Generation Swapping in Presidential Politics

by Neil H. Buchanan

My new Verdict column asks the question: "Are Baby Boomers Better to Millennials Than Millennials Are to Themselves?"  With polls showing that Bernie Sanders's strength lies overwhelmingly among younger voters, many people have been wondering why the 74-year-old curmudgeon is so big with the kids.  My answer: It's the policies, stupid!  Please allow me to explain.

It has long been obvious that, at least in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere, although I simply do not know), political life cycles tend to run from liberal to conservative.  There are plenty of counter-examples, of course, but the basic idea is that idealism is a luxury in which a person can indulge when he is willing to crash on a friend's floor for the weekend and his biggest concern is where the next party is.  As time passes, however, responsibilities like mortgages and child-rearing (and a growing sense of being entitled to live in comfort) create fears about security of all sorts, which conservative politicians then exploit.  A New Yorker cartoon captured this notion decades ago, showing a grandfatherly man sitting in a well-appointed home, sipping sherry and saying to a worried-looking young boy, "Don't worry, I started out liberal, too."

In my column today, I take a completely different tack.  Drawing on my writings about intergenerational justice, I point out that Sanders (and, to a lesser extent, Clinton and O'Malley) is appealing not to youthful idealism but to the long-term self-interest of younger voters.  With every Republican constantly repeating nonsense about preventing the national debt from being a burden on "our children and grandchildren," our children and grandchildren know that there are more important issues on which their futures actually hinge.  The most obvious is climate change, but I also note that Sanders's focus on income inequality -- and, perhaps more importantly, his concern about the threat to our democracy from big-money interests -- would have to resonate with any 20- or 30-something who wonders what kind of world she will inhabit in future decades.

The mirror-image problem, for the Republicans, is that their "next generation candidates" are Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.  Republican insiders' efforts to paint Rubio as a moderate are almost pathetic in their insincerity.  As I will document in a Verdict column in the near future, his record is as hard-right as anything the Republicans have to offer.  And it appears that younger people are not being fooled, but one never knows, given the ability of political consultants to hoodwink the media into misusing the word "moderate."  (Aside: Speaking of fake moderates, I might be the only person outside of Kennebunkport who thinks that the Republicans will end up nominating Jeb Bush this year.  I will explain that view in a future post here on Dorf on Law.)

As I note in today's column, this generational mismatch is somewhat novel.  We typically think of each generation's interests being carried forward by an emerging political star from that generation.  Teddy Roosevelt, JFK, and Bill Clinton represented clear generational breaking points, younger men who shook up the political establishment by advancing the interests of the next generation.  In Clinton's case, I continue to think that he actually did not so much advance the interests of a new generation as co-opt its progressive ideals into a profoundly center-right administration.  Even so, there is always the sense that the next generation's moment has never really come until they have elected one of their own to be president.

If Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton becomes the next president, it will be largely because younger people and women turn out in large enough numbers to swamp the old-white-male-nativist Republican voters.  Even so, that will still leave us with a puzzle.  If younger voters are smart enough to know that their best choice in 2016 is to elect their enlightened great-uncle or their grandmother's brilliant friend, they will have done the best they can under the circumstances to protect their long-term interests in economic, environmental, racial, and social justice.  I am certainly hoping for such an outcome.  Such an outcome would also mean that younger voters saw through and rejected the hate-mongering Cruz and the dishonest Rubio, understanding that, "Vote for me, I'm younger!" is not a persuasive argument.

But what would happen next?  In the last Democratic debate, 52-year-old Martin O'Malley tried to pander on this issue, interrupting Sanders's answer to a question about foreign policy by saying that he had "a different generation's perspective on this."  He was rightly booed, but this was hardly the first time he has tried to play that card.  As clumsy as O'Malley has been about this topic, the larger issue is that Sanders will be 78 in 2020 and Clinton will be 72.  If Democrats lose in 2016, who can credibly speak for the next generation and be politically viable?

Again, it is not necessary that the best spokesperson for a generation actually be one of them.  One could imagine someone currently in her late 50's or early 60's being the next big thing for the Millennials-and-younger crowd, if such a politician actually were to speak for them.  (Elizabeth Warren is the obvious candidate here.  And although I find him problematic in many ways, the 58-year-old Andrew Cuomo could also fit this bill.)  Even so, we know that the Republican elites who are pulling for Rubio are in part counting on the ability to fool just enough younger voters with a generational appeal.  As I noted above, because of the superficiality of political campaigns, that could work just well enough to elect a Republican.  But even if it does not, it would be helpful if Democrats could soon find someone who is a Millennial both by outlook and by age.

The Democrats have been rightly worried by their "short bench" of younger officeholders. There are actually some good women in the Senate who stepped aside this year in favor of Hillary Clinton (McCaskill, Klobuchar), but they are still Baby Boomers.  Even California AG Kamala Harris, who is a rising star of sorts, has passed her fiftieth birthday.  But the Castro brothers (Julian and Joaquin) are 41 years old, Latino, and from Texas.  The idea that they or other appealing younger politicians will not emerge strikes me as bizarre.  Politics hates a vacuum, and by 2018 or so, no matter who wins the 2016 election, Democrats will have found the proverbial fresh faces.  This is especially likely given that experience in public office is now all but optional for presidential contenders.

In any case, this year is a true oddity.  The younger generations are being offered false representation by young opportunists who actually represent the politics of the past, while the best policies for the future are on offer from two people who are eligible for full retirement benefits.  At some point, post-Boomers will find one or more true leaders.  But not this year.