger the new team faces during the transitional pre-season is being suckered by the other side into playing for keeps before opening day. With President-elect Obama’s Cabinet and White House policy team largely in place, and the maneuvering over various economic bailout options mostly behind us, it’s time for some preseason analysis of the management decisions the Obama team has made.
This upcoming season is a particularly important one to get ready for because the new president is taking office during a political realignment. Realignments are rare events in U.S. politics, occurring only about once every four decades; the 2008 realignment is only the sixth in American electoral history. During and after a realignment, the old political truths–and the standards for judging presidential transitions–that appeared axiomatic during the preceding era no longer apply and the President-elect has to manage the process with an acute sensitivity to what the times demand.
As we indicated in our book, Millennial Makeover: MySpace, You Tube and the Future of American Politics, all political realignments are produced by the coming of age of a large, dynamic generation and the emergence of a new communication technology that effectively mobilizes the rising generation. All realignments give American politics an extreme makeover. However, because they are caused by different types of generations, either "idealist" or "civic," not all realignments are the same. Consequently, the standards for judging the success or failure of a presidential transition vary from one type of realignment to another.
Idealist generations, like the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), whose coming-of-age produced a realignment centered on Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign of 1968, try to impose their own personal morality on the country through the political process. Political debate in eras dominated by idealist generations often tends to focus on social or moral issues, not economic or foreign policy concerns. Because idealist generations are highly divided, ideological, and uncompromising, during these types of realignments, the most successful transitions are those that advance the ideological goals of the new president and his winning team.
The current realignment however, is a "civic" realignment, produced by the political emergence of America's newest civic generation, Millennials (born 1982-2003). Civic generations react against the efforts of divided idealist generations to advance their own moral causes. They expect their team to unify the country, focus on reenergizing political and governmental institutions and using those institutions to confront and solve pressing national issues left unattended and unresolved during the previous idealist era. The transition efforts of President-elect Obama should be measured against this set of expectations, not those of an idealist era like the one just ended.
Honest Abe's and FDR's Transition Lessons for Barack Obama
Previous civic realignments occurred in 1860 with the election of Abraham Lincoln and in 1932, when the Millennials' civic generation great grandparents, the GI Generation, put Franklin Roosevelt in the White House. It's no coincidence that these civic presidents, along with George Washington, top all lists of our greatest presidents. All three led the United States in resolving deep crises by inspiring and guiding new civic generations and creating, revitalizing, and expanding the country's civic institutions. It is this high historical standard that will set the bar for history’s evaluation of Obama’s presidency, making his preparation for the new season all the more challenging.
An incoming president during a civic realignment must avoid exacerbating the national crisis that he will soon inherit but also avoid being tied to the failed policies of the outgoing Administration. So far, President-elect Obama has been able to maneuver through this political thicket as deftly as Lincoln and FDR did after their own realigning elections.
Southern states began seceding from the Union within days of Lincoln's election. Lincoln attempted to reassure the South that he would do nothing to tamper with slavery in states where it already existed, but he could not keep secessionist states in the Union without acceding to their demands to permit slavery in new territories. That would have required him to reject his own principles and those of his Republican Party, something he was unable and unwilling to do.
The outgoing Democratic President, James Buchanan, argued that secession was unconstitutional, but also that he had no power to prevent it. Consequently, he did virtually nothing when the seceding states took control of federal institutions throughout the South and blockaded Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Lincoln waited until South Carolina actually fired on Fort Sumter before he announced his intention to use military force to relieve the federal garrison there. Not being precipitous or overly anxious made it easier for Lincoln to prepare for, rally, and lead the country in the war that followed.
The transition between the Administrations of Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt was far more strained. In contrast to Buchanan, Hoover made a number of post-election attempts to persuade or, in the view of pro-FDR historians, entrap Roosevelt into endorsing Hoover's monetary and fiscal policies. Hoover presented to FDR an offer to share power in the public interest, but what he really wanted Roosevelt to do was commit to killing the New Deal before it even started. In letters to conservative Republican senators, Hoover said that if the president-elect agreed to what Hoover wanted, "he will have ratified the whole major program of the Republican administration; that is it means the abandonment of 90 percent of the so-called new deal." More specifically, Hoover wanted his successor to renounce, among other things, aid to homeowners unable to pay their mortgages, public works projects, and plans for the Tennessee Valley Authority. FDR studiously avoided making any policy commitments or even responding to the outgoing president's efforts to contact him, going so far as to claim that a secretary had misplaced a letter to him from Hoover. FDR's ability to preserve his political independence and policy flexibility made the historically high-scoring first 100 days of his presidency possible.
Obama Is a Good Student of History
Both the Bush Administration and the Obama team seem to be well aware of the rocky Hoover-Roosevelt transition during which an already bad economy worsened. Both Obama and Bush wanted to avoid open conflict and strained to be, or at least appear, cooperative on issues such as the auto company bailout and the use of TARP funds to stabilize the nation’s financial system. This approach fits the promise of Barack Obama to avoid excessive partisan confrontation. It fits the desire of the Bush Administration to shape a historical record as positive as possible.
It is also clear, however, that Obama is attempting to follow in FDR’s footsteps by seeking to avoid collaborative policy making or commitments to continue any Bush Administration policies. For example, Obama’s economic team has resisted overtures from the Bush Administration to coordinate more fully on a financial sector rescue package or endorse the release of the second tranche of TARP funds. Instead, the Obama team has kept its focus on the next political season by pushing Congress to quickly pass an Obama-designed stimulus program even before January 20, 2009.
From the beginning of the transition, Obama and his team have repeated the mantra that the United States has "only one president at a time,” a nice way to say, “wait until spring training is over and the regular season starts before we start playing for real." Based upon the professionalism and historical sensitivity he has demonstrated during the transition, his team should be not only a pennant contender, but also one capable of winning the World Series of a civic realignment.
President-elect Barack Obama’s remarkable showing among Millennials (voters 18-26 years old), who supported him by a more than 2:1 margin, was a direct byproduct of his groundbreaking effort to utilize online communication tools to mobilize these core supporters. The Obama campaign took full advantage of the ability and willingness of Millennials to self-organize on behalf of the campaign and its voter turnout efforts. Now, like proud parents unsure of how to handle the success of a child who has just graduated, the former candidate and his incoming administration must decide how to maintain their new offspring’s enthusiasm while ensuring that it channels its energies into the most productive activities. The answer to this challenge can be found by leveraging both the spirit of service that is so much a part of the Millennial Generation's lifestyle and the ability of Millennials to self-organize using social network technologies.
According to Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, almost 60 percent of Millennials are “personally interested in engaging in some form of public service to help the country.” The ethos of service among Millennials is strongly supported regardless of gender or party affiliation. While many of those surveyed see public service as working for government, or even running for office, there is no reason to channel the generation’s enthusiasm solely into these more politically oriented activities. Instead, the incoming Obama Administration should create an entity to help Millennials find ways to rebuild all of America’s civic institutions.
Just as the Obama campaign's Web site, MyBarackObama.com, was not an ordinary political Web site, this “Sprit of Service,” social network should not be an attempt simply to replicate e-mail lobbying efforts like those of MoveOn.org. That kind of activity can be turned over to an Obama-friendly DNC, which is already salivating at the prospect of inheriting the campaign’s estimated 13 million e-mail addresses. Instead, the new site should attempt to guide its “friends” without asserting direct control over their decisions. As Republican online campaign consultant Mike Turk pointed out to the almost totally deaf ears of his party’s leadership last year, “What makes you successful online is not how many e-mails you can amass, but the quality of the people on the list. [Letting them interact] is the free pizza, Cokes and music with which you feed your volunteers.”
We already see evidence that the net-savvy Obama operatives get this distinction. At the official Web site of the transition, change.gov, visitors are invited to join discussions on critical policy issues, such as health care reform, in the “hope it will allow you to form communities around these issues.” As the 2008 presidential campaign demonstrated, Millennials have enough energy and technological ability to run with this ball once it is handed to them. Millennials are members of a “civic” generation, one that believes, among other things, that their personal involvement will make government work again, reinforce and extend the power of the Democratic Party, improve the education of their siblings, and help their local community successfully cope with difficult times. What change.gov, or its successor, can give Millennials is information on how to get involved, a place to share ideas, and a chance to link to others with similar interests and energy.
The key will be to port this community-building online activity into the post-Inaugural world in a way that gives it a connection to the President without, at the same time, drowning it in bureaucratic rules or short term political priorities. Although government will ultimately benefit from the volunteer activities generated by this site, the perverse impact of provisions of the Paperwork Reduction Act and Freedom of Information laws on dealing with volunteers suggest that the site cannot be housed inside government--even as part of the official national service "Corps." Even though those who are attracted to the site are likely to become more closely identified with the Democratic Party, it cannot be housed at the DNC, which would inevitably succumb to the temptation to overly politicize the site.
Instead a non-profit organization, devoted to the cause of harnessing the Millennial Generation's interest in civic engagement, should establish the site with an advisory board of directors made up of “friends of Obama” and an operational staff drawn from the online experts of his campaign. Properly funded, organized and structured, this “Spirit of Service” will enable Millennials to satisfy their desire to rebuild the country's civic institutions and restore America's national pride, while at the same time advancing the policy and political goals of the Obama Administration.
NDN Fellows Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of NDN and the New Policy Institute and co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press: 2008), named by the New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 2008.
The 2008 election not only marked the election of America's first African-American president, it also saw the strong and clear political emergence of a new, large and dynamic generation and the realignment of American politics for the next 40 years.
The first large wave of the Millennial Generation, about one third of the young Americans born from 1982-2003, entered the electorate to decisively support President-elect Barack Obama. Young voters preferred Obama over John McCain by a greater than 2:1 margin (66% vs. 32%). This is well above the margin given by young voters to any presidential candidate for at least three decades, if not at any time in U.S. history. In 2004, young voters preferred John Kerry to George W. Bush by a far more narrow 10 percentage points (55% to 45%). Moreover, the support of young people for Obama crossed all ethnic lines: he won the votes of a majority of African-American (95%), Latino (76%), and white (54%) young people.
Dispelling the myth that young people never vote, Millennials cast ballots in larger numbers than young voters had in any recent presidential election. About 23 million young people, an increase of 3.4 million over 2004, accounted for almost two-thirds of the overall 5.4 million increase in voter turnout. Their participation increased at a rate greater than older generations. As a result, young voters increased their overall share of the vote from 17 percent in 2004 to 18 percent in 2008. In contrast to previous recent presidential elections, a majority of young people voted in 2008 (53%), and in the competitive battleground states, youth turnout was even higher (59%). This was significantly above the 1996 (37%), 2000 (41%), and 2004 (48%) levels. In the earlier elections, "young people" were primarily members of Generation X, an alienated and socially uninvolved cohort; by contrast, the young voters of 2008 were mostly members of the civic-oriented Millennial Generation.
Their unified support for Barack Obama combined with their high turnout made the Millennial Generation the decisive force in his victory. Young voters accounted for about seven million of Obama's almost nine million national popular vote margin over John McCain. Had young people not voted, Obama would have led McCain by only about 1.5 percentage points instead of seven. Republican Internet guru Patrick Ruffini pointed out that without Millennials, Obama would not have won the combined 73 electoral votes of Florida, Indiana, Ohio, and North Carolina. While he may still have won in 2008 without young voters, Obama's margin and his political mandate would have been far narrower.
Contrary to the hopes of many Republicans, the Millennial Generation's support for Barack Obama is not a one-time phenomenon. Millennials are every bit as supportive of the Democratic Party as they are of Obama personally. Millennials identify as Democrats over Republicans by a 2:1 margin and Pew survey results indicate that they have done so since at least early 2007, well before Obama emerged as a well-known national political figure. More of them consider themselves liberals rather than conservatives (31% to 18%), as well. When it comes to policy, Millennials are liberal interventionists on economic issues, active multilateralists in foreign affairs and tolerant non-meddlers on social issues-a profile that most closely matches the Democratic Party's platform as well as the new President's agenda. Their propensity to vote straight Democratic was clearly evident in 2008 when young voters supported Democratic congressional candidates by about the same margin that they did Obama (63% vs. 34%).
What's more, as with previous civic generations, they are likely to vote a straight ticket for their preferred party for the rest of their lives. The Millennial Generation is ready to take its place as America's next great Democratic civic generation, just as their GI Generation great grandparents did nearly 80 years ago. Welcome to the Millennial Era.
The 2008 election not only marked the election of America's first African-American president, it also saw the strong and clear political emergence of a new, large and dynamic generation and the realignment of American politics for the next 40 years.
The first large wave of the Millennial Generation, young Americans born from 1982-2003, entered the electorate to decisively support President-elect Barack Obama. Young voters preferred Obama over U.S. Sen. John McCain by a greater than 2:1 margin (66% vs. 32%). And, dispelling the myth that young people never vote, Millennials cast ballots in larger numbers than young voters had in any recent presidential election. The overall contribution of young voters to the electorate ticked up slightly from 17% in 2004 to 18% this year, but in a larger electorate, that represents millions more voters. Proving that this generation of young voters is committed to participating in America’s civic life, it appears that a majority of eligible Millennials cast their ballot, continuing the rise in the percentage of young people who voted from its low of 37% among Generation Xers in 1996.
The increased size and overwhelming unity of young voters added significantly to Barack Obama's popular vote margin over John McCain of about six percentage points nationally. Without the contribution of young voters Obama's popular vote lead would have been a much narrower 1.5% points. Moreover, it appears that the youth vote was ultimately decisive in Obama's close wins in the formerly red states of Indiana and North Carolina.
As a result of this decisive support from the Millennial Generation, the Democratic Party is likely to be the dominant political force in the United States in the decades ahead. Millennials identify as Democrats by the same 2:1 margin that they voted for Barack Obama. Political science tells us that once individual and generations form their party identification they retain it for a lifetime. This will allow the Millennial Generation to take its place as America's next great Democratic civic generation just as their GI Generation great grandparents did nearly 80 years ago. Welcome to the Millennial era.
Senator Barack Obama’s success in the 2008 presidential campaign marks more than an historical turning point in American politics. It also signals the beginning of a new era for American society, one dominated by the attitudes and behaviors of the largest generation in American history.
Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003, now comprise almost one-third of the U.S. population and without their overwhelming support for his candidacy, Barack Obama would not have been able to win his party’s nomination, let alone been elected President of the United States. This new, “civic” generation is dramatically different than the boomers who have dominated our society since the 1960s and understanding this shift is critical to comprehending the changes that America will experience over the next forty years.
The arrival of social network technologies enabled Millennials to create the most intense, group-oriented decision-making process of any generation in American history. This generation’s preference for consensus for everything from minor decisions, like where to hang out, and major decisions, such as whether go to war, stems from a belief that every one impacted by a decision needs, at very least, to be consulted about it. This approach will dominate how leaders of America’s primary institutions – from corporations and churches to government at all levels – will be measured in the years ahead.
Contrast that approach to those of the candidates who struggled in 2008. In her losing run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Hillary Clinton presented case for a highly assertive, controversial – if sometimes a bit too strenuous – Boomer style of leadership. She emphasized the value of her years of experience and wisdom. Senator John McCain tried that approach as well during the summer lull, but found it didn’t have sufficient power to overtake Obama in the national polls. He then rolled the dice and asked a Generation-X Governor, Sarah Palin, to help him win voters by emphasizing their mutual belief in the superiority of traditional social values and small government. The Republican ticket has had about as much success with this strategy as Governors Huckabee and Romney did Millennial voters during the primaries.
To successfully manage the transition to a Millennial era, institutions will need to find leaders of any age far-sighted enough to fully embrace Millennial attitudes and behaviors. They have to give them full reign to makeover the outdated structures they will inherit.
Millennials, in particular, are ready to take on the challenge. Millennials were taught that if you follow the rules and work hard, you will succeed. As the first generation to experience “always on,” high-speed access to the Internet at a young age, Millennials have confounded the vision of many Gen X futurists who envisioned the Net as a tool to enhance individual freedom and liberty, not as a new resource for community building. Sharing their ideas and thoughts constantly from short Twitter texts, or “Tweets,” to extended, if often amateurish, videos on YouTube, Millennials generate and absorb an overwhelming amount of information. Individual Millennials use this ability to influence their own decisions, and then those of the wider group. If institutions and their leaders want their decisions to have any credibility with this new generation, every institution will need to open its own governance procedures to ensure a level of transparency and fairness that meets the test of Millennial values.
There have been other times in American history when a “civic” generation like the Millennials has emerged to transform the nation. In the eighteenth century a “civic” generation, called the “Republican Generation” by the seminal generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe, created the constitutional republic whose democratic values we celebrate to this day. About eighty years later, an equally “civic” impulse propelled to the war to abolish slavery and extend liberty and freedom to all citizens. And when the last “civic” generation was called upon by its elders to conquer fascism and remake America’s economy in the twentieth century, the GI Generation responded with such fervor and ability that they were labeled the “Greatest Generation” by a grateful nation.
Now, another eighty years later, it is the Millennial Generation’s turn. Its “civic” revolution draws its unique character from the particular way Millennials were brought up, and their use of interactive communication technologies. We believe the Millennial Generation's revolution will be just as profound as that of previous “civic” generations. Barack Obama’s victory does indeed mark the end of the late 20th century “idealist” era of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But its significance is much deeper, and likely to shape the nature of the new era the country is about to enter.
The Millennial Generation is poised to play a decisive role in the election of Barack Obama on November 4. An October 30 ABC News/Washington Post national poll gave Barack Obama an eight-point advantage over John McCain (52% vs. 44%). Among young voters in the ABC sample Obama continued to enjoy the nearly 2:1 advantage he has held throughout the campaign (64% vs. 33%). Among all older voters, the race is far closer (50% vs. 46% in favor of Obama).
Just how big an advantage this proves to be for the Obama campaign depends on how many Millennials actually cast their ballots in the election. In 2004, about half of eligible young people turned out to vote; they favored John Kerry by a relatively narrow 55% vs. 45% margin. This gave Kerry about a 1.7 million vote plurality among young voters, a lead that was more than wiped out by George W. Bush's lead among older generations -- Silents like John McCain and Joe Biden, Baby Boomers like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and Gen Xers like Sarah Palin. This year, the sheer size and overwhelming unity of Millennials is likely to provide Barack Obama with a much larger advantage.
Even if Millennials vote at only the same rate that young people did in 2004, Obama will receive about a six million vote plurality from them. Given the political interest and high voter turnout that Millennials showed in the presidential primaries earlier this year, it seems likely that their turnout on Tuesday will be higher than that of young voters four years ago. If 55 percent of Millennials go to the polls, Obama's plurality among them will grow to about seven million. And, if Millennials vote at the same 60 percent rate that older generations do, Obama's national plurality from young voters will be almost eight million. Given that George W. Bush beat John Kerry by only a little more than three million votes, the Millennial margins Obama is likely to enjoy should prove to be the decisive factor in this year’s election.
While it was painful for Democrats to experience at the time, the inter-generational contest between Barack Obama, with his solid support among Millennials, and Hillary Clinton, with her dedicated cadre of Boomer women, proved to be a great advantage to the Democratic ticket in the general election. Once Senator Clinton graciously and enthusiastically endorsed Obama at the convention, the stage was set for a campaign that could unite the generations in November. By contrast, John McCain’s nomination of Sarah Palin, a classic Gen X candidate for Vice President, did irreparable damage to his candidacy among Millennials. Like her generation, Palin’s risk-taking style is confrontational and entrepreneurial with little tolerance for government activism. By contrast, Millennials are focused on solutions that involve the whole group and use government as an instrument to bring people together on behalf of the greater good. Millennials were the first generation to register their disapproval of Palin, and her negatives among this key constituency have continued to climb throughout the campaign. Millennials are a generation of "liberal interventionists" in the economy, "activist multilateralists" in foreign affairs, and "tolerant non-meddlers" on social issues -- all things the McCain/Palin ticket is not.
But, as we forecast in our book, Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics, what the Millennials do on November 4, 2008 is going to be only one important step in what this generation will accomplish over the next four decades. The Millennial Generation is a civic generation and, like their GI Generation great grandparents, America's last civic generation, Millennials will lead a makeover of American politics. This realignment will make the Democratic Party the dominant force in U.S. politics and will turn the country away from the divisive social issues and gridlock of the past forty years to a win-win approach that confronts and actually resolves fundamental economic and foreign policy matters. Welcome to the Millennial Era.
*** Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, Fellows at NDN, are co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press: 2008).
The second presidential debate left few observers willing to predict anything but an Obama victory in November. But one nagging question remains in the minds of many pundits. Will Millennials, whose overwhelming support for Senator Obama’s candidacy represents his margin of victory in polls in many battleground states, actually turnout to vote in November?
One such skeptic is Curtis Gans, an eminent researcher on voting trends and turnout at the American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate, whose most recent report even goes so far as to deny the existence of the Millennial Generation. Aging Boomers like Tom Friedman have made the same public mistake, demonstrating just how convinced many leading thinkers among that generation, which is well represented among leading political commentators in the media, are that the political style of young people today is not like their own youthful political behavior was and is, therefore, not appropriate or useful.
Since Gans' research report was focused on, in his words, the increased, “almost record,” turnout in this year’s presidential primaries, it is particularly surprising that he chose this vehicle to announce his distaste for the Millennial Generation and its political style. Gans cites the work of William Damon as the source of his knowledge about this generation, which is strange given the large number of more well-documented studies of the Millennial Generation disproving Damon’s contention that the parents of Millennials are “creating a generation of young people who lack confidence and direction.” The evidence shows just the opposite.. If anything, employers and teachers who interact daily with Millennials complain that they are almost too confident, to the point of sounding “cheeky.”
This generation's self-confidence and orientation toward the group and the broader society has important political implications. Recent polling data from USAToday/CNN demonstrate that Millennials are paying close attention to the 2008 election and have every intention of voting, at numbers rivaling those of older voters. Their survey of more than 900 young Americans, taken Sept. 18-28 found that:
• 75 % of Millennials are registered to vote
• 73% plan to vote
• 64% have given "quite a lot" of thought to the election
Even Gans concedes that Millennials may vote in large numbers in this election. But he says that they will do so only be because of their fondness for Senator Barack Obama and not because of any long-term commitment to the political process. Millennials he says “were brought in by the uniqueness of Obama’s candidacy—precisely because he seemed to offer something different than the politics they had been eschewing.” He continues, “they won’t stay in if he’s not elected and their interest and engagement won’t be sustained if he does not live up to the promise of his candidacy once in office.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
There is no doubt that Millennials have responded very positively to Senator Obama and his candidacy and that the Obama campaign has strongly targeted this generation. Millennials supported Obama overwhelmingly in this year's Democratic primaries and virtually all current general election surveys indicate that Millennials favor him over John McCain by at least a 2:1 margin. But the political attitudes and identifications of Millennials were clearly evident long before the Obama candidacy gained widespread visibility. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in March 2007 indicated that Millennials identified as Democrats over Republicans by nearly a 2:1 ratio (52% vs. 30%). And, a study conducted at about the same time by the Millennial Strategy Program of communication research and consultation firm Frank N. Magid Associates showed that Millennials were the first generation since at least the GI Generation to contain a greater number of self-perceived liberals than conservatives. All of this at least raises the possibility that the high level of Millennial political involvement is significantly based on the Democratic and liberal affinities of the generation and would be strong even without Obama's strong candidacy.
Gans makes it clear why he is sure that the political involvement of Millennials stems solely from their attachment to Barack Obama. He yearns for the “idealistic activism” of the 1950s and 1960s when, according to Gans, all of America shared a “different ethos” thanks to an educational system based “on John Dewey’s philosophy.” Since, in Gans' mind, the emerging Millennial Generation doesn’t share the liberal idealism of his own youth, it cannot possibly sustain its current level of political activity.
If only it were so, Curtis.
In fact, the ideological ferment of the late 1960s, led by half of the Baby Boomer Generation’s counter-cultural rebellion against authority, and the reaction against this social turmoil by the other half of Boomer Generation, produced the political gridlock that caused the very cynicism in the older portions of the electorate that Gans decries. Even his own expert on the Millennial Generation, William Damon, concedes that Millennials “are working hard, doing well enough in school, and staying out of trouble.” Indeed, America is enjoying far lower levels of socially deviant behavior, such as teen age pregnancy and crime, since these indicators began to soar during the adolescent years the Baby Boomer Generation with its disdain for social rules and convention.
But Gans' own words demonstrate the flaw in his thinking. The 1950s that he writes about so nostalgically was actually an era dominated by the behavior and ethos of the GI Generation, another “civic” generational archetype, just like Millennials, not by his beloved Boomers. That generation put FDR in the White House, brought about the New Deal approach to progressive government, defeated fascism in WWII, and voted at rates greater than those of previous generations. Their Democratic loyalty lasted a lifetime: the last remaining members of the GI Generation and the first sliver of Millennials provided the only pluralities for John Kerry over George W. Bush among any of the generational cohorts voting in 2004.
The previous falloff in voting by young people described by Gans in his diatribe is completely explained by the generational attitudes and behaviors of Boomers and Gen-Xers as they moved into and out of young adulthood. One generation, Boomers, initially turned out to vote spurred by admirable idealism and then often left the political process when they discovered in Gans’ telling phrase, that “their leaders showed feet of clay.” The other, Generation X, never bothered to participate in large numbers having been discouraged by the political gridlock Boomers had created. Now that Millennials make up the entire population of voters 26 and under in this election, you can be assured that they will not only vote at rates comparable to older voters, just like their GI Generation great-grandparents did, but they will also continue to vote heavily and participate vigorously in the nation’s political process for the rest of their lives.
They will do so, because unlike Curtis Gans and his ilk, which never were able to translate their idealism into action, Millennials are intent on working together to create a better America than the one Boomers have left them as an inheritance. Their confidence, political activism, and unity will begin to initiate that change on Election Day this year thanks to a record turnout of young voters. The 1.7 million vote plurality given to John Kerry by young voters in 2004 will grow to between 8 and 10 million for Barack Obama when this involved and unified generation goes to the polls on November 4. Only Curtis Gans and out of touch Boomers will be surprised.