Each of the five major political realignments in U.S. history has been triggered by a crucial event, such as the Civil War or the Great Depression that then became the subject of extensive examination. But the real driving forces behind this constant and predictable shift in the fortunes of America's political parties and in its political institutions and public policy are underlying changes in generational size and attitudes and contemporaneous advances in communication technologies. Technology serves to enable these changes by creating powerful ways to reach new voters with messages that relate directly to their concerns. But without new generations, with their new attitudes and beliefs and a passion for communicating in new ways, advancements in technology would have little impact on political outcomes.
Today, our political institutions face another test from these same twin forces of change. A new generation, Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003, is coming of age in unprecedented numbers. The Millennials bring with them a facility and comfort with cutting-edge communication and computing technologies that is creating the same kind of bewilderment and bemusement that parents of television-addicted Baby Boomers felt in the 1950s and 1960s. Every generation defines itself first by making it clear how and why it is unlike the generation that preceded it. Then, as it moves into positions of power and influence in society, the new generation demands that the nation's institutions change to accommodate its beliefs and its values. The Millennials are about to make those demands on America.
The Millennial Generation is larger than any that has come before it. It is the most ethnically diverse generation in American history. Because of the way in which they have been reared, Millennials are more positive than older generations, both about the present and future state of their own lives and about the future of their country. Recent survey research on the political attitudes of this generation shows a high tolerance for lifestyle and ethnic differences and support for an activist approach by government to societal and economic issues. Unlike the generally conservative Gen-Xers, who immediately preceded them, or the harshly divided Baby Boom Generation, Millennials are united across gender and race in their desire to find "win-win" solutions to America's problems (Frank N. Magid Associates, January 2006).
Millennials are also particularly adept in the use of the new peer-to-peer communication technologies that will increasingly be used to inform and shape American public opinion. Their embrace of this technology began with the original Napster web site that allowed them to share music with all their friends, without regard to copyright laws-and without any cost. Then they made social networking sites like MySpace, an enormously popular way to share personal opinions even in the most intimate detail, online and with their friends. Now they have added video to that extended conversation, making You Tube, a company in existence since only 2005, one of the five most visited sites on the Net. As Millennials become the target demographic for all types of media, this approach to creating as well as absorbing content and information without filtering by experts will soon become the way America prefers to get all of its information.
The presidential campaign of 2008 is the first real test of the willingness of candidates to embrace social networking technologies, and the generation that uses them, as Millennials become a significant portion of the electorate. The initial launches of exploratory committees and official presidential candidate web sites demonstrated a wide range of comfort with "Netroots" campaigning. Most of the major Republican candidates' early web sites failed to go beyond the brochure stage-with appeals for money and volunteers the only interactive aspect, leaving them Internet years behind their Democratic competitors. Within the Democratic field, some, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, went further than that but still hesitated to venture into the land of peer-to-peer technology, preferring to control interactions through online chats or "American Idol"-like voting for her campaign's theme song. Other Democrats, such as John Edwards and Barack Obama, have actively, embraced social networking. Edwards racked up 10,000 "friends" on MySpace within a month of his announcement, and Obama used his web site, built on Facebook's platform, to help secure more money for his campaign from more individual donors than any Democrat in history (Morain 2007).
In 2007, survey research data, as well as the approach and tone of the announced 2008 presidential candidates, provided some clues as to who might be best positioned among the candidates to capture the hearts and minds of a new generation. Senator Obama, the youngest major party candidate, a late Baby Boomer born on the cusp of Generation X, distanced himself from the rest of the candidates in a crucial way that demonstrated his awareness of generational differences and his sensitivity to the concerns and political style of the Millennial Generation. In a YouTube video prior to his announcement, Obama said the country needed "to change our politics first" and "come together around common interests and concerns as Americans," clearly signaling his awareness of the debilitating effect that the Baby Boom Generation's continuation of the culture wars of the 1960s was having on American politics. He and Senator Clinton were the only two candidates from either party who registered significant support from 18- to 29-year-olds in a New York Times/CBS poll in June 2007. But as much fun as it is to speculate which candidate will take advantage of the technological and generational trends impacting the country's mood in order to win the ultimate prize in American politics in 2008, the complexity of current events, candidate missteps, and campaign tactics makes any such speculation a fool's errand.
What does seem clear is that the Democrats' approach to political and societal issues appears more compatible with Millennial attitudes. This is clearly reflected in that generation's perceptions of the two parties and voting results from the 2004 and 2006 elections. The Democratic Party also seems to have taken the early lead in its willingness and ability to use the new communication technology to create a sophisticated, "Netroots" approach to political campaigning. But all of this is just the tip of the iceberg, both in terms of the use of peer-to-peer technology in political campaigns and in the impact that the Millennial Generation will have on American politics.
One way to think about Millennials, in comparison to the two generations that preceded them, is to picture a generational cohort made up solely of Harry Potter and his friends and then to compare those bright-eyed, overachieving wizards with the adults at Hogwarts, who try to mold their upbringing for good or ill. J. K. Rowling, the author of the series that revolutionized the book industry and sparked a desire to read among an entire generation, shows Harry and his team working hard to do their best within the rules set for them to follow and, of course, using their own special ingenuity to save the world whenever necessary. In this reading, Baby Boomers are the teachers and directors at Hogwarts-every one of them individualistic, judgmental egotists who talk more than they act. A few characters such as Hagrid, not in power but always around to try to help, despite less-than-perfect pasts, represent Generation X, the unlucky group sandwiched between two dynamic and dominating generations (Strauss and Howe 2006). As much as The Wizard of Oz was an allegory for the politics of the Populist era of the 1890s, the Harry Potter series, in spite of its British origin and setting, provides just the right metaphor for understanding contemporary American politics. And while Rowling understands and captures this dynamic perfectly, many other media moguls, authors, and even politicians make the fundamental error of thinking that today's young people think and act just like they did when they were young. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Radio talk-show host Don Imus was surprised to discover how powerful Millennial values have become when his offensive commentary about the Rutgers University women's basketball team was picked up for all to see and hear on YouTube by a young Millennial activist, Ryan Chiachiere, as part of his job monitoring the media. When the high-achieving African American young women on the team had a chance to demonstrate their character and competence in comparison to the self-absorbed, vulgar comments from one of the favorite radio personalities of Baby Boomers and Generation X, the two networks that aired his program gave Imus a permanent time-out for using decidedly not nice words (Cresscourt 2007).
Baby Boomer antiwar activists were also surprised when polling results showed Millennials to be more supportive of the Iraq War effort than any other generation. On the other side of the political spectrum, some conservative Boomers have been forced to change their tune on global warming, in reaction to the strong environmental focus that young people bring to their religious activism. Both sides fail to see just how much endless arguments over ideas and values turn off a generation of activist doers.
No one understood the mores and values of Generation X better than MTV. Yet today, MTV on the Web is an also-ran to MySpace and YouTube for online hits from Millennials. Prominent Generation X authors have bemoaned the habits and lifestyles of a new generation that has abandoned their own cohort's angst and cynicism. One, Jean M. Twenge, even sought to create a new label, which she called "Generation Me," by combining the results from psychological tests of members of Generation X born in the 1970s with Millennials born after 1982. The result was a sensational but undocumented charge that Millennials were the "most narcissistic generation in modern history" (Twenge 2006, 70).
While Twenge argues that child-rearing practices, such as having babies' names spelled out in twelve-inch-high letters in Millennial nurseries, has led to a generation with too much self-esteem and too much focus on "me," virtually all available survey data contradict her conclusions. Millennials, unlike her own Generation X, are much more likely to feel empathy for others in their group and to seek to understand each person's perspective. Ironically by introducing her unique and elongated definition of a generation's lifespan and in describing her own supposedly superior approach, Twenge exhibits more narcissistic tendencies than the Millennials she purports to describe. But wishing and hoping that the next generation will see the world the way preceding generations see it is a trait not limited to authors with axes to grind; it's an attitude that infects the way politicians and political parties think and act as well.
Historically, as the generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe indicate, there have been two types of dynamic generations, which they first labeled "idealist" and "civic" (Strauss and Howe 1991). Both generational archetypes cause political realigments as they assume positions of power, but the differences between them result in two very different types of political realignments. The recruiters of "idealist" generations strongly adhere to their own personal values and are unlikely to compromise what they consider to be fundamental questions of right and wrong. Realignments fueled by "idealist" generations, of which the Baby Boomers are the most recent example, therefore, result in decades of political gridlock, atrophy in governmental institutions, and an inability to resolve big societal and political issues and problems. By contrast, members of "civic" generations tend to be upbeat, optimistic, and group-oriented. Realignments based on the emergence of "civic" generations, of which the Millennials and, in the previous generational cycle, the GI Generation or "Greatest Generation" are prime examples, result in periods of new governmental and societal institution-building and in the resolution of major issues and problems.
There are startling similarities between the events of the last dozen years and earlier periods in our history that preceded the civic realigning elections of 1860 and 1932. Author Kurt Andersen's description of America in 1848, the year when the country "came of age," as he characterizes it, perfectly captures this period just before major changes engulfed the country:
Miraculous new communications technologies have suddenly appeared, transforming everyday life. Everything is moving discombobulatingly fast. Globalization accelerates Wall Street booms. Outside San Francisco, astounding fortunes are made overnight, out of nothing, by plucky nobodies. The new media are scurrilous and partisan. Marketing spill and advertising extend their influence as never before. A fresh urban-youth subculture has emerged, rude and vibrant, entertainment-fixated and violence-glorifying. Christian conservatives are furiously battling cultural decadence, and one popular sect insists that the end days are nigh. Ferocious anti-immigration sentiment is on the rise. Both major American political parties seem pathetically unable to deal with the looming, urgent issue of the day. (Andersen 2007)
Twelve years later, in 1860, the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln forced the nation to confront the Constitution's fundamental flaw and reaffirm its belief that "all men are created equal." Once the Civil War ended and the Union and Confederacy were forever reunited as one nation, the country experienced unprecedented growth, requiring it to adjust its political institutions in ways that were unimaginable to most Americans in the years preceding the conflict.
Andersen could just as easily have been describing the America of the 1920s as a precursor to the wave of major change that was to sweep the country in the following decade. The 1932 election put Franklin Roosevelt in office, and his Democratic New Deal policies made the federal government the arbiter of social justice, protecting America's blue-collar workers from the ravages of the Great Depression. Once this system of social welfare had been successfully grafted onto the country's constitutional stock, the nation achieved a level of economic, political, and military dominance that could only have been the stuff of dreams during the 1930s.
Andersen's picture of America could also have portrayed the country in 1996, and the technological and generational changes America is about to experience will be just as dramatic and as equally challenging as those of the 1860s and the 1930s. When those changes become pervasive in society, our democratic institutions will have to respond successfully to the resulting pressures on how we manage the country's affairs, or risk a decline in the quality of our lives and in our nation's values. Whether or not America is able to navigate this current period of rapid change will depend upon how quickly our political institutions can adapt to the realities of the twenty-first century and upon the leadership skills of the next president of the United States.
By 2012 the first half of the entire Millennial Generation, approximately 42 million young Americans, will be eligible to vote. The history of political realignments suggests that the realignment shaped in 2008 by this generation's oldest members will be confirmed and solidified when whoever is elected that year runs for reelection. Just as FDR's landslide victory in 1936 made the Democrats the dominant power in American politics for another thirty years, so too will the party that captures the White House in 2008 have a historic opportunity to become the majority party for at least four more decades.
Excerpted from Millennial Makeoverby Morley Winograd Michael D. Hais Copyright © 2008 by Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais. Excerpted by permission.
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