Blame It On the Geezers: Matt Bai’s Generational Theory of Politics

In Sunday’s New York Times, Matt Bai argues that it’s old people who are disproportionately driving the Tea Party Movement, and especially its anti-government venom and its strong racist element. “According to a survey by the Pew Research Center in June, 34 percent of Americans between the ages of 50 and 64 — and 29 percent of voters 65 and older — say they agree with the movement’s philosophy; among Americans 49 and younger, that percentage drops precipitously,” he writes. “A New York Times/CBS News poll in April found that fully three-quarters of self-identified Tea Party advocates were older than 45, and 29 percent were older than 64.”
Based on this data, and on the history of the last 70-odd years, Bai constructs a theory that divides American politics largely along generational lines:  
[A] sizable percentage of the Tea Party types were born into a segregated America, many of them in the South or in the new working-class suburbs of the North, and lived through the marches and riots that punctuated the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s. Their racial attitudes, like their philosophies of governance, reflect their complicated journeys…
In other words, we are living at an unusual moment when the rate of progress has been dizzying from one generation to the next, such that Americans older than 60, say, are rooted in a radically different sense of society from those younger than 40. And this generational tension — perhaps even more than race or wealth or demography — tends to fracture our politics.
These numbers probably do reflect some profound racial differences among the generations, but they are more indicative of how young and old Americans approach the issues of the day, generally. Older Americans now — no longer the New Deal generation, but the generation that remembers Vietnam, gas lines and court-ordered busing — are less enamored of expansive government than their parents were. They fear changes to their entitlement programs, even as they denounce the explosion in federal spending. They are less optimistic about the high-tech economy, more fearful of the impact of immigration and free trade.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Mostly, what’s wrong with it is what’s left out. Bai (who is 41) mentions that todays old folks “lived through the marches and riots that punctuated the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s.” But who, exactly, does he think was carrying out the marches and riots? The exact same age group, of course–made up of my own generation and that of the Baby Boomers.
These people are today, for the most part, over the age of 60–the precise age that places our roots, Bai says, in a “radically different society.” Despite these apparently rotten roots, the generations that Bai criticizes (with a hint of oh-so-condescending compassion) managed to accomplish the following:
1. Launched and fought the Civil Right Movement, in which several dozen African Americans and a handful of white lost their lives, and hundreds more were beaten and arrested. Compared to this, the accomplishment of younger generations–voting for a black president–was a cakewalk.
2. Protested against and eventually shortened the Vietnam war. These protests were large, fierce, and widespread, and went on for years. Unless I somehow missed it, I’ve yet to see a comparable antiwar movement mounted today, among the young people Bai celebrates.
3. Supported the War on Poverty–not only with our rhetoric, but with our paychecks. (The top marginal tax rate in 1965 was 70 percent; now it’s 35 percent). In contrast, today’s Democratic party, starting with Clinton and continuing through Obama, has pretty much abandoned the poor to their fate. So today’s bourgeoise youth can declare themselves “progressive” without having to give up a thing.
The gist of Bai’s article is that our society will improve as we bigoted old geezers to die off, and make way for more broad-minded generations. But I wonder: Are there any among the younger generations who are going to fight the kind of fights we fought in this brave new world? If there are, they’d better stand up now. 


10 responses to “Blame It On the Geezers: Matt Bai’s Generational Theory of Politics

  1. I am also seeing that the newest work of the Administration to also cut out abortion in the new health care plan abominable. The young people today do not know the horror of the back-street abortion (the deaths and disfiguations). They also do not know that many nations in the world have and are still using abortion as a primary solution to unwanted children as opposed to birth control pills and such. Where are the women under 40 who are most affected by this? It looks like, as in all generations, they will have to learn the “hard” way!.

  2. Most of the achievements you credit the baby boomers with predate that generation’s actual attainment of political and economic power. It is true that the war on poverty, civil rights movements, and anti Vietnam War movements occurred during the early adulthoods of some baby boomers but the leadership and ideals for these movements came from a previous generation. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929, Chomsky (1928), Benjamin Spock (1903), Abby Hoffman (1936), L.B. Johnson (1908). When the Civil Rights Act was passed, the oldest baby boomer was 18 and not allowed to vote. Why not also credit the baby boomers with putting a man on the moon; some of them were a live at that time? My point is that most of the events mentioned predate the time when baby boomers had gained real influence which would have begun in the 1970s and really taken off in the 1980s or to put it another way, the political events that can be most attributed to baby boomer influence is the rise of Reaganism and Nafta, plus all those wars and sorta wars (Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc).
    A little side note: The previous comment mentioned abortion rights but the Supreme Court that decided Roe V. Wade wasn’t a baby boomer court, however the court will be after Elena Kagan replaces Stevens.

  3. This is just another “divide and conquer” scheme dreamed up by the upper 1% plutocracy and unwittingly promoted by another one of their pawns, Matt Bai, to prevent WE THE PEOPLE from effectively organizing so we can take back our country.

    Instead of collaborating to find solutions for our global problems, we are reduced to finger pointing, name calling and mud slinging.

  4. Rashomon // July 19, 2010 at 8:02 am

    Your attempt at revising history is pathetic!

    You can’t simply discredit the political clout of the Baby Boomers when it comes to positive social change and then attempt to pin the blame on them for Reaganism and NAFTA!

    Reagan was not a Baby Boomer. He did not become president until 1981. Most of the politicians in Congress were also not Baby Boomers until Clinton became president.

    The reason why Baby Boomer teenagers were able to effect change during the 60’s without being able to vote was because of their ability and willingness to protest in large numbers and commit peaceful acts of civil disobedience, which by the way, IS political power, as evidenced by the great change they precipitated!

    The Baby Boomers FORCED the older generations in Congress to change many inequities. Because they were so well organized and enthusiastic, they did not have to wait to get elected into Congress to effect change.

    By 1981, most Baby Boomers were beyond college age, and their desire to protest anything was greatly diminished. But that was the time for Gen X to take over the struggle.

    I am still waiting for Gen X and now Gen Y to accept an activist handoff from the Baby Boomers. If these two younger generations had done so anytime during the past twenty-five years, then Reaganism and NAFTA never would have taken hold.

    Case in point; Cindy Sheehan, a 53 year old Baby Boomer, should not have to be the leader of the anti-war movement. If younger people would have been more political in 2000, I doubt we would have ever gone into Iraq or Afghanistan.

    But of course, the real fault belongs to WE THE PEOPLE enmass, regardless of anyone’s age. So stop pointing fingers and start collaborating with concerned citizens of all ages.

  5. “Protested against and eventually shortened the Vietnam war.”

    Furthermore, and in the process campaigned against the draft, which was finally done away with bringing forth the all volunteer army. Gen X and Y never had to live – or die – under the draft. They do not know what havoc a draft has on people’s lives.

  6. This, to me, is a fascinating view of the various “camps” of history. Only the victors write history, usually. It took some of the earlier generation to inspire me: Joseph Campbell (before he became famous for working on “Star Wars”), Martin Luther King, Jr. (I saw the footage on the march on Atlanta the same day and, at 12, I knew that racial relations were poor and that the racial divide in this country was all too strong), Viet Nam (two of my brothers went there and I had a teacher, last name Cochran) who showed me the history of Viet Nam as well as why the US would not win and that is was an “unjust war” (I am a pacifist to this day). Who was inspired by the unilateral strike (against international law) against Iraq to say “Hell no, we won’t go?” Where was everyone? Did they just fall lockstep into Bush’s ideology and the work of the “Project for a New American Century” from which Bush chose many to directly serve him? Why did people fall for the Twin Towers only going down so quickly from not enough heat to do that damage at all? Why have subsequent generations just “gone along”? Well, they had the money to spend as they pleased, Even with that gone, where is the grumbling rhetoric or even a hint of protest for where the ecomic powers that be lead this country economically? I DON’T GET IT! Where is everyone? Where are you now?

  7. Sorry Schmidt, its worse than revisionist history, its demographics. The baby boomers were born between 1946-1964. The largest segment living today was born between 1954-1964. You don’t think it is odd to focus attention on events that occurred when a fraction of the Baby Boomers were politically active and overlook the time periods when they would have been the largest political demographic and were becoming business leaders, mayors, governnors, and campaign managers. I am not pointing fingers but it just seems inaccurrate to define the Baby Boomers’ political style as antiwar protestors and civil rights activitists and nots as the Lee Atwaters, Karl Roves, Ralph Reeds, Reagan democrats, and soccer moms.

  8. Not sorry Rashomon,

    Your canard illogically puts Baby Boomers in a vacuum, as if no other generation was or is partially responsible for our current sorry state of affairs. That is just not a fair assessment of politics. You cannot use the Baby Boomers as an over simplified scapegoat for everything gone wrong in America since 1981.

    Plus, you are dishonestly trying to reframe the argument as a pathetic attempt to rekindle a generation gap wedge issue that just does not exist in today’s world like it did exist in the 60’s.

    Please explain how the politically apathetic nature of Gen X & Y does not play a part in all of this? You mention Karl Rove. Well, I trump your Rove with Cindy Sheehan, Lee Atwater with Howard Dean, Ralph Reed with Dennis Kucinich, Reagan Democrats with the Deansters, and soccer moms with Code Pink. Still waiting since 1984 for GenX & Y to get into the activist game.

    Just remember, as long as you continue to play the lame blame game and point your finger at Baby Boomers (even if you dishonestly claim otherwise), three fingers, including your middle finger, are pointing back at YOU!

    Generations come and go, but the real power controlling our politicians remains constant, and that is the upper class and their multinational corporations. If anyone is to blame for our dysfunctional political system, it is them. If anyone is to blame for allowing them to control our politicians of every generation, and not just the Baby Boomers, it is WE THE PEOPLE, of every generation, and not just the Baby Boomers.

  9. Here’s a post I just did for my blog on what appears to be rampant age discrimination sweeping the country. Old people may be having an impact on the Tea Party but nowhere else.

  10. Research consistently shows a far larger percentage of Gen X-ers being socially and politically active than the Boomers ever were. It’s just that what we do is much more pragmatic and less telegenic. We already knew since we were in high school that we will work until the day we die, and never see a penny of our Medicare or welfare contributions. But there is quite a lot we need to do to fix our country. We already face a daunting challenge and a bleak future, but seeing vocal groups of mostly Boomers (tea party) trying to undermine our work just adds insult to injury.

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