Round Two - August 18, 1999
I cannot find much room for agreement with Tucker Carlson. For starters, I do not share his self-avowed contempt for the Baby Boom generation (one can, I hope, shine some light on the problems facing younger Americans without simultaneously igniting inter-generational warfare). On economics, Carlson attempts to dismiss the wide body of published research and federal statistics demonstrating the downward economic mobility of today's young adults by arguing that it is counter-intuitive, and by appealing to some curious logic about the relationship between debt and economic well-being. He would do well to remember that the vast majority of Xers are not partaking in the dream-world of internet IPOs; on the contrary, two-thirds will never receive a four-year college education, and most are working harder and harder just to make ends meet. Carlson's most surprising objection, however, emerges when he questions whether the lack of political engagement, knowledge, and opinions among today's young matters at all.
I disagree with Shapiro that the notion of "balanced-budget populism" represents an unlikely "clash of positions." There are countless ways in which the government could continue on its course toward a balanced budget while simultaneously making economic incentives more progressive. For instance, the government could gradually lower regressive payroll taxes and replace them with more progressive taxes on capital gains or inheritances. In short, there are lots of options for leveling the economic playing field that do not require new spending, but that do transcend old ideologies.
In their different ways, Farai Chideya, Andrew Shapiro, and Scott Stossel question the value of applying a generational construct to politics. They argue, for instance, that any attempt to summarize the political views of a generation is suspect because the forces of class, race, geography, religion, and gender can be at least as influential in shaping one's political outlook as generational affiliation. While I agree that each of these factors plays a crucial role in forming political views, it would be as foolish to dismiss the impact of collective generational experiences as it would be to ignore all the other influences. And I would argue that the particular importance of generational experiences stems from the fact that they can transcend the more polarizing forces of racial, geographic, religious, gender, and socioeconomic identity.
Who could deny that the economic, cultural, and political world in which today's young adults came of age differs significantly from that of their parents? Economically, whereas Boomers entered adulthood during a time of widespread upward mobility, Xers grew up in a period of rising inequality and falling wages. The cultural contrasts are no less pronounced. Surely such differences leave indelible marks on the collective world view of a generation.
The notion that each generation has a distinct outlook, influence, and agenda -- and therefore exerts a profound impact in the realm of politics -- is hardly new. In 1843, John Stuart Mill claimed that historical and political change should be measured in "intervals of one generation." Tocqueville famously observed that "Among democratic nations, each generation is a new people." More recently, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote, "in basic respects it is the generational experience that serves as the mainspring of the political cycle." It could also be argued that generational commonalties surface more prominently in the realm of politics than in other spheres of life. Since politics is the realm of collective action, any generation wishing to advance its particular concerns -- and Xers have plenty -- has a built-in incentive to downplay internal differences and rally around areas of common interest. Thus one should not be so quick to write off the latent potential of Gen X as a political cohort.
Join the debate in Post & Riposte. We'll highlight selected readers' remarks as the Roundtable progresses.
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