boom goes the government
countdown to oblivion
Once again, Washington stands at the brink of disaster. Republicans are pulling out all the stops to thwart implementation of Obamacare and trigger a government shutdown. If avoiding a shutdown was their goal, Republicans have a funny way of showing it. As Steve Benen reported on Sunday night, House Republicans unanimously passed a plan that appears to have been designed to fail. Not only is a government shutdown upon us, but the threat of voluntary default on the national debt looms in the background — with potentially devastating consequences.
Here at First Person Politics, we thought we’d take this opportunity to examine the events unfolding in Washington from a generational perspective. Much has already been written about the ideological and political forces that have led to this point, but little has been said about the generational dynamics that are contributing to the conflict. Indeed, to really understand the politics of this moment, you can’t just look at a single generation — you have to look at all the generations alive and active in Congress today and how they relate to each other.
The troubling developments unfolding Congress reflect the fall of one generation and the rise of two others into positions of power. Specifically, the Silent Generation’s rapidly diminishing influence is removing the last remaining restraints on the rhetorical, procedural, and political excesses of the younger generations. The Silent’s Generation’s long march from power has been underway in the House since the mid 1990s and in the Senate since the early 2000s. Their retreat from power — and the corresponding rise of the Baby Boomers — bears much of the blame for the rising ideological polarization, partisan warfare, and political brinkmanship that has plagued Washington over the past 20 years.
To make matters worse, a rising crop of impatient and insurgent Generation X leaders are demanding action and provoking confrontations, which their elders appear unable to manage. All of this takes place amidst a backdrop of dramatic generational transformation outside Congress, within the electorate. As Millennials arrive at the ballot box in increasing numbers, conservative members of the older generations are taking increasingly radical and anti-democratic steps to forestall the inevitable changes that Millennials are sure to bring. Together, these generational dynamics are having a combustible and destabilizing effect on the political process and our system of government.
The patterns of generational behavior we describe in this piece can be observed to varying degrees on both sides of the aisle. However, we have paid extra attention to the way they are manifesting in the Republican Party and in conservative politics. Lest there be any doubt, we agree with the conclusions of Congressional experts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein: Republicans are the problem. But we are also convinced that the unique generational dynamics of this era are making the problem worse.
the silent generation: exiting stage right
The Silent Generation was born from 1925 to 1942 during our nation’s last Fourth Turning. They grew up during the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II, living a suffocated and anxiety-inducing childhood. As teenagers, they swooned to the sounds of Elvis Presley and doo-wop and the more rebellious among them joined the Beatnik movement. If you have trouble picturing Silents as adolescents, just think of Danny Zuko and Sandra D. from the musical Grease or Marty McFly’s parents from Back to the Future. Both of these fictional works portray high school settings experienced by late-born Silents and early-born Boomers, exactly the folks who are running Congress today.
Most Silents settled into family life early, donned grey flannel suits, and entered the workforce as risk-averse technicians and professionals during a period of plentiful jobs and extraordinary prosperity. Some of them fought in the Korean War, and some of them led the Civil Rights movement (and the opposition to it). Martin Luther King, Jr. was a member of this generation. As they entered midlife, this generation led the wave of tax cutting and deregulation that brought us the Reagan Revolution — and much of what followed. Paragons of restraint, deference, and sophistication, the Silent Generation did their best to avoid social controversy while making Washington much more friendly for big business: a place where any deal could get done — never mind the complexity — as long as everyone got a piece of the action. Today, Silents make up the majority of the nation’s seniors.
During their peak years of influence — roughly the late 1970s through the late 1990s — the Silent Generation’s leadership style could best be characterized as technocratic, conciliatory, and pro-business. Few of them displayed the fire-and-brimstone bombast we’ve come to expect from their Baby Boomer successors, nor did they demonstrate the world-changing ambitions of the Greatest Generation leaders that preceded them. Silents were a generation with generally modest legislative ambitions, a preference for policy complexity worthy of Rube Goldberg, and an emphasis on process.
In the 1990s, Silent Generation voters leaned slightly Democratic, but over the past decade they have become by far the most conservative generation alive today. This November 2011 report from Pew captures the increasingly conservative attitudes of this generation:
Silents increasingly call themselves conservative and they hold the most consistently conservative views about government, social issues and America’s place in the world. Unlike other generations that in recent years have become more supportive of smaller government, they have held conservative views about government for years.
Today, an overwhelming majority of Silents are either angry or frustrated with government. They are the generation that is most strongly disapproving of Barack Obama, for whom a majority did not vote. Silents also are the most politically energized generation, as they demonstrated in the 2010 midterms.
More often than the younger generations, Silents take the American exceptionalist view that the United States is the greatest nation in the world. But fewer older people than young people think that “America’s best days are ahead of us.”
The political discontent of the Silent generation is not economically based. A greater proportion of Silents than younger people say they are financially satisfied, and Silents are less likely to say they often do not have enough money to make ends meet.
Race is a factor in their political attitudes. Silents are the whitest of the generations and are the least accepting of the new face of America. Compared with younger generations, relatively few Silents see racial intermarriage and the growing population of immigrants as changes for the better.
As was the case in 2008, racial attitudes are associated with views of Obama and voting intentions. And while there is racial intolerance in all generations, it is more prevalent among older than younger age groups.
As the Pew study makes clear, Silent Generation attitudes are not driven by economic pressures, but are instead being activated by shifts in the cultural and political landscape. To put it another way: the Silent Generation isn’t the one that changed — America did, and Silents are reacting negatively to these changes. If the Silent Generation appears to be getting more conservative, it is because the American political and cultural landscape is growing more diverse and shifting in a more progressive direction — making a generation of white-bred, pro-business, America-first traditionalists increasingly uncomfortable with the trajectory of the nation and more likely to identify with conservative values.
It is in this context that conservative Silents-aged leaders like John McCain turned from independent-minded maverick into reactionary militarist who never met a war he didn’t like…or Mitch McConnell to turn from unassuming back-bencher into the Senate’s obstructionist-in-chief…or Chuck Grassley to morph from good government technocrat into anti-health care radical. These transformations reflect deeply felt fears about changes in our society and to America’s role in the world as much as they reflect a growing and enforceable demand for radical right wing politics.
Silents, who acted more like GIs during their early years in Washington, are in their final years behaving more like Boomers — confirming their status within generational theory as a “helpmate” generation. Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, Silents have enabled, and in some cases led, the Republican strategy of total obstruction, hostage taking, and political brinkmanship. Where Silents once kept the radicalism of the younger generations in check, they are now enabling it. There is some evidence to suggest there may be limits on how much radicalism Silent-aged voters will tolerate, especially if Republicans are seen threatening retirement benefits like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Silents’ grip on power is slipping — and with it their ability to restrain the excesses of the younger generations.
the baby boomers: radical, polarized, and incompetent
Baby Boomers were born from 1943 to 1960 during a period of consensus and prosperity. Raised indulgently with a psychology of entitlement, Boomer children were loved for their Dennis the Menace styled antics and error-prone adventures of self-discovery. The bulk of their generation moved through adolescence and young adulthood during the 1960s and 1970s — during which the Boomers initiated a staggering array of cultural and social upheavals. If you were a Boomer feeling radical impulses during your youth, maybe you became a hippie or joined one of the New Left movements. But you might also have gravitated toward the John Birch Society, stood with the pro-segregation mobs, or fought on the battlefields of Vietnam.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Boomers got their careers going, started raising families, and established communities. It is no accident that this context gave rise to the politics of family values. In a recent article in Harpers Magazine (subscription only), Standford University professor T.M. Luhrmann chronicled the journey that led many hippies to zealously embrace evangelical Christianity. It is also no accident that “yuppie” Boomers of the 1980s started preaching the moral virtues of greed — coinciding with their newfound upward mobility.
Even before they gained their first Congressional majority in the mid-1990s, Boomers on both sides of the aisle were expressing their moralizing individualism through identity politics, divisive wedge issues, and culture wars. Their political leadership has been high on moral values and rhetorical bombast, but low on competence — prone to reactive policy-making, periodic bouts of gridlock, and intense partisan conflict. Indeed, the rising ideological and procedural extremism in Washington over the past twenty years coincides with and reflects the Baby Boomers’ rise to power.
Given this history, it should not have surprised anyone when in 2009 another radical, ideologically-driven movement emerged — spurred once again by demand from the Baby Boomers. It is no accident that the Tea Party behaves in ways that are remarkably similar to the New Left of the 1960s and 70s. Both attempted to seize control of a major American political party from within. Both demanded a more radical, individualistic, and purist politics. And both displayed utter delight at the prospect of burning down the house to get what they want. It is interesting to note that some of the best known leaders of these movements hailed from adjacent generations: Abbie Hoffman, Mario Savio, and Tom Hayden in the case of the New Left and Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck in the case of the Tea Party. But make no mistake — these leaders responded to quintessentially Boomer demands.
Much has already been written about the leadership of this generation’s two presidents (so far) — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Both men are consummate representatives for each side of the Culture Wars. And while their differences are many, both of them indulged heavily in identity politics, both defined their presidencies in terms that spoke to family values, and both pursued an economic and deregulatory agenda that contributed to the financial crash of 2008. Both also presided during a protracted period of generational power-sharing between Silents and Boomers in Congress, which is now coming to close.
In the House, two Boomers have served as Speaker, both Republicans: Newt Gingrich and John Boehner. In other words, Boomers have given us one of the most polarizing Speakers in the history of the institution as well as one of the most incompetent. Both of these men played key roles in government shutdowns and other legislative extortion plots. Both have displayed a tendency to indulge the most radical members of their caucus. And both have been known to put their own personal interests ahead of what’s best for their party and their country.
In the Senate, two Baby Boomers have served as Majority Leader so far: Republican Bill Frist and Democrat Tom Daschle. Together, they can take at least some credit for the major accomplishments of the first six years of the Bush Administration. These include the much maligned No Child Left Behind legislation, the controversial Patriot Act, the bloated Department of Homeland Security, Medicare Part D which created the infamous “doughnut hole” in prescription coverage and was never paid for, two rounds of tax cuts designed to benefit millionaires and billionaires that bankrupted the treasury, and authorizations for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This is to say nothing about well-meaning legislation from this era like Sarbanes-Oxley which proved largely ineffective or those rare pieces of successful legislation that were subsequently discarded like the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. It’s also to say nothing about unpopular legislation these Congresses attempted like privatizing Social Security, or good legislation these Congresses derailed like comprehensive immigration reform. And then there was the Terry Schiavo incident, in which Bill Frist played a direct role, and which belongs in a class all of its own.
Boomers may or may not recapture the presidency. Only time will tell. But if you look at graphs mapping this generation’s power trajectory in Congress — particularly when you factor-in seniority — it’s clear that everything we’ve seen from them so far has just been a preview. The real show is just getting started. In Congress, we’re about to hit “peak Boomer.” And that means we can expect a level of ideological polarization and managerial incompetence unprecedented within living memory.
generation x: risk-taking insurgents
Born from 1961 to 1981, Generation X came into this world during the Boomer-led social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. These latch-key kids learned to thumb their nose at authority and fend for themselves at a very young age. In their youth, Xers were often portrayed as a generation of cynical — sometimes downright evil — ne’er-do-wells. Where many Boomers embraced counter-culture in their youth, Xers embraced fragmented sub-cultures — niches with hard edges like punk, grunge, hip-hop, and goth. Xers were the first generation to grow up with video games and MTV.
Xers entered the workforce in the 1980s and 1990s, at a time when it was cool to work on Wall Street, when 20-somethings could be hired as dot-com CEOs, and when the end of the Cold War and the rise of globalization seemed to hold out the promise of limitless prosperity. In contrast with their Silent parents who started at the bottom and worked their way up the corporate ladder, Gen Xers saw more opportunity working as free agents and contractors.
Their entry into the electorate came at a time of conservative ascendance, when the era of big government was over. It’s no accident that Presidents Reagan and Clinton became their lifelong heroes. While not as idealistic as the Boomers, most Gen Xers are quite individualistic and share their elder’s skepticism toward government — a skepticism which has only deepened in the past decade. Just as the oldest cohort of Boomers are now retiring, the oldest cohort of Xers are now entering midlife. Sara Scribner has penned an outstanding piece for Salon about the struggles Generation X faces today.
When pollsters look at Generation X political attitudes, on most issues and topics they tend to be more liberal than the Baby Boomers but more conservative than the Millennials. In fact, this generation appears to be split between an older cohort that more closely resembles the ideologically right wing Boomers, and a younger cohort that has more in common with the civic-minded and progressive Millennials. It is this older, more conservative cohort that is now rising into positions of statewide and national leadership. Gen X leaders in both parties are trying to make their mark — often by openly challenging the agendas and prerogatives of their elders.
The best example of this on the Democratic side comes from the 2008 presidential campaign, when a young, relatively unknown Gen Xer named Barack Obama challenged and defeated icons of the two prior generations: Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Republicans, on the other hand, are overflowing with Gen X-aged insurgents. Indeed, politicians like Paul Ryan, Sarah Palin, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz are playing a distinctly disruptive role. Not content with ideological posturing, these young guns are aggressively demanding change — and often forcing their elders into actions they would prefer to avoid. Silent-aged leaders like Mitch McConnell and Boomer-aged leaders like John Boehner may wish to restrain the radicals within their ranks, but no longer appear to be able to do so.
What is most striking about this emerging crop of conservative Gen X leaders is that, despite their insistent calls for action, their actual plans are usually devoid of substance — based on empty promises and magical thinking. From Sarah Palin’s “drill baby drill” to Marco Rubio’s false promises on immigration reform, and from Paul Ryan’s arithmetic-free budget to from Rand Paul’s fact-free filibuster on drones, Republican leaders of Generation X are packaging themselves with harder-edges, tougher rhetoric, and their generation’s signature “just do it” calls to action, but are in fact selling a bill of goods. Ted Cruz’s plans to shut down the government — and possibly default on the debt — to delay or defund Obamacare fit this pattern of behavior.
As noted earlier, these Tea Party leaders may hail from Generation X, but they are responding to a demand for radical politics and ideological purity generated primarily by the Baby Boomers. As long as that demand remains, ambitious Gen X leaders on the right will play to it — and pragmatic Gen X leaders on the left and center will be forced to reckon with a Republican Party eager to take America to the brink of catastrophe — and beyond.
the millennial time bomb
As we noted at the beginning of this piece, Millennials are largely bystanders to the unfolding drama in Congress — and will continue to be until they arrive in Congress in significant numbers, likely in the early 2030s. But Millennials are playing one important role in the unfolding crisis, and it is this: their growing numbers within the electorate mean that the Nixon-Reagan coalition’s days are numbered. And everybody in politics knows it.
Millennials were born from 1982 through 2004 to a generation of predominately Boomer parents who treated them as prized possessions. Raised to value honesty, teamwork, and everybody-wins solutions, Millennials excelled in school and after-school activities, embraced community service, and turned away from binge drinking, smoking, and other deviant behaviors that had once been common among their Gen X fore-bearers. This generation had the misfortune to enter the workforce during the some of the hardest times in living memory, but these economic setbacks have done nothing to dim their generation’s sunny optimism and confidence that they can build a better future.
Since they started voting, Millennials have shown themselves to be civic-minded, socially-inclusive, technologically savvy, and on most issues robustly progressive. What makes Millennials such a force to be reckoned with isn’t just raw size of the generation but they fact that their politics are so one-sided. This generation shows none of the deep-divisions that have plagued the Boomers and the Xers. When Millennials act, they do so as a team based on widespread consensus. And while Millennials may not agree with everything the Democratic Party stands for, polls consistently show that they find Republicans — and conservative values — an anathema. They have rallied to the side of the Democrats, in generally overwhelming numbers, in every election since they started voting.
As Millennial experts Mike Hais and Morley Winograd have argued, Millennials are the wave of the future. They will transform America every bit as much as the Boomers have in the past half-century, and the GIs did before them. For conservatives and Republicans, Millennials are like a ticking time bomb that cannot be defused. Yet instead of making a bid for Millennial votes, Republicans across the nation have doubled-down on their rightward ideological trajectory.
In effect, Republicans are trapped in an ideological and generational double-bind that prevents them from simply changing their positions. They’ve grown electorally dependent upon the older generations and a base of voters who demand ideological purity. Broadening their appeal means risking the wrath — or the loss — of these voters. But failing to moderate and/or reach out to Millennials only digs them deeper into their long term demographic hole. Given this double-bind, Republicans are pursuing the only viable strategy available to them: turning against the democratic process itself in order to stay in power.
Anyone who has seriously studied conservative psychology will tell you that conservatives are fair-weather friends of pluralism, equality, and representative government even when they have everything going for them. But when the tide turns against them, they will not hesitate to attack and dismantle the very foundations of the democratic process if it serves their immediate needs. This is the proper context for understanding the shutdown and default threats. As we have written before:
Facing political marginalization resulting from long-term generational and demographic change, the right is responding by rigging the rules and abusing the norms of our political system to stay in power. The deeper the GOP’s demographic deficit grows, the more destructive their behavior becomes. Consider:
- The court’s wholesale destruction of equitable campaign finance laws and key minority voting protections;
- The widespread attacks on labor unions, women’s groups, and low-income voter registration organizations that mobilize traditionally Democratic voters;
- The restrictions of voting rights and ballot access, voter roll purges, and other efforts to disenfranchise traditionally Democratic voters;
- The unprecedented abuse of political processes such executive branch nominations, redistricting, and the Senate filibuster;
- The suspension of representative government and normal legislative procedures when they stand in the way of Republican goals;
- The frequent fiscal and budgetary hostage taking — often accompanied by threats to wreck the economy — if Democrats to not accede to Republican demands;
- The sometimes veiled, sometimes overt threats to rig the electoral college, nullify laws that conservatives oppose, and secede from the union.
To Democrats, liberals, and even many moderates, these actions appear reckless and extreme. But in fact they are rational, strategically sound responses the GOP’s looming demographic marginalization. Republicans know they can’t stop the demographic changes that are coming, but they can keep those changes from mattering…from having any meaningful consequences.
Of course, Republicans are insulated from the consequences of these actions by a gerrymandered Congressional map that protects and enables the most extreme members of their party. Indeed, conservatives of all generations have spent the past half-century purging moderates from their ranks, and doing their best to elect the most radical leaders they can find. The result is that a coalition of authoritarians, plutocrats, hucksters, grifters, and genuine sociopaths now make up the Republican Party from top to bottom. And they are all aware that their time is running out.
It’s not just the anti-democratic radicalism itself that is of grave concern, but the almost apocalyptic fervor with which it is being pursued. For Republicans, every victory for the Obama administration, no matter how small, is another step toward their impending doom. The implementation of Obamacare — the single most important achievement of Obama’s presidency and the Millennial coalition it represents — appears to the older generations as a mortal threat to their most fundamental political, ideological, and psychological commitments.
Millennials may be bystanders to the dramatic events about to unfold in Washington. But their growing numbers are fueling a sense of urgency — even emergency — that now animates the Republican Party and the conservative movement.
the great divide
These combustible generational dynamics are conspiring to produce a breakdown in American governance. Let us take a moment to review the major contributing elements:
- Silents are rapidly losing power and influence. Normally paragons of restraint and comity, they have become sharply conservative, brazenly ideological, and are enabling the radicalism of their younger counterparts.
- Boomers are taking over the reigns in Congress. Their ideologically polarizing but ineffective style of leadership is setting the stage for dramatic, high stakes political conflicts they have shown little ability or inclination to manage.
- Xers are entering Congress and hungry for power. Responding to a demand for radical politics from older generations of voters, they are impatient, confrontational, and refuse to be restrained by the leadership.
- Millennials are entering the electorate in increasing numbers. Older generations perceive Millennials as a mortal threat to their most fundamental commitments — and are turning to increasingly radical attacks on the democratic process itself to thwart the looming changes.
All of the elements listed above were present to a somewhat lesser extent in 2011, during the last series of Republican-led default threats and government shutdown crises. President Obama’s disastrous decision to enter negotiations over the debt ceiling resulted in the ill-conceived sequester, demonstrated that a strategy of legislative extortion and brinkmanship could work, and convinced many Republicans to attempt it again. As bad as the sequester seems, we may not be so lucky this time. As with any sequel, the stakes are always higher and the explosions always bigger.
Many well informed observers of these circumstances are asking when it will all end. When will Republicans either begin to moderate or become so extreme and so few in number that they can no longer exert meaningful influence in Washington? We believe Republicans will eventually change course and begin to moderate their politics, just as the post-New Deal Democratic Party did in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But any meaningful course correction in the GOP’s ideological posture remains at least a decade away. Republican radicalism is protected and enabled by gerrymandered districts and primary process controlled by the furthest right elements of their party. Both of these factors will continue to be true at least until the next round of redistricting in the early 2020s, and potentially a good deal longer.
But there is another key factor fueling conservative radicalism: there is a genuine demand for it from their party’s base. As we have argued here, this demand is driven by a Silent Generation that has grown sharply conservative in relation to the overall trajectory of American politics, a Boomer Generation that continues to demand ideological purity of its leaders, and a libertarian-conservative cohort of Generation X with a take-no-prisoners approach to governing.
The Silents are starting to die off, but the Boomers will continue to make up a significant slice of the electorate for at least another two decades. More and more Millennials may be entering the electorate, but seniors (now predominately Silents and Boomers) vote in greater numbers than young people do — especially during midterm elections. In other words, the demand for radical conservative politics may actually be growing at the same time that the demand for more progressive politics is increasing on the other side of the aisle.
As we have seen during the past few election cycles, Tea Party candidates may not be able to win the most competitive Senate seats — and Republicans will have an extraordinarily difficult time winning back the presidency. But the far right will continue to have a secure base within the House, and in theory could capture as many as a third of all Senate seats. Of course, the Tea Party has already demonstrated the ability to inflict extraordinary damage on both the Republican Party and the nation with far less. Just look at how Senator Cruz and his allies in the House have managed to orchestrate a government shutdown in response to Obamacare implementation — contrary to the express wishes of the party’s leadership.
The United States is entering a period of dramatic internal political conflict, which is now rising to a level of intensity not seen since the Civil War. It is not by coincidence that the last few years have seen a flurry of nullification and secession threats from the most reactionary elements of the far right. Indeed, these incidents are as much a part of the story as the government shutdowns and default threats. All of them must be understood as pages and chapters in a deepening political conflict, but they are not the end of the story.
The Great Divide tearing at the country has political, generational, demographic, geographic, ideological, cultural, and psychological dimensions. These cleavages will remain long after the shutdown and debt ceiling dramas pass — and generational theory suggests they may intensify in the years to come. In our view, the Great Divide poses at least as serious a threat to the nation as the Great Recession. The American middle class and the global economic system remain at stake, but in addition, our ability to govern ourselves is now in question. As we move deeper into the Fourth Turning — this season fear, uncertainty, and doubt which now grips the nation — the American political system itself is now in mortal danger.