Midterms Set the Stage for the Final Boomer Showdown in Washington
Democratic Wave Benefits Millennials, Leaves Baby Boomers With a Narrow Plurality; Generation X Takeover Set for 2021
The next Congress will be the Baby Boomers’ last act before Generation X takes power, according to data (PDF) from First Person Politics, a public affairs consultancy whose groundbreaking research linked generational shifts in the U.S. House of Representatives to unexpected and sweeping changes in the national political culture. If the handful of races yet to be called are won by the candidate expected to win, Boomers will hold 202 House seats (down from 226), while Gen Xers will hold 192 seats (up from 177) leaving Boomers in charge of the next Congress with a narrow 10-seat plurality.
A review of the 2018 congressional candidate pool strongly suggested that the size of Gen X’s gain was very nearly a foregone conclusion. Every election scenario we modeled — ranging from a massive Democratic wave to an equally massive Republican one — resulted in Gen X capturing between 190 and 195 seats. Gen X was represented about equally in the candidate pools of both parties. (First Person Politics did not publish this review due to the large amount of unconfirmed but subsequently verified birth year data for many of the challengers.)
The same review indicated that a Democratic wave would benefit the Millennial Generation at the expense of the Boomers. Millennials, who picked up 18 seats, were overrepresented in the Democratic candidate pool, while Boomers were overrepresented in the Republican one. It is not surprising that the youngest generation would be underrepresented in the candidate pool of the current majority party, since party majorities inherently are made up of incumbents from older generations. But 2018’s large generation gap could persist in future elections due to the Millennial Generation’s progressive values and affinity for the Democratic Party.
The 2018 election was the first with a significant number of Millennial candidates running for Congress, and it showed up in the results. For the first time, Millennials (with 23 seats) will outnumber the elderly Silent Generation (down to 18 seats). But, according to previous research from First Person Politics, it is unlikely that Millennials will exert much influence over national political and policy debates until the late 2020s. Despite their dwindling numbers, Silent Generation leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, Jim Clyburn, Maxine Waters and Nita Lowey will continue to wield influence in the next Congress by virtue of their experience, relationships and seniority holding some of the top leadership spots and committee chairs.
It might sound strange, but the generational composition of the House has been linked to broad trends in the national political culture. Building on William Strauss and Neil Howe’s groundbreaking generational theory, original research authored by First Person Politics showed that each new generation to win a majority in the House brings about a large-scale shift in the national political culture. These shifts, determined by each generation’s character and the timing of their first majority, unfold over 20- to 25-year time spans, which makes them difficult to recognize for those immersed in the 24/7 news cycle. Research has yet to demonstrate any effects linked to the generational composition of the U.S. Senate, likely due to the institution’s anti-majoritarian and broadly unrepresentative character.
Gen Xers are virtually certain to outnumber Boomers in the House after the 2020 election, but Gen X’s rise to power has been historically lethargic, even for a generation with a reputation for political apathy and civic disengagement. If it had followed the historical averages, Gen X should have won its first majority in 2013. By 2021, Gen X will be an astounding eight years overdue. This considerable delay has allowed Boomers to continue setting the tone for the national political culture, and it is tearing the country apart.
Generational theory strongly suggests that it is Boomers, especially Boomers on the right, who are fanning the flames of hyper-partisanship, polarization, gridlock, extremism, brinkmanship, poor performance and self-serving narcissism in our politics. These destructive tendencies took off in 1995 after the Boomer takeover of the House in the 1994 wave election. But American politics wasn’t always so confrontational and dysfunctional. From 1977 through 1995, the Silent Generation ruled Washington — setting a conciliatory, technocratic, business-like and business-friendly tone. Since the Boomer takeover, high stakes showdowns between Congress and the White House that inflame partisan tensions have become routine, but most of these clashes have revolved around fiscal policy. This time the stakes different.
Over the next two years, battles between the House Democratic majority and the Trump White House could escalate into a series of dangerous political, legal and constitutional standoffs that revolve around some of the nation’s founding ideals: representative governance, institutional checks and balances, and the rule of law. Already, it is clear that the Republican Party is threatened by long-term demographic change and majority rule, and that the corrupt and increasingly autocratic Trump administration is threatened by meaningful oversight and accountability from Congress, as well as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. It is equally clear that Republicans in the White House and Congress are intent on filing the courts with right-wing ideologues and political operatives whose job is not to uphold the law but to remake the law in whatever way most helps Republicans, giant corporations and the ultra-rich.
Seen from the perspective of generational theory, the danger is that this battle between plutocracy and democracy appears to be intensifying at a uniquely precarious time in the generational cycles of history. America is quickly approaching the final and most critical climax phase of its latest Fourth Turning. Anticipated by Strauss and Howe more than 20 years ago, this is a time of ultimate peril for the nation and very likely the world, when long-simmering conflicts — especially ones that touch on fundamental values — are prone to metastasize into violent and genuinely existential ones. A decade from now, the pre-election wave of stochastic right-wing terrorism and President Donald Trump’s post-election attacks against the press, vote counters and the Mueller investigation may be remembered as ominous signs of things to come.
Historically, it has fallen to rising reactive generations like Gen X to curtail the raging excesses of aging idealist generations like the Boomers. Reactive generations are known for their pragmatic, cynical and pugnacious leadership style and for their role as history’s crisis managers. Reactive generations never make the nation’s deep and abiding conflicts go away, but successful ones give rise to a political culture that is noticeably less apocalyptic and a good deal more pragmatic — capable of implementing large-scale, workable solutions to the nation’s most dire problems. But there also have been times in our history when a rising reactive generation arrives in power too late, and instead of curbing the elder generation’s raging excesses exacerbates them. The last time this happened, it helped propel the nation into its first civil war.
History never repeats exactly, but it usually rhymes, which is why modern generational theory is such a valuable tool for examining trends in our nation’s history. With the final showdown of the Boomer generation at hand, the next two years are certain to be the most combustible period in American politics since 1860. The question is how much damage will Boomers do before their time expires. When Gen X takes the reins in 2021, their leaders will inherit a nation more divided than ever — and very likely one facing existential peril.
First Person Politics founder David L. Rosen is available for press interviews and speaking engagements. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Methodological Note: First Person Politics will update the numbers if the results of the uncalled House races differ from expectations, but the major findings in this analysis are unlikely to change. First Person Politics uses the Strauss and Howe generational breakpoints in all generational analysis and commentary. These breakpoints provide a powerful and coherent framework for analyzing and anticipating the behavior of generations in the real world.