This Generation Gap Really Matters

The election returns are in. There are many ways to look back at them as we look forward to a new Congress characterized by even more Republican bullying.

For many of us, the country took a step backward. It looks like a real mess, at least in the short-run.

But there are clues for the long-term. Future success is possible for those of us who find the Tea Party and the old Republican solutions regressive, stale, and destructive.

The Democratic loss was affected by turnout. And the age of those who turned out speaks volumes about long-term issues.

In the 2008 presidential election, 18-to-29-year-olds made up 18% of the electorate while those 65 and over made up 16%. Young people actually outvoted those 65 and over in 2008, and that 18-29 age group was the only one where white voters preferred Obama.

This year, the 18-29 year-old vote was down to 11% of the electorate and seniors were up to 23%. Exit polls indicate that the 18-29 demographic was the only age group won by Democrats this year: 57% as opposed to 40% for Republicans.

The gender and racial breakdowns didn’t change as much, though the electorate was older and whiter than the presidential election. The GOP has clearly gone gray.

Put another way, almost 24 million 18-29 year-olds voted in 2008. 9 million showed up last month, a 15 million-vote difference. How, then, did this matter, given that the Republicans won by 5 million votes nationally?

There are all sorts of ideas about why this happened, some blaming young people. But if we want them to vote, older people scolding them won’t work. We’ve got to consider how to get them back in the mix by re-inspiring that audacity of hope?

I’m absolutely convinced after thirty-five years of teaching, that young people want to know what someone really believes. And that they want to know that people really believe what they say, enough to fight for it convincingly.

The hero they voted for in 2008 might have done the best he could given the situation, but he and his party did not govern the way he ran — as fighters who really believed.

From the beginning when Obama appointed old insiders as advisors and ignored the agents of change in his campaign, to the constant willingness to concede his position to get “something” done even before the fight, to the inability to communicate what he really believed were his ideals after being a great campaign communicator, the evidence as they saw it was that “change they could believe in” looked pretty cautious, insider, and stale.

Yes, yes, it might be that they should have understood some greater lesson, that they should have already learned to hang in there the way older generations were used to doing.

Okay. Who’s teaching them that?

These are young people from whom those older generations reap monetary dividends by distracting them with gadgets and stuff.

They’re also not taught a real people’s history about change but dead facts that are testable on standardized exams. They’re seldom given hope any more.

But there is also a huge difference in how the dominant Baby Boomer demographic and these younger people see reality. They care about different things, while most politics plays on what appeals to Boomers and their elders.

While the most vocal group of seniors is arguing about the government not fooling with their Medicare and Social Security, they’re also supporting politicians who want to curb both for younger generations. Those who are younger than these Boomers aren’t even sure there’s going to be anything left for them. They wonder whether they’ll even be able to pay off their huge college loans.

While pop culture more and more reflects the younger generation, the issues of their seniors seem backward, quaint, and even unexplainably bigoted.

Look at one of the most popular shows of younger generations, Glee. In a November episode, “Teenage Dream” a song originally released by Katy Perry (a straight woman whose first big hit was “I Kissed a Girl”), is sung as a serenade from one young high school boy to another boy.

And, guess what? Teenagers of all stripes loved the song so much that they led the charge to make it a #1 Hit Single. The old guard in the religious right seemed silent and unconcerned as they fought for the gray vote.

While quickly dismissed by some, pop culture tells us, in fact, what is extremely important for winning the long race. It’s a measure of what it means to young people who are not loaded down with the emotional baggage that we elders carry.

To hear from their TV, movies, and music that negative attitudes toward LGBT people are simply an out-dated product of past generations’ fear and ignorance is to realize that the fights the elders carry on are not young people’s at all.

Could the pressure from pop icon Lady Gaga’s tweeting against “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” be what actually lead Harry Reid to consider voting on it?

Crazy is in full-bloom on our political landscape. And much of our politics seems to be a reaction to that crazy. It’s there that tired old white men and the people who are into them still rule.

But that’s not the future, no matter how it screws up the present. And it’s not what elected Barak Obama in the first place. It was those of all ages who believed that Obama wouldn’t look backward to the Clintons and the politics of past generations.

What keeps the darkness of the political landscape from overtaking the social landscape where most young people live — the landscape we’ll need to travel in if we want change — is the bright light of the cultural landscape where young people’s influence is king.

The impact of the religious right and the old guard has no future there. In the long run, they have no future in politics either. And if a political party wants to win, it will need to understand that sooner, rather than later.