Monday, November 17, 2008
Generational Theory and Political Trends
Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist had an interesting comment in an article for CNN recently. He said:
My teaching on the Princeton campus last year revealed to me an explosion of energizing interest in "the system" and how to make it better from within -- very different from when I was there 38 years ago and the same activism was channeled toward tearing it down.
Generational theorists confirm this statement. Strauss and Howe in particular posit four basic generation types, Idealists, Reactives, Civics, and Adaptives, with each generation being born within about a 20-year window. Thus, for example, the so-called "Greatest Generation" that came of age during World War II and fought in that great struggle were Civics, builders and influencers that were committed to building up the institutions of their society for the better. In contrast, the Baby-Boomers were of the Idealist type, spiritual innovators and prophetic types who had a deep suspicion of the institutions created by their WWII-generation parents, and thus tended to resist "the system", just as Senator Frist noted.

Frist is also correct that the generation currently coming of age, the so-called "Millenial Generation" (born between roughly 1980-2000) is of the same type as the "Greatest Generation", that is, they are institution builders, more interested in improving and adding to "the system" than in simply tearing it down. I have seen that to be the case among young people I have worked with, who really do feel passionate about making the world a better place, and I think we're going to see even more if it over the next few decades. I also think that Obama's election is a sign of this trend. His message of "Yes We Can" and "We are the ones we have been waiting for" (a line he totally ripped off from Jim Wallis) speaks perfectly to a generation ready to move forward and get to work on the big problems of our era.

However, Frist's comment also sparked a new realization in me, which is that the conservative's anti-government message of the Reagan-era, was actually surprisingly well tailored to the psyche of the Baby-Boom generation as it too came of age. We often tend to simplistically think of the Boomers merely as "liberals", i.e. the hippie flower-children who gave us the sexual revolution and the drug culture, as well as civil rights and the anti-war movement. Thus it can be typical to see their legacy simply in the more socially radical edges of the Democratic party. However, if, through the help of generational theory, we understand that the underlying motive is not simply liberalism for its own sake, but also a deep-seated mistrust of those in power and the institutions of society, and especially government, then the backlash against "Big Government" of the '80s and '90s could be seen as just as much fruit of this generation as its more Left-ward incarnations. Conservatives are "Children of the Sixties" as much as the liberals are.

Incidentally, if this generational analysis is accurate, then conservatives really are in some deep trouble in the years to come if they can't move beyond their anti-government ideologies and start providing some positive solutions to the problems our world is facing. That message will no longer resonate with a new generation that wants to see the government used as a force for good, and not simply vilified as the source of all the problems. Unless they adapt and come up with some new ideas, their support will only continue to decline as Baby Boomers start dying off and Millenials get older and more politically involved.

My own generation, Generation X, is described as "Reactives" by Strauss and Howe and tends to be more cynical of both the spiritual idealism of the Boomers, and the institutional idealism of the WWII generation and the Millenials. Interestingly, this is the generation that most emerging church leaders fall into, which perhaps explains a lot about our tendencies towards postmodern skepticism. It probably also explains why a good number of emergents tend to lean towards the neo-anabaptist attitude of disengagement from political involvement (cf. Shane Claiborne and his neo-monastic buds, or my Hauerwasian Mafia friends). The common refrain seems to be "since government can't ultimately bring about the Kingdom of God, and is usually a corrupting influence anyway, there's no point in either resisting it (as the Boomers did) or attempting to reform/improve it (as the WWII Generation did)." Instead they tend to recommend withdrawal and focusing on small, local and communal actions rather than big efforts towards systemic change.

I've written before about how, while I appreciate the insights and cautions of Shane and his cohorts, I ultimately can't be quite that pessimistic about large-scale involvement. Or perhaps it's just that I'm too pragmatic, and will not refuse to use whatever tools (e.g. politics) are available to me in the pursuit of social justice, even if I fully recognize that these tools are not perfect and will not bring about the Kingdom in and of themselves. Or, maybe it's simply that having been born in 1978, right on the borderline between Gen X and the Millenials, I don't find myself completely at home in either an overly-cynical, nor an overly-optimistic attitude towards social/political involvment. Perhaps the motto of someone stuck between the generations like myself should be "Yes We Can (Partially)". ;)


posted by Mike Clawson at 11:36 AM | Permalink |


At 11/17/2008 06:11:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

Further confusing things is that pre-1900 limited government has always been a liberal ideal in the Locke-Smith-Paine-Jefferson tradition. Small government conservatism was mainly a reaction against the chaotic economic mismanagement of FDR. With the neocons in control of the Republican Party these days, modern conservatism seems to stand more for using government to ban marriage between "undesirables," transfer wealth to the rich and corporate interests, and go to war against any country with oil, none of which are small-government ideals (although they do correspond well with historical conservatism's focus on forcing a vision of "traditional society" on everyone else).

While I can see the general outlines of the trends you mention, I'm in general skeptical of any claims to so define all of human behavior. For example, exit polls from the last election showed that 65% preferred small government to large government, a much larger majority than Obama over McCain. With the Obama-McCain race, this was essentially a nonissue since both candidates wanted to drastically increase the scope of the federal government, but if the Republicans were to run an actual small-government candidate (i.e., not trying to regulate abortion, start/continue wars, etc.) we might see a very different story in 2012. On the other hand, if they run Palin as some are threatening, I imagine that the Republican Party will just shrivel away.

As a laissez-faire liberal, I personally voted for Obama. Rather than being about my views and values, the election for me came down to a competent-yet-inexperienced candidate vs. a flat-out-incompetent candidate. The McCain-Palin ticket is the worst I've ever seen: the fact that it somehow still managed to get close to half the popular vote suggests to me that the future is less certain than some may think.


At 11/17/2008 08:34:00 PM, Blogger ConnectingTheDots

A related issue is Obama’s membership in Generation Jones (between the Boomers and Generation X). I’ve seen quite a few very credible experts emphatically insist that Obama is part of GenJones; if Obama’s generational identity is of interest to you, you should definitely click this link…it goes to a page filled with lots of articles and video of famous people arguing that Obama is a GenJoneser:


At 11/17/2008 09:38:00 PM, Blogger jhimm

i'm not entirely certain i completely agree with this analysis. you're basically equating conservatism with being anti-civics, which couldn't be more backwards. abhorring the excesses of a bloated, technocratic and inefficient central government is hardly anti-establishment. its simply a desire to not see effort or resources wasted on lost causes. you're also basically asserting that without government, "positive solutions to the problems our world is facing" are not possible. conservatives offer a great many solutions to the problems that we face. you just happen to disagree with them (incidentally, i do too, by and large). they just happen to not be government-based solutions. many, many well meaning, civics minded, justice minded, peace minded people refuse to accept the notion that we ought to be putting our faith in the federal government to solve our problems. but there is neither a one to one between those people and your Civics, nor a one to one between those people and either liberals or conservatives. there's some massive over-simplification going on here. conservatives do not vilify government as the source of our problems, they simply refute the idea that government is the solution. there's a massive difference between those two ideas. i also think you're being extremely naive to think that it will simply require the death of the boomers to see the death of conservatism in this country. as Gen X'ers and Gen Y'ers get older and settle down and suddenly have something to lose, they're going to turn more conservative, just as their parents, the boomers did (and, incidentally, just like the previous generation did, as well. Greatest Generation types weren't always conservatives. the 20's, 30's and 40's are hardly sedate eras).

i think a useful motto would be "yes, we could". neither the assumption that we "can" as if it is a forgone conclusion, which the Gen Y's seem to have swallowed hook, line and sinker; nor "the system is useless" as Gen X would have it. "yes, we could" implies hope and possibility, but also demands effort, stamina, and hard work. my big concern right now is that all the Gen Y Obamaniacs think their job is done. they got The Man into office, and now he's going to carry the ball across the goal line and bring about "change" (whatever that's supposed to be).
i think you'd be better served not to write off conservatism as simply old fashioned or disinterested or heartless. there is a lot to be said for frugality, caution, tradition, and a refusal to put all our trust in a system you freely admit doesn't have all the answers.


At 11/18/2008 08:15:00 AM, Blogger gerbmom

and me? I was barely a boomer - on the line of gen X. That might explain some things..... ;)


At 11/18/2008 09:19:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I guess they're calling you guys "Generation Jones" now, Karen.


At 11/18/2008 09:33:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson


Of course I was dealing in generalizations and oversimplifications here. My intent was not to give a full description of conservativism. I'm simply pointing to some very broad tendencies, and noting that the Reagan era message of limited government was a natural fit for many Baby Boomer's anti-establishment tendencies.

As for whether conservatives are actually anti-government, I think it's safe to say that some definitely are. I know I was of that opinion for quite a while back when I was a libertarian leaning, Rush Limbaugh ditto-head. (BTW, "ditto-head" is not a slam. That is what they call themselves.) And it's not too hard to find plenty of Sarah Palin or even McCain quotes claiming that government is "the problem", either. Certainly there are more moderate conservatives that simply think that government isn't part of the solution. Nonetheless, I do think there are plenty of conservatives who would identify it as a large part of the problem.

(Just personally speaking, I see government as both part of the problem and part of the solution. I don't merely want less government. I want better government.)

And yes, I agree that "Yes we could" is a good motto.


At 11/18/2008 12:23:00 PM, Blogger gerbmom

"unrequited cravings and unfulfilled expectations."



At 11/18/2008 01:14:00 PM, Blogger Mike L.

Mike C.,

Thanks! You hit on something interesting when you mentioned how Reagan-era politics sparked an anti-establishment tendency in boomers. What I'm realizing is that the way the issues are arranged within a narrative is much more important than any individual issue.

The political view that maintains control is the party that crafts the best narrative of "us against them". Republicans have done a good job for 30 years painting government as "them". Joe the plumber was a great example. It will be interesting to see if Obama can flip the tables and get America to have faith in itself again. "Yes we can" was a perfect argument. Let's see if it holds up for 4 years. Here are more thoughts I've had on the topic...


At 11/21/2008 01:44:00 PM, Blogger Sally Big Woods

I like the books:


I think describe these phenomena very well. I am also a tad skeptical about extrapolating behavior to a whole age range, but I do think that history impacts the individual in ways that we who are living it don't always understand. I've found these two books very helpful in coping with the history that's been happening around me. Especially right now.


At 11/21/2008 11:43:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I'm with ya' Sally. There's lots of reasons to be skeptical of generational theory; not least of which is the fact that it's most often a tool of the marketing industry that tries to pigeon-hole people into generational niches so that they can sell more stuff to them.

On the other hand, when I read the historical and generational descriptions in books like Strauss and Howe's it does ring true to me in a broad sense. As a description of broad trends, I think their generational types are a helpful schema, though I'd resist any attempts to make them normative descriptions of any given person of a certain age.


At 11/23/2008 12:26:00 AM, Blogger jhimm

what concerns me is this is becoming a popular sentiment in the post 2008 election season. that basically, progressivism is inevitable, and that change for the better is on the way, we just have to wait for a bunch of old farts who can't get with the program to die off.

this is incredibly short sighted. the current batch of old farts who are the core of conservatism (not libertarianism, but GOP style conservatism) were not this way all their lives. in their youth they were the radical, activist, unionizing progressives. they were the New Deal for pete's sake. and as you said, the 1960's radicals became the 1980's Regan era conservatives. as people age, they get stuck in their ways. they prefer the past to the future. they begin to fear the next generation's ideas.

your two notions here are completely at odds. if political position is generational, and cyclical, one generation reacting to the next, then progress cannot be inevitable, and conservatism is not "in trouble". it's just their turn to be on the down swing, but in 10 to 20 years they will be ascendant again.

i think mostly i bristled at the co-mingling of libertarians with conservatives. at this point the Libertarian Party and the GOP have about as much in common as an apple and a buick. the GOP loves to claim "small government" and "government is the problem" but the GOP are the party that in the past eight years not only passed the USAPATRIOT Act and radically expanded executive authority, they are also the party that created the single largest, most expensive public benefits program in our history - the Medic-aid drug benefits program.

the GOP is only small/anti government when they can use it as a smoke-screen for bigotry, hate and discrimination under a thin veil of "tradition" and "caution regarding change". most of the time they love big government. genuine small government types (such as myself) tend to find the GOP far more offensive than progressives, who are at least -honest- about their belief that government is the solution. we may disagree, but at least it is an out in the open disagreement. debating the GOP on the role of government is like debating a Hari Krishna about faith. if they think they have a chance of winning you over, they will say anything you want to hear.


At 11/25/2008 06:59:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

jhimm, I think you're sort of misunderstanding my point. (I apologize for not communicating more clearly.) I wasn't claiming that "political positions are generational", as if one generation will be conservative and the next liberal, etc. Quite the opposite in fact. The point of my post was that the anti-establishment generational zeitgeist of the Baby Boomers has had both liberal and conservative manifestations. Generational trends can be manifest in many different ways, and no one political persuasion can claim the allegiance of any particular generation.

That's also why I didn't mean to imply that progressivism is inevitable with this next generation. I don't recall saying anything like that actually. What I said was that conservatives need to find some new ideas (or new ways of expressing their ideas) that will resonate more with a younger generation that wants to improve the system, not just scrap it. If they can do that, then they may win a larger share of the Millennial vote next time around. If not, then, as you said, they may have to wait a few decades for the generational cycle to turn again.

BTW, I'm not sure I agree with your assertion that the same young people who were radicals in the 1960's actually became the Reagan-era conservatives of the 1980's. Perhaps that happened in a few cases, but I tend to think that we're actually talking about two different segments of the Baby Boom generation, both of which share a common suspicion of "the system", but who manifested that tendency in different ways. I don't have the statistics in front of me, but I seem to remember reading about studies that have shown that people's political identities rarely change as they get older. How you vote in your twenties is usually how you'll vote in your forties as well.

As for Libertarians vs. GOP, I agree, most Republicans these days are not true conservatives. But, as you noted, they still talk as if they are, and are happy to invoke that rhetoric repeatedly when it suits their purposes (the McCain/Palin campaign is Exhibit A here). What I think generational theory suggests is that even this rhetoric of limited government, which has worked so well with anti-establishment Boomers and cynical Gen Xers for the past three decades (even when it was just rhetoric and not actual policy), is not going to continue working very well with the Millenial Generation and their differing sensibilities about the value of "the system".


Links to this post

Links to this post:

Create a Link