President Barack Obama’s signature on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is the clearest signal yet that America has entered a new civic era, very different from the idealist era of the past four decades. As has been the case with all previous realignments or makeovers in our history, this new era will be marked by a far different conception of the role of government and of the way in which public policy is made and judged.
The latest survey results from the Millennial Strategy Program of communication research and consultation firm, Frank N. Magid Associates, demonstrate that the American public fully embraces this new era even as many in the country’s political establishment continue to behave as though the 2008 election never happened.
Conservatives in the media, and virtually everyone on the Republican side of the congressional aisle, amazingly still seem to believe that the country remains "center-right" and is willing to accept an answer to its economic distress that is based on a continuation of the financial and fiscal policies of the past four decades. Many of their counterparts in the liberal media and blogosphere, and some congressional Democrats, are upset that President Obama even deigns to talk to Republicans and are unrealistically disappointed that that the entire Democratic legislative wish list of recent decades has not been fully enacted within the first month of the new Administration. But what both sides fail to fully comprehend is the degree to which public attitudes have shifted. From the perspective of public opinion, America is now a very different country than it was in the 1980s, 1990s, and even what it was before the financial meltdown of last September.
Here are some highlights from the latest results from Magid’s February 2009 survey that clearly document this change and describe the new contours of the public opinion bedrock on which governmental policy will be debated, enacted, and gauged in the coming decades.
Governmental activism has replaced a laissez faire approach to societal and economic concerns. By a greater than 2:1 majority, Americans now say they prefer a government that actively tries to solve the problems facing society and the economy rather than one that stays out of society and the economy to the greatest extent possible. (58% vs. 26%). Overwhelming support for an activist approach crosses all demographic and political lines; only Republicans, conservatives, and 2008 McCain voters have any lingering doubts about the matter. In the 1980s and 1990s many, if not most, Americans believed, along with Ronald Reagan, that government was the problem, and not the solution to problems. In 2009, the American people have turned Mr. Reagan's aphorism on its head even as Republicans in Congress and the media continue to preach that very old time religion.
Economic equality is a major goal and standard by which to gauge government policy. A majority of the American public now believes that the best policy is to ensure that everyone has at least a basic standard of living and level of income, even if that increases government spending, instead of an approach that lets each person get along economically on their own, even if that means some have more than others (53% vs. 30%). Support for policies that promote economic equality is widespread demographically and politically. Only Republicans and conservatives are opposed. By contrast, in Pew surveys taken in the mid-1990s, only about four in ten Americans endorsed a governmental guarantee of a basic standard of living.
Americans favor a foreign policy based on multilateralism. By almost 2:1, Americans agree that the best way to protect our national security is through building strong alliances with other nations rather than by relying primarily on our own military strength (56% vs. 29%). Once again, Republicans and conservatives stand in opposition to all other major demographic and political groups on this matter. And, once again, the American public has clearly moved in a new direction in recent years. Since early 2002, support for relying on military strength for the country's security has fallen by about 15 percentage points while the preference for depending on alliances with other countries has also increased by about the same amount.
Pragmatism has replaced ideological purity as the preferred standard for gauging public policy. Half of Americans (49%) say that the best way to judge the correctness of government policies is how well they work. Only a third (31%) believe that the standard should be whether the policies seem to be morally right or wrong. As in other areas, it is only Republicans and conservatives who are out of step with the rest of the public. Clearly, most of the American people, if not many of those inside the Beltway, are ready to say farewell to the ideological gridlock that has characterized U.S. politics for the past 40 years.
These results reflect an almost total shift in the bedrock beliefs of the American people about the purpose of government and the standards for evaluating public policy. Under the heavy influence of the Millennial Generation’s (those born between 1982 and 2003) preference for liberal interventionism in economic matters, activist multilateralism in foreign affairs, and tolerant non-meddling on social issues, the United States has moved squarely into a new civic era.
President Barack Obama intuitively and clearly understands the magnitude of this major change in public opinion. The American people have adopted new attitudes for a new era. It's now time for the Washington political elites to do the same.
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.
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 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.
Republicans were rightfully excited by the enthusiastic response that the nomination by John McCain of Sarah Palin received from a significant portion of the electorate. However after the initial euphoria wore off, a pattern emerged that suggested the nomination was not going to be the ten strike it first appeared to be.
There is no question that her nomination energized the conservative base of the Republican Party who was suspicious of McCain’s commitment to their positions on the social issues dealing with “God, guns and gays.” Beyond those Republican stalwarts, however, the nomination has done little to gain McCain additional support from groups such as disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters and independents and moderates that the campaign had hoped would be won over by Governor Palin. Since the conventions, recent CBS polls, among others, show that Barack Obama’s support among white women, for instance, has actually gone up and that of McCain has declined. McCain has also lost support among moderates and independents since his selection of Palin.
Much of the lost ground for the GOP has come from the Millennial Generation, those 26 and younger. Millennials reject the confrontational or risk-taking style that Palin--a classic Gen Xer--exhibits. Just as they have a hard time getting along with their Gen X bosses at work, Millennials of both genders and all races have turned away from the McCain ticket at least partially in response to the choice of Sarah Palin. Obama now enjoys more than a 2:1 advantage among Millennials and this largest American generation might provide him with up to a 10 million-vote margin over McCain IF it votes on Election Day in equal numbers to older generations. Even if Millennials vote at only the low level that young voters did in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, Obama's margin over John McCain among this generation is likely to be two or three times the margin young voters gave Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. Whether Palin’s nomination produces a great enough turnout among Republican base voters than what it loses among Millennials may well determine the wisdom of Senator McCain’s vice-presidential choice.
The key to waging a successful presidential campaign by either Barack Obama or John McCain will be their ability to use their respective conventions to overcome generational tensions. What happens in Denver and the Twin Cities could give the nominees freedom to embrace the generational changes that will shape American politics for decades to come.
If the candidates pay proper attention to generational politics, each convention will begin with a nod to their party's Boomers and then pivot away from the past to address, on the final night, new voters whose support they will need to win in November.
The candidates must take the lead in managing their party's convention so that the ticket and its platform reflect the desire of the electorate to move beyond the cultural wars of the 1960s. Each party's understanding of this generationally driven challenge will be evident in how it handles the iconic, Boomer figures demanding center stage at their conventions.
Obama, in an acknowledgement of the generational strains in his party, has agreed to Hillary Rodham Clinton's request to not only address the convention in prime time on Tuesday night, but to have her name placed in nomination the following night. In return, he has gained the agreement of former president Bill Clinton to, in effect, lead the Boomers in the Democratic Party to embrace and endorse Senator Obama's nomination on Wednesday night.
As tough as that challenge has been for Obama, the problem is more acute for John McCain. President Bush's job performance ratings are among the lowest of any president. But he remains popular with Boomer ideologues in the GOP, who are continually looking for signs that McCain has stayed from party orthodoxy. Any attempt to deny a sitting president the spotlight at their national convention, as Democrats did in keeping Lyndon Johnson from addressing their 1968 convention, will be met with cries of "I told you not to trust him" from Republican true believers.
It appears that McCain's advisers have decided to throw cultural war red meat to the delegates with appearances by Bush and Vice President Cheney on Monday, in hopes that the electorate won't pay too much attention until later in the week.
If history is any guide, the place where both candidates will be willing to make concessions to their party's ideological base will be the party's platform. Since this policy statement is debated early in the convention, with little penalty for abandoning a plank or two later in the campaign, platforms are the easiest way to throw a bone to ideological purists. The Generation X and Boomer Democratic blogosphere has previously attacked Obama for failing to adhere to hard left positions on post 9-11 issues and offshore oil drilling.
Similarly, a number of conservatives have condemned McCain's former positions on climate change, immigration, and campaign finance reform.
The choice each candidate must make is whether to use the platform debate to give the cultural warriors in their party a final opportunity to replay the political drama of the nation's Boomer past or to use the platform debate as a "Sister Souljah" generational moment and decisively break with that kind of divisive politics.
Senator McCain's campaign has already announced a "hands off" approach to his own party's platform, making it clear he doesn't intend to abide by all of its provisions--or fight over them. Senator Obama has taken a more inclusive approach to the platform, seeking to find ways to blend different opinions among party activists into one document everyone can agree on--a classic Millennial approach to resolving a problem.
In the end, however, there will be no better place for the two candidates to demonstrate their break with the politics of past generations than in their acceptance speeches.
The McCain campaign has signaled its intention to use their candidate's story of personal sacrifice on behalf of the nation throughout the convention. This effort will likely culminate in an acceptance speech attempting to simultaneously distinguish his life's experience from those of the Woodstock generation ("I was tied up at the time") and arouse the passions of his party's Boomer base.
The challenge, however, is how to do that that without awakening a set of related thoughts among Millennials about just how old and potentially out of touch with their generation he is. Millennials weren't around for Woodstock, don't care about it, and prefer that everyone "play nice" together. Passion displayed as anger turns them off. To capture a new and winning coalition in this campaign, McCain would be better off using his acceptance speech to underline his national security credentials based on a lifetime of service, both of which appeal greatly to Millennials.
Obama's decision to deliver his acceptance speech before a large outdoor audience on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech comes with its own set of risks. Echoes of that remarkable speech are sure to arouse the passions of the liberal half of the Boomer generation. But, it will also remind viewers of the turmoil of the 60s that drove a majority of the nation to embrace the Republicans' appeal for "law and order."
Obama's rhetoric will need to inspire a new generation to take the next steps toward achievement of King's dream, without creating a backlash among the rest of the electorate that wasn't enamored with the racial overtones of the Democratic primary campaign.
To succeed in November, both candidates will have to speak explicitly to the future and demonstrate that their campaign represents the hopes of a new generation. The country is waiting for a new leader with a new approach to guide it out of the Boomer briar patch in which it has been stuck since 1968. After the conventions, we will have a clearer idea who can best lead the country into a new era of American politics.
Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are co-authors of "Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics" published by Rutgers University Press.
I wrote last week of the youth vote and voter registration patterns in Connecticut, predicting that the striking increases in Democratic registrations nationwide would impact not only the presidential race but also the rest of the ballot this November. Jennifer Steinhauer wrote on the same theme in Monday’s New York Times. The change is substantial; buried in the article is its long-term significance:
Swings in party registration are not uncommon from one year to the next, or even over two years[…] But for a shift away from one party to sustain itself — the current registration trend is now in its fourth year — is remarkable, researchers who study voting patterns say.
Since 2005, the number of voters registering with the Republican party has decreased while the numbers of Democrat-affiliating voters and unaffiliated voters have increased. Of the 29 states that register voters with a party affiliation, over half have seen an increase in share of the population identifying as Democrat. NDN has been making this case -- on these terms -- for quite a while now. In fact, my favorite part of the article was when Steinhauer reinforced NDN’s argument that the country’s shift to a more Millennial and more Hispanic demography favors progressives:
In many states, Democrats have benefited from a rise in younger potential voters, after declines or small increases in the number of those voters in the 1980s and ’90s. The population of 18- to 24-year-olds rose from about 27 million in 2000 to nearly 30 million in 2006, according to Census figures.
Dowell Myers, a professor of policy,planning and development at the University of Southern California, also noted that a younger, native-born generation of Latinos who have a tendency to support Democrats is coming of age.
Further, young Americans have migrated in recent years to high-growth states that have traditionally been dominated by Republicans, like Arizona, Colorado and Nevada, which may have had an impact on the changing registration numbers in those places.
Let’s take a look at what NDN has been saying.
First, we’ve noted that the Millennial generation has consistently displayed progressive values and has voted more heavily Democratic than other generations in their first few elections. New Politics Institute friends and collaborators Morley Winograd and Michael Hais argue that the Millennial generation represents a fundamental shift in American politics, a prediction reflected in these registration statistics, in their book Millennial Makeover. Moreover, in their NPI paper Progressive Politics of the Millennial Generation, they observed the striking disparity between Republican and Democratic Party identification among Millennials.
The findings of our research confirm trends in the Hispanic community that we saw emerge in 2006 – Hispanics are trending very Democratic and voting in much higher numbers. So far this year, 78% of Hispanics who have voted in Presidential election contests have voted Democratic. In those states where Hispanics are tracked, results have shown a dramatic increase in their share of the overall vote, skyrocketing 67%, from 9% of the overall vote in 2004 to 15% in 2008.
Steinhauer even cites evidence for NDN’s argument that progressives can succeed in taking their case to exurbs. In 2006, NDN argued that the increasing diversification of the exurbs would challenge their trend of conservativism.
In many major metropolitan areas, suburbs that were once largely white and Republican have become more mixed, as people living in cities have been priced out into surrounding areas, and exurban regions have absorbed those residents who once favored the close-in suburbs of cities.
These changes in voter registration patterns forecast what could happen this fall. The New York Times included a handy graphic that's worth checking out. Observe that among the seven states experiencing the most dramatic increases in the Democratically-affiliated share of voters, two are states which voted Republican in 2004 – two of 2008’s top swing states – Iowa and Nevada. Also note that perennial swing states Pennsylvania and New Hampshire made the list.
How is it playing out already? Democrats’ 2006 state-level victories in Colorado, Iowa, and New Hampshire may forecast additional gains in states NDN sees as highly competitive this fall. I thought also of freshmen Senators like Claire McCaskill (MO) and Jim Webb (VA), potential bellwethers for November’s Electoral College map. These voter registration numbers are more in a series of indications that conservative ascendancy has ended and a political shift is underway.
Since the snowy surprises of Iowa and New Hampshire - in which a tripling and doubling of youth voter turnout, respectively, turned many heads - the press has done an awkward dance with the youth vote, struggling to pick a narrative that adheres to the conventional wisdom of youth-as-disengaged or alternative of the "Millennial Makeover," as NDN friends Morley Winograd and Michael Hais call it. As coverage has moved to emphasizing the roles of Latinos and economically-hurting voters, excitement about the youth vote has waned a bit. I was reminded this weekend, however, by some great press coverage that hit close to home - literally.
First, Friday's numbers from Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz in my home state of Connecticut confirmed NDN's argument that the Millennial Generation will be a remarkable boon for progressives going forward. While the youth vote was "decisive" in the Connecticut primary and reflected a surge of interest in that competitive race, the excitement has continued well beyond February. Since May, the number of newly registered voters nearly matches the increase before the primary - and among 18-29-year-olds there have been 4.3 Democrats for every one Republican.
As will be emblemized elsewhere across the country, the amplified youth turnout could be especially important in Connecticut's toss-up Fourth District race between New England's lone Republican, U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, and his Democratic challenger Jim Himes. Shays won close races to Diane Farrell in 2004 and 2006 but new registrations fueled by young people more than double the margin by which Farrell lost in 2006 and reflect the impact of Obama, the most Millennial-friendly candidate in to date, is already having at the top of the ticket. Further, Himes is an internationally-raised Spanish speaker who left his VP spot at Goldman-Sachs to work as a non-profit exec in affordable housing - a not-quite-Millennial who speaks the civic notes that appeal to the internationally-focused and civically-minded Millennial Generation (see Melissa's recent blog post). Himes's campaign manager, Maura Kearney, entered politics during the new media explosion of the Lamont campaign. The Himes people, it seems, get it.
So what does Republican State Chairman Chris Healy have to say about the new voters and potential for swinging the Fourth?
Healy said that new voter registrations do not always lead to voter turnout.
"Just because you suit up, it doesn't mean you'll show up," he said.
I know that I, and many of my peers from all over, are suited up and ready to play hardball this fall. As EJ Dionne argued in Friday's Washington Post, the conventional wisdom on the youth vote has lagged behind 2008's remarkable evidence to the contrary. Dionne predicts this will be "the year the youth vote arrives" and believes that the youth vote can "make a difference in Barack Obama's favor." I argue that the youth vote will make a difference for more than just Obama this November; expect it will impact nail-biter down-ticket races like CT-04 as well.
Makeovers or realignments occur about every four decades in American politics, resulting in forty years of partisan advantage for the party that catches the next wave of generational and technological change. For the other party, it means spending forty years in the minority. Whether a party prospers or loses ground at the time of a realignment depends, in large part, on whether it is willing to embrace a new coalition of voters that is aligned with the larger changes taking place in society or whether it remains locked in the divisions and debates of the past.
In 1896, the Democrats and William Jennings Bryan looked back to an agrarian America and to Jefferson's and Jackson's "yeoman farmer", leaving it to Republicans William McKinley and Mark Hanna, the Carl Rove of his era, to appeal to an emerging urban America. The result was GOP dominance of U.S. politics for the next forty years.
The Democrats got it right in 1932. That year, spurred by the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt built a coalition based on the economic egalitarianism of the GI Generation, many of whom were blue-collar workers and the children and grandchildren of the last great wave of European immigrants to the United States.
But as late as 1968, many Democrats still wanted to rely on the New Deal coalition even as a young idealist generation, Baby Boomers, attempted to get the party to focus on a different set of concerns including civil rights, women's rights, and opposition to the Vietnam war. The resulting divisions presented an opportunity that the Republicans have exploited ever since.
Now, forty years later, American politics is undergoing another period of political and generational change just as it did in 1896, 1932, and 1968. If the Democratic Party has the courage to embrace a new generation of young voters and the group-oriented values it favors, it can once again recapture the political advantage for the next four decades.
Unfortunately, most of the advice the party is getting on what constitutes a winning coalition in 2008, is being provided by pundits and candidates who seem locked in the politics and divisions of the past. Some tell the party to focus on the "white working class," or "hardworking white people." On the other hand, a recent Wall Street Journal article suggested that the focus should be on "senior citizens," virtually all of whom vote and who, together, comprise about 20-percent of the electorate. But these approaches to coalition building neither recognize the major demographic changes continuing to take place in America nor the factors that lead to political makeovers or realignments.
Throughout history, realignments have been produced by the political coming-of-age of a large, dynamic generation and its use of a new communication technology that mobilizes the opinions and votes of that generation. Today's realignment stems from the emergence of the Millennial Generation (Americans born 1982-2003) and its use of Internet based social networking technologies.
The Millennial Generation is the largest in American history. There are over 90 million Millennials, about four in ten of whom are of voting age, making them just as powerful a force in the 2008 election as the much more frequently touted senior citizen cohort.
The Millennial Generation is also the most diverse in our history. Four in ten are non-white and about 20-percent are the children of at least one immigrant parent. Reflecting their gender-neutral behavior, a majority of college undergraduates are women, for the first time in U.S. history. Solid majorities of Millennials are tolerant on social and racial issues, favorable to governmental intervention and egalitarian policies in the economy, and an activist, but multilateral, approach in foreign affairs. With few exceptions, Millennials have overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama in this year's presidential primaries and caucuses.
At the same time, changes in America's economy and the composition of its population serve to continue the half-century long trend, noted recently by Alan Abramowitz in the Rasmussen Report, of the diminishing contribution of "white working class voters" to the American workforce overall and to the Democratic electorate specifically:
"In the 1950s, manual workers made up 47 percent of the white electorate in the United States while sales and clerical workers made up 21 percent and professional and managerial workers made up 32 percent. By the first decade of the 21st century, however, manual workers made up only 24 percent of the white electorate, while sales and clerical workers made up 33 percent and professional and managerial workers made up 43 percent. Since the 1960s, however, Democratic identification among both white manual workers and white sales and clerical workers has declined sharply while Democratic identification among white professional and managerial workers has risen. Today, white professional and managerial workers are actually more likely to identify with the Democratic Party than either white manual workers or white clerical and sales workers."
As Joel Kotkin and Fred Siegel wrote recently, the Democratic Party is rapidly becoming a party of "gentry liberals", minorities and youth with little resemblance to the working class-based party coalition assembled by FDR almost eighty years ago.
This shift in America's economic dynamics and demographics, coupled with the generational and technological changes the country is experiencing, produces an historic opportunity for the Democratic Party in 2008. In a March 2008 Pew Survey, Millennials identified as Democrats over Republicans by a greater than 2:1 margin. Millennials are the first generation in more than forty years in which a larger number say they are liberal rather than conservative. In contrast to older generations that are sharply divided by sex and race in their ideology and party identification Millennials are united in their political leanings, a fact that serves to enhance the potential decisiveness of this powerful new generation.
All of this gives the Democrats a clear leg-up in the Millennial makeover that's under way. Whether the Democratic Party takes advantage of this historical opportunity largely depends on the choices it makes in building its electoral coalition. Will it look backward, as it did to its detriment in 1896, or forward, as it did in 1932, to its benefit? The consequences of that choice will shape the fate of the party and the nation, not just in 2008, but also for the coming four decades.