My So-Called Generation

Ted Halstead
Round One - August 11, 1999

If my assessment of the political views of today's young adults is accurate, then it is painfully evident that my generation is an orphan in today's political landscape -- having neither a party nor recognized leaders to call its own. In fact, the most recent machinations of Congress reveal the extent to which the current political climate in our nation's capital is the precise opposite of the agenda favored by the majority of Xers.

From Post & Riposte:

"In twenty years, when Xers aged 40 to 55 dominate the world's high-level political offices, the free flow of money and information will have reduced congresses, parliaments and elections -- already having difficulty proving their relevance as it is -- to quirky sideshows.... If Xers are apathetic about politics, it might well be because they have a better sense of what's coming up than do other generations."
--Kevin McDougald, "Gen X Politics?" (08/04)

"Mr. Halstead accurately portrays the cynicism many members of Generation X feel toward the current state of American politics. Where he errs is in his broad assignment of a singular political agenda to what if nothing else is a very individualistic generation.... More fundamental is Mr. Halstead's mistaken conclusion that a political agenda is necessary to harness the entrepreneurial energy of our generation.... Those more interested in prosperity and opportunity will recognize that members of Generation X are actually achieving these ends through local volunteerism and job creation rather than merely talking about them through the political process."
--John S. Barry, "Is an agenda necessary at all?" (08/10)

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As I argued in my article, most young adults favor both fiscal prudence and policies to help lift those at the bottom -- a combination that I call "balanced-budget populism." In contrast, the House and Senate have just passed a series of proposed tax cuts that are so fiscally irresponsible and tilted toward the well-to-do that they beg for ridicule. To appreciate the irony, one need only consider that Congress is calling for $792 billion in tax cuts at the very same time that it is proving itself incapable of living within the spending caps it adopted just two years ago. Yet it is these very spending caps -- along with the even more unrealistic assumption that Congress will cut discretionary spending by 20 percent over the next decade -- that underlie the rosy surplus projections on which the case for tax cuts is based.

The vast majority of the general public, including Xers, does not want the potential budget surplus squandered on tax cuts; rather, surveys consistently reveal that most favor using any surplus to pay down the national debt, shore up Social Security, or fix our troubled schools. In pushing for tax cuts, Congress is not only demonstrating its lack of respect for the popular sentiment, but it is also evincing a distinct socioeconomic and generational bias. This is a tax-cut package tailor made for the overclass, sprinkled with lavish reductions in capital gains and estate taxes. Cutting taxes now would overwhelmingly favor middle-aged and elderly Americans, whereas paying down the debt would provide maximum flexibility fifteen to twenty years hence, when Xers will face the real fiscal crunch owing to Boomer retirement. Indeed, most Americans seem intuitively to understand that self-control now would go a long way toward easing the pain of the demographic transition ahead. If only Congress were listening.

It is one thing to dissect the present, but quite another to attempt to predict the future. While there is little question that the 50 million strong post-Baby Boom generation will eventually determine the fate of American politics in the twenty-first century, it remains to be seen whether they will do so through their absence or their presence. Hence, there are three plausible scenarios to consider: 1) most Xers never really engage in the mainstream political process; 2) they do engage but are quickly assimilated into today's existing partisan alignments; and 3) they engage with their own distinct agenda and remake the contours of American politics.

The first scenario is particularly bleak. If the majority of Xers continue to opt out of conventional politics, then America will be left with a hollowed out democracy in which only the wealthy and highly educated participate. In fact, such a system would not even deserve to be called a democracy; oligarchy would be more accurate. To catch a glimpse of America's future under such a scenario, one need only look at today's proliferation of gated communities. The well-to-do would increasingly isolate themselves into their own private colonies where they could escape the problems of ordinary people and provide for themselves all the services they want. Government would become a mostly unaccountable vehicle used by the elite to maintain and advance their own interests. Gradually, this would lead to disparities of wealth, privilege, power, and opportunity that dwarf the already alarming rates of today.

The second scenario assumes that a significant portion of Generation Xers would eventually take their places among the denizens of civicly and politically engaged Americans but, for a variety of reasons, would end up perpetuating today's existing partisan alignments. For instance, it is not hard to imagine that class, regional, racial, or religious allegiances could induce many newly voting Xers to simply adopt conventional positions on one side or the other of the current political divide. Lest one be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief in contemplating this scenario, one would do well to remember that politics as usual is hardly a cause for celebration. What we really have now is one party on economics (a Democrat-Republican duopoly favoring the interests of the suburban upper-middle class) and two parties on social issues (each staking out one of the extremes). By contrast, most Xers would prefer two parties on economics (with one representing the interests of the working class), and a bipartisan cease-fire when it comes to most social and cultural issues.

As I argued in my article, however, this reigning politics of short-term convenience is unlikely to last for long, in part because the partisan coalitions underlying it are themselves coming unglued, and in part because it hinges on the unlikely promise of a perpetually strong business cycle. It is in this context that the third scenario -- that of Xers entering the political process, galvanized by a bold new agenda -- becomes most plausible. When America's next major economic, political, or cultural shock occurs, there will be an opportunity for a new generation of leaders -- united behind a new set of ideas -- to rise to power. Indeed, the old ideologies of left and right are so strained by the new realities of the information age, the end of the Cold War, massive demographic shifts, and the advent of globalization, that it is only a matter of time until they give way to a school of thought that better reflects the challenges and opportunities of the next century. Whether the next major political consensus will be to the liking of most members of my generation will depend in large part on how many among our ranks make their voices heard and thrust themselves into positions of leadership.

Next page: Andrew Shapiro

What do you think?

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Ted HalsteadTed Halstead founded the New America Foundation in 1998 and serves as its president and CEO. His article "A Politics for Generation X" is The Atlantic's August cover story.

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