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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. 

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