The current Congressional debate over Obama’s request to attack Syria for its use of chemical weapons embodies the same generational consequences and disagreements as the debate over the United States joining the League of Nations did almost one hundred years ago. The outcome of that vote settled the direction of American foreign policy for two decades, the span of a generation. The outcome of today’s debate may well have the same consequences for shaping the role of the United States in the world for another generation.
In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson personally led an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to convince the US Senate to ratify the Versailles Treaty ending World War I, which included the establishment of a League of Nations. Wilson, who firmly believed in compromise and conciliation as the best solution to future disputes between nations, was a member of the Progressive generation, an adaptive archetype similar to today’s seniors, members of the Silent Generation. Wilson told the Senate in July 1919 that "a new role and a new responsibility have come to this great nation that we honor and which we would all wish to lift to yet higher levels of service and achievement". Opposition came from Republican Senators such as William Borah of Idaho, a member of the younger Missionary generation, whose idealist attitudes most resemble today’s Baby Boomers. Wilson’s opponents focused on his idea of a continuing role for the United States in world affairs around Covenant X of the League of Nations, which required all member states to come to the aid of any other member who was a victim of external aggression. The treaty’s defeat caused the U.S. to assume a relatively passive role in international affairs that didn’t end until the Nazi conquest of much of Europe led President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to propose the Lend Lease Act, which Congress passed in 1941.
Now, another Democratic President has asked another Congress divided along generational lines as well as by partisanship to authorize the continuation of the United States’ role as the world’s policeman that has been the national consensus since World War II. The very first vote on the issue in the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee revealed the generational split that is likely to continue when the full Senate and House take up the issue. The average age of the seven U.S. Senators voting against the resolution was almost eight years younger than the ten U.S. Senators who voted to authorize the President to use military force. Both members of Generation X on the committee, Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Christopher Murphy (D-CT) cast bipartisan “ no” votes. The most strident opposition came from GOP Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, born on the cusp of generational change in 1963. He happily embraced attacks from his older Republican colleagues, who argued that his streak of libertarianism would return the country to the isolationist path it abandoned after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Unfortunately, none of the members of Congress who will cast final votes on the resolution are members of the nation’s largest and most diverse generation, Millennials. The debate comes too soon for them to be eligible to serve in the Senate, but their attitudes and beliefs are certain to have an impact on the nation’s foreign policy in the longer term. Millennials are more likely to support intervention by the United States on behalf of causes than on disputes between nation-states. For instance, only 12 percent of Millennials express support for the United States intervening to promote democracy, whereas 42 percent support using the U.S. military to halt genocide. They are also more inclined to support efforts when they represent the concerted action of allies, rather than a go-it-alone decision by the United States. By a three-to-one margin, Millennials believe that the United States should take the opinion of other countries into account when making foreign policy decisions, and about one quarter of them don’t believe the country does that frequently enough.
President Obama’s initial reaction to the use of chemical weapons reflected his sensitivity to these generational attitudes. He was spurred into action against Syria because it violated the prohibition on the use of such weapons by the Geneva Accords of 1925--cause enough in his opinion to warrant retaliation by the United States. When efforts to gain support for such action failed in the United Nations and in the British House of Commons the president decided to turn to Congress and seek its approval as a way to build consensus for the strikes. However in doing so, the administration inevitably had to accommodate arguments that such action was necessary to project our power against rivals such as Iran and in support of allies such as Israel in order to win over support from older members of Congress who tend to see the world through a more traditional, balance-of-power lens.
The push and pull of generational and partisan differences will continue to shape today’s watershed debate over Syria in the Congress. Whether its outcome lasts for decades or is simply another step in an ongoing debate about America’s role in the world in the 21st century will depend on the degree to which its final resolution resonates with the attitudes and beliefs of the Millennial generation that will ultimately determine the nation’s future.
Millennials & Foreign Policy
Why elder statesmen have a hard time embracing leading from behind. Millennials' belief in teamwork and consensus is changing America's approach to foreign policy.
at Huffington Post
Millennials (born 1982-2003) are America's most civic-oriented generation, since their GI Generation great grandparents. They believe in collective, local, direct action to solve their community's and the nation's problems. However, a recent report on the state of Millennials' civic participation indicates that the generation's interest in taking part in political activities is constrained by the underlying skepticism of many Millennials about the transparency and fairness of the country's current political system. To address this problem, the Roosevelt Institute's Campus Network (RICN) has just issued a set of recommendations on how to create "Government By and For Millennial America," that should serve as a roadmap for anyone interested in increasing the civic health of America's largest and most diverse generation.
In its most recent report on the civic health of adult Millennials, the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC), in partnership with CIRCLE, Mobilize.org and Harvard's Institute of Politics(IOP), pointed out that Millennials' volunteering and community service rates are much higher than that of their parents when they were in their twenties. Not surprisingly, they also lead the country in using social media to advance their participation in civic life. But when it came to voting, only half of Millennials eligible to vote did so in 2012 -- a rate not much different than for 18-29 year olds in the '70s and '80s. Even though Millennials slightly increased their share of the overall electorate last year as compared with 2008 and provided President Obama with the margin he needed to win re-election, many members of the generation remain unconvinced that government understands and cares about them.
In an IOP survey of 18-29 year olds taken before the 2012 election, 43 percent of those whose responses suggested they were unlikely to vote said it didn't matter who was elected because "Washington was broken." Of those IOP considered unlikely to vote, 31 percent thought none of the candidates represented their views and a quarter of them said both major parties were pretty much the same. While Millennials strongly believe in an activist government, less than a third believe their voice is represented in today's democratic processes.
The RICN's report advocates a series of policy initiatives designed to change those impressions.
To make voting easier and hassle free, the report advocates online registration be adopted in all the states, not just the fourteen using such a system today. California, which adopted this approach in time for the 2012 election, registered over a million voters, 61 percent of who were under 35, online in about two months. In order to accommodate this potentially large increase in the electorate, the report also advocates increasing the time and hours of early voting, making Election Day a federal holiday, and ultimately allowing people to vote online. The report also suggests an independent commission create a "Democracy Index" to measure the efficiency and openness of each state's election mechanisms, using objective measurements of participation rates and process efficiencies.
But the report's recommendations are not limited to just the process of voting. It contains a wealth of ideas on how government could be a better "steward of the common good," lawmaker and innovator.
Some of its most innovative ideas deal with expanding the space in which democracy operates in order to create more places for "collective self-determination and political education." This could be done at the neighborhood level as is currently taking place in Seattle and Los Angeles, at more open local school board meetings, or through participatory budgeting processes at the city and county level of government. The report also advocates that states should establish and routinely use online town halls to increase the opportunity of citizens to participate in policy deliberations. The Congressional Management Foundation found that such opportunities increase public approval of the elected officials who sponsor them specifically and participants' civic engagement generally.
The RICN's report clearly reflects the values and beliefs of the Millennials who drafted it. Their recommendations also provide a glimpse into the future of American democracy, since more than one out of three adult Americans will be members of this generation by the end of this decade. Rather than waiting for Millennials to stage a hostile takeover of our democratic processes, those in power today should proactively seek to accelerate the transition from a governmental and political process that is at historical low levels of public trust to a democracy that is in line with the vision and ideas of America's next great generation.
As demonstrated in the presidential exit polls and rehashed in countless articles and blogs since the election, Barack Obama’s decisive reelection victory over Mitt Romney was a triumph for a still-emerging, majority Democratic Obama coalition, which we said in a pair of preelection Next America articles would define a new civic ethos, or consensus on the role of government, for the nation.
The president even more forcefully reiterated his civic ethos vision–that America and its individual citizens advance only when “We, the People” work “together”–in his Inaugural Address. Now, a recent Pew Research survey indicates that in doing so the president is speaking clearly to the policy preferences of his side of America’s two new 21st-century political party coalitions.
The Democratic coalition is centered on the millennial generation (young voters 18 to 30), women (especially single women), minorities, and the highly educated, and is geographically focused in the Northeast and West.
All of these groups gave at least 55 percent of their 2012 presidential votes to the president. In fact, without the support of 60 percent of millennials, Obama would have lost the election. For some parts of the coalition, support for the president’s reelection verged on unanimity.
More than nine in 10 African-Americans voted for him, as did about seven in 10 Asians, Hispanics, Jews, and single women.
On the other side, the groups in the Republican coalition were equally loyal to Mitt Romney. Solid majorities of men, whites, seniors–especially those living in the South and Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states–voted for the GOP candidate.
But the first policy area–gun control–on which these coalitions have clearly reemerged to reshape the political landscape, is one that wasn’t even discussed during the campaign. Social Security and Medicare have long been considered “third rail” issues in U.S. politics–matters so contentious and controversial as to be untouchable by any rational officeholder or candidate.
Over the past two decades, gun control has been such an issue for Democrats. Obama studiously avoided the topic during his first term. In 1994, Bill Clinton saw his party lose control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years after passing a ban on assault weapons. He recently warned his fellow Democrats to be very careful in their approach to this subject.
But the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., made it impossible for the president to ignore the issue, even if he was so inclined, and earlier this year Obama proposed several congressional actions, including expanded background checks for arms purchasers, a resumption of the federal assault-weapons ban, and limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines, as well as 23 executive orders to deal with firearm usage.
The president enters the fray this time with the full support of his coalition on this issue and, as suggested by his Inaugural Address’s reference to the safety of our children, is willing to mobilize and use that coalition on behalf of his proposals.
Pew’s basic gun-control question asks respondents if it’s more important “to protect the right of Americans to own guns or to control gun ownership.” In a mid-January 2013 survey—fielded a month after the Newtown shootings—a 51 percent to 45 percent majority favored emphasizing control on gun ownership rather than protecting the right to own guns.
Two years earlier, a 49 percent to 46 percent plurality took exactly the opposite positions. It is the rise of the Obama Democratic coalition that underpins this new majority support for gun control.
The majority of women, millennials, African-Americans, Hispanics, and college graduates, as well as those who lived in urban and suburban areas and those in the Northeast and West, all support controlling gun ownership over protecting gun owners’ rights.
As in the 2012 election, the Obama coalition is opposed by a coalition of males, whites, those with incomplete college education, and rural residents, the majorities of whom prefer to protect gun owners’ rights.
It is uncertain how many of Obama’s proposed gun-control measures will ultimately be enacted by Congress and what form they will take in the legislative process.
The Pew survey indicates that gun-ownership-rights supporters are more politically active; 42 percent of them, as compared with 25 percent of gun-control advocates, have contributed money to an organization, contacted a public official, expressed an opinion on a social network, and/or signed a petition about gun policy.
However, one of the most often repeated, but inaccurate, memes of the 2012 campaign was that Obama’s reelection chances suffered from an “enthusiasm gap” that would retard participation by the president’s supporters. By Election Day that gap had fully closed.
Gun control is only one of the legislative initiatives promised by Obama for his second term. In his Inaugural Address, he briefly referred to immigration reform, climate change, protecting the middle class in entitlement adjustments, infrastructure development, education, and revamping both voting processes and the federal tax code.
The president seems intent on mobilizing his coalition to enact his policy agenda. If he is successful, the nation will see the enactment of an array of domestic policies as sweeping in its scope as Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, but aligned this time with the ideas and beliefs of another president and his winning 21st-century coalition.
California’s demographic trends provide a first glimpse of what all of America will look like in the future, including the country's new attitude toward finding the revenue to pay for a more activist government. The passage of several ballot propositions last November, coupled with the increases in income tax rates just passed in Congress to avoid the “fiscal cliff, ” suggest that the anti-tax revolt, which was born in California, is now coming to an end to be replaced by a more civic-oriented attitude on the part of voters.
In 1978, Proposition 13 was passed by the voters of California who were fed up with inflation-driven, double digit, increases in property taxes, sparking a nation-wide tax revolt that Ronald Reagan rode all the way to the White House. At that time, Jerry Brown was in his first incarnation as governor of California and the Democrats controlled a two-thirds majority in the State Assembly. Proposition 13 was not only designed to limit future property tax increases for existing home owners but to limit the ability of Democratic legislators to continue to raise taxes. It did so by imposing a new constitutional requirement that a two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature would be needed for lawmakers to pass any type of tax increase in the future.
Now, fast forward to November 6, 2012 when Democratic Governor Jerry Brown bet the fate of his return engagement as California’s governor on the passage of a ballot proposition designed to balance the state’s chronic budget shortfall by raising an additional $6 billion through temporary increases in the state sales tax (by one-quarter of a percent) and the state income taxes on high income earners. The measure, Proposition 30, passed easily, (by a 54% to 46% margin).
A ballot proposal to raise a billion dollars by closing a loophole in the way the tax liabilities of out-of-state corporations were calculated passed by an even wider, twenty point, margin. And over 80% of the 140 local school bond proposals on ballots across the state that day also were approved by voters. Not only that, but when all the votes in California were finally counted, the Democrats had won two-thirds majorities in both houses of the legislature, not just in the Assembly, but, for the first time since 1883, in the State Senate as well.
As Tony Quinn, a California Republican political analyst put it, “the anti-tax zealots who for years have been tail-wagging the old flea-bitten Republican dog. Well, now, there is no dog. Only fleas.” By the time of the 2012 election, Republican registration in California had slipped to less than 30%, from 35% just eight years ago. The state adopted an online registration system this year, adding over one million new people to the voter rolls. Only 20% of those registered as Republicans, reflecting the high proportion of young people who not only availed themselves of the opportunity to register to vote easily, but also rejected the GOP.
According to CNN exit polls, 27% of California voters this year were under thirty, up from 20% in the Obama-mania year of 2008. They voted for Proposition 30 by a 2:1 margin.
Latinos made up 23% of this year’s California voters, compared to only 18% in 2008. The Republican Party and its positions have continued to lose support among this rapidly growing segment of the electorate ever since Governor Pete Wilson used his support of Proposition 187, which was designed to deny all public services for undocumented immigrants, to ride to re-election in 1994. Fifty-eight percent of Latinos voted in favor of Proposition 30.
Right now, the state’s demographic makeup is more diverse than the rest of the country. Only 55% of the California electorate in 2012 was white compared to 72% nationally. But with the country becoming less and less white each year, it is likely that the anti-tax revolt that started in California will begin to die out across the rest of the country as these demographic trends accelerate almost everywhere in America.
The state’s election results signal the arrival of a new demographic alignment, one whose civic ethos will call for a stronger role for government and for the taxes to pay for it. If California lives up to its reputation as a national trend setter, this will soon become the majority viewpoint in the entire United States, not just in its most populous state.
On one level, the 2012 presidential election is a battle between two distinct party coalitions: a Republican coalition heavily centered on males, people over 50—especially seniors—and whites; and a Democratic coalition built around women, younger voters—especially Millennials—and minorities. But it is also a dispute over policy and program, because the party that develops a winning majority coalition will also determine America’s new civic ethos and answer the fundamental question of U.S. politics: What should be the size and scope of the nation’s government?
An August national survey of nearly 3,300 Americans ages 18-85, conducted by Frank N. Magid Associates, suggests that President Obama’s reelection prospects are underpinned by a distinctive demographic voter coalition, whose beliefs will also shape America’s next civic ethos in the years ahead.
According to Magid, a clear majority of Americans favor “a government that actively tries to solve the problems facing society and the economy,” while only 31 percent prefer “a government that stays out of society and the economy to the greatest extent possible.”
Since the New Deal, the belief in an activist government has become so ingrained in the American political psyche that a majority of most major demographics now support this concept. Still, not surprisingly, support for governmental activism is greatest among key demographics that also make up the core of the Democratic Party’s 21st century coalition: women (55 percent), minorities (59 percent), and Millennials (55 percent).
It is a bit lower within groups that comprise a disproportionate share of the GOP coalition: men (50 percent), whites (50 percent), and seniors (48 percent).
Together, these demographic building blocks result in 70 percent of Democratic identifiers and 35 percent of Republicans favoring governmental activism (although 53 percent of Republicans do prefer a hands-off approach).
The Magid survey indicates that a clear plurality, 47 percent, believes that “the best way to protect America’s national security is through building strong alliances with other nations” rather than by “relying primarily on its military strength” (37 percent).
Once again, the demographics that comprise the core of the emerging Democratic Party coalition also favor the position with the greatest support among voters. Majorities of women, Millennials, and minorities all agree that U.S. foreign policy should rely on alliance building.
By contrast, groups that tend toward the Republican coalition more strongly favor relying on U.S. military strength as the basis of the country’s foreign policy: men (41 percent), seniors (43 percent), and whites (39 percent).
As a result, a majority of Democratic identifiers favor an approach focused on alliance building, while most Republican identifiers prefer a foreign policy centered on U.S. military strength.
An Economic Safety Net
The Magid survey indicates that close to half of the electorate believes that “the best policy is to ensure that all Americans have at least a basic standard of living and level of income, even if that increases government spending,” while about one-third say that “the best policy is to let each person get along economically on his or her own, even if that means some people have a lot more than others.”
Majorities within left-leaning groups such as women, Millennials, and minorities believe that government should guarantee at least a minimal level of economic well-being. Less than half of groups inclined toward the GOP such as men, seniors, and whites concur.
As a result, perhaps more than any other, this issue separates those who identify with each of the parties: two-thirds of Democrats believe that government should provide a basic standard of living to all Americans, while 59 percent of Republicans are in favor, instead, of allowing each person to get along on his own.
On Nov. 6, voters will not only elect a president and decide which party controls Congress. They will also determine anew just how and to whose benefit government will intervene in the economy and how the country will interact with the rest of the world. While it is too early to know the details of the nation’s new civic ethos, recent survey research suggests that these policy issues will be decided based the beliefs of an emerging new majority coalition in American politics centered on women, minorities, and Millennials.
Since at least the time of Socrates, older generations have criticized younger ones for not being as smart, hardworking, polite, selfless, or strong as they themselves were when they were young.
For that reason, it’s hardly surprising that a cottage industry has arisen devoted to attacking the nation’s youngest generation, Millennials (born 1982-2003), as a lazy, soft, self-centered, and narcissistic “me” generation.” Why? Research suggests this tsk-tsking of young adults has found a receptive, albeit selective, audience among older Americans.
Attacks on young people make for provocative media copy and may help sell books or generate publicity for those who find satisfaction in criticizing other generations. But, contrary to these charges, both generational theory and the real-life attitudes and behavior of Millennials demonstrate that, in fact, their cohort is far more accurately described as a “we” than a “me” generation.
Four types of generations have cycled throughout American history.
William Strauss and Neil Howe, the founders of generational theory, know that not everyone in a particular generation can be painted with the same brush.
They make a strong case that both of the two generations that immediately preceded the Millennials—Generation X and Baby Boomers—contain a larger share of individuals who are inwardly focused and self-oriented than does the Millennial Generation.
- Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) were encouraged by their parents to develop strongly held internal values, which, as Boomers aged, gave their lives meaning and on which they continue to be unwilling to compromise.
- Gen-Xers, (born 1965-1981) reared by their parents in an unprotected, critical manner, often became individualistic risk-takers and entrepreneurial adults.
- Millennials, by contrast, are considered a “civic” generation and have historically been group-oriented, problem-solving, institution builders or, in other words, a “we” generation.
- As teens, almost all are involved in community service. Among 2011 college freshmen, 88 percent had participated in such activities while in high school.
- The contribution of these young Millennials to America’s nonprofits is both striking and crucial. In 2008, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, Millennials provided over a billion hours of service, worth more than $22 billion.
- Some would argue that as impressive as these numbers may be, much of this teenage community service is actually “forced labor” because it is a graduation requirement at many US high schools and, therefore, will not be sustained once Millennials graduate.
- But, in fact, most Millennials do retain at least this lesson from high school as they age. Among Millennials entering college in 2011, for example, 70 percent said it is “essential or very important to help people in need,” the highest percentage ever recorded.
- After leaving college, 60 percent said they wanted to engage in service to “help the country” and they have delivered on this pledge. An April 2012 Pew survey indicates that 58 percent of Millennials (compared with 51 percent of older generations) had “done volunteer activities through or for an organization within the previous year.
A 2010 Cone Cause Evaluation study found that when deciding where to work, 87 percent of Millennials, compared with less than 70 percent of the overall population, consider the causes a company supports.
Some Millennials are creating social entrepreneurships that let them use their energy and talent in original and imaginative ways.
- For starters, they are creatively solving problems in arenas ranging from the environment to education and from economic opportunity to civil liberties in dictatorial countries.
- Others expect to implement their values when they join more traditional organizations. In either case, more than other recent generations, Millennials will be driven by a desire and a need to make the world a better place.
- This will permeate all aspects of their lives; not only their free time, but their work as well.
Older workers, take heart! And take a page from—or at least understand—the Millennials playbook.
Traditional or social entrepreneurs who recognize the Millennial Generation is a “we” rather than a “me” generation, and operate on that basis, will be in the best position to compete and prosper in the Millennial era ahead.
How Millennial are you?
To find out, take this quiz, courtesy of Pew Research:pewresearch.org/millennials/quiz.
In the last half of the 19th century, Horatio Alger, Jr. defined for the American popular culture what it meant to be a young entrepreneur.
Indeed, the writer of popular novels for children showed us through the heroes in his books that poor boys, by dint of hard work and better ideas, became rich and respected. (Note: Alger’s entrepreneur’s club was closed to girls in those days.)
But for those who are tracking this, it is clear that many Millennials (born 1982-2003), who are today’s teens and young adults, have a very different and broader conception of what it means to be an entrepreneur.
Members of this next generation are increasingly called “social entrepreneurs.”
This class of business leaders is defined by Businessweek as “enterprising individuals who apply business practices to solving societal problems such as pollution, poor nutrition, and poverty.”
Although the organizations created by the more than 30,000 American social entrepreneurs are focused on curing the world’s ills, they are not traditional charities. Many, in fact, are designed to make a profit—and as Businessweek reports, represent more than $40 billion in revenue.
Millennial Generation social entrepreneurs often focus on economic development, education, and the environment, issues that are of particular concern to their generation. And, they take full advantage of the social media communication technologies that Millennials use so effectively.
- To improve educational opportunities around the world Richard Ludlow created Academic Earth, a company that provides low cost or free online college education supported by online advertising.
Xavier Helgesen and Christopher Fuchs formed Better World Books, an online bookseller that has donated more than $5 million to literacy programs and libraries.
- To protect the environment while improving the living standards of the poor, Sam Goldman and Ned Tozun started d.light design to provide solar-powered LED lamps to rural families in Third World countries.
Brian Hayden and Duncan Miller founded Heatspring Learning Institute, a company that trains builders to design geothermal heating and cooling systems for homes.
- And, to resist tyranny and promote civil liberties in nations where traditional journalistic outlets are under pressure from dictatorial regimes, Rachel Sterne established Ground Report, an organization that encourages local residents to post their own reportage on her profit-sharing Web site.
These social entrepreneurs apply “a practical but innovative stance to a social problem, often using market principles and forces, coupled with dogged determination that allows them to break away from constraints imposed by ideology … and pushes them to take risks others wouldn’t dare.” Just as the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship suggests, their approach combines the characteristics of Richard Branson and Mother Teresa.
It is not surprising that many Millennials have gravitated toward social entrepreneurship. Generational theorists categorize the Millennial Generation as a “civic generation,” a type of generation reared by its parents to focus on the needs of the group.
In a broader context, this means that civic generations create new institutions, often at the local level, designed to resolve large-scale economic and political issues and to advance humanity as a whole. One notable example of a civic generation is the Republican Generation (born 1742-1766), who created the United States and the constitutional order under which it has been governed for more than two centuries.
The civic GI Generation (born 1901-1924) created the economic and political arrangements that have been in force in the United States since the New Deal of the 1930s. For today’s civic generation, social entrepreneurship is often the social change institution of choice.
If there is any single trait that characterizes the Millennial Generation, it is its desire to leave the world a better place than the one older generations created. To do this, many Millennials have adopted an entrepreneurial approach, but with a key difference. Instead of using entrepreneurism for individual gain, Millennials are using it to solve the problems facing America and the world.
On Monday, the Supreme Court will begin an unusual three-day session, hearing oral arguments on a case of clear political, philosophical, and constitutional significance—the 2010 Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”). Every 80 years the Court has decisively entered a sharply divided political process to provide its own answer to the fundamental question of American politics: what is the scope and purpose of government? Each time in the past, it has attempted to reinforce the generational and party alignments of a previous era in the face of challenges from the beliefs and partisan preferences of an emerging civic-oriented generation like today’s Millennials (born 1982-2003).
The New Republic’s health care expert, Jonathan Cohn calls the Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act review the “case of the century.” He cites the real possibility that this particular Supreme Court may be willing to reject the legal precedents established during the New Deal by attempting to redefine anew the scope and purpose of federal power.
If it does the Court will be continuing a historical cycle driven by generational and partisan factors that few Court observers have noticed.
The first time the Court attempted to authoritatively resolve an ongoing, deeply divisive political conflict and reaffirm the political arrangements of a previous era was in the dreadful 1857 Dred Scott decision. Before the Court issued its infamous dictum in this case, Congress had struck a careful balance between pro- and anti-slavery forces with the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Based on that agreement, states were admitted to the Union in pairs—one slave and one free. Eventually, driven by the uncompromising ideological beliefs of the Transcendental Generation (born 1792-1821), which were as sharply divided as today’s Baby Boomers, continued accommodation became impossible. In Dred Scott, the Court attempted to impose its own solution by declaring the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. Its ruling, in effect, made slavery legal throughout the entire country and denied citizenship to blacks, even those who were free.
Of the nine justices who ruled on the case, four were members of the Transcendental Generation and a fifth was born in 1790, on the cusp of generational change. Seven were from the era’s dominant Democratic Party. Five of the seven who decided against Dred Scott were from slave states. It was not until President Abraham Lincoln appointed a majority of justices, consisting primarily of Republicans from Union states, that the Court’s regional, generational, and partisan composition changed. During the administrations of Lincoln and his successors, the Court ratified the new governing arrangements that had been achieved in the Civil War.
The same pattern emerged again eight decades later. The argument over the nation’s political fundamentals now dealt with the extent and type of governmental intervention in an industrial economy. In 1935 and 1936, the Supreme Court rallied to protect the old order of laissez faire economics in response to a range of activist government New Deal laws enacted by Franklin Roosevelt and a Democratic Congress with the overwhelming support of America’s newest civic generation, the GI Generation.
Justices Butler, McReynolds, Sutherland, and Van Devanter—nicknamed the “Four Horsemen of Reaction”—often joined with one of the Court’s centrist justices to rule against the core components of the New Deal. Seven of the justices, including three of the Four Horsemen, were of the ideologically-driven Missionary Generation (born 1860-1882). A like number were from the Republican Party that dominated electoral politics from the Civil War to the Great Depression.
It took the political message delivered by FDR’s record-breaking reelection in 1936 to persuade the centrist justices to consistently side with the president and the Court’s liberal “Three Musketeers” and accept the constitutionality of New Deal laws. Retirements and mortality allowed Roosevelt to appoint eight of nine justices by the time he died in 1945, thereby giving the Court a very different generational and partisan cast.
All of the factors that shaped the Supreme Court’s actions in 1857 and in the 1930s are once more in place. Political figures ranging from Barack Obama to Mitt Romney remind us that America is again poised to answer the eternal question of the role and size of government. A new civic generation, the Millennials, is emerging with the potential to dominate and reshape politics in the next four decades. Like the GI Generation in FDR’s day, Millennials strongly support a reformist Democratic president, favoring Barack Obama against his potential 2012 opponents by about the same 2:1 margin they did in 2008.
And as in the past, the generational and partisan composition of the Supreme Court reflects an earlier era. Five of the justices, including a majority of its conservative bloc (Roberts, Thomas, and Alioto) are Boomers (born 1946-1964). The rest are members of the even older Silent Generation (born 1925-1945). A majority are Republicans.
As the hearings approach, many observers believe that, this time, unlike the past, the Supreme Court will follow legal precedent rather than the generational and partisan composition of the justices by affirming the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Jonathan Cohn cites the results of an American Bar Association survey indicating that 85% of a panel of legal “experts” expects that the healthcare law will be affirmed. The survey gave Justice Kennedy a 53% chance of voting to uphold the law. Surprisingly, an even greater number (69%) believed that, based on his presumed desire to avoid a party line split on the Court on a matter of such political significance, Chief Justice Roberts would join Kennedy in voting to affirm. Others have suggested Antonin Scalia might be persuadable as well.
The experts’ predictions may turn out to be right, if the Court follows legal precedent. But history suggests that an equally powerful generational and partisan cycle of Supreme Court decision-making may well cause the Court to overturn key portions of ObamaCare regardless of the legal arguments it will hear this month. If it does, the Supreme Court will once again rule against a civic generation and a president that generation so strongly supports.
History also tells us that may not be the end of the story. To date, Millennials are the most liberal American generation since the GI Generation. Members of the generation favor the Affordable Care Act by 55% to 36%, in part because their generation has directly benefited from the law’s provision that young people can remain on their parent’s health care insurance until they are 26 years old. The large margin by which Millennials support the program significantly explains why, for the first time since the passage of the legislation, at least a plurality of all Americans now approve of it (47% approve to 45% disapprove).
Millennials now comprise one-fourth of American adults; by 2020 they will represent more than one out of three adults in the United States. To the extent that this large cohort is able to bring its own “civic ethos” to bear on America’s political debate, the Court is likely to adhere to another historical precedent of eventually moving beyond the doctrines of an earlier era and accepting those of a new generation. The results of the 2012 election will go a long way toward determining if and when that happens.
Morley Winograd (one half of Mike & Morley) moderated a March 7, 2012 panel for the USC Annenberg Center for Communication and Policy's "Road To The White House Series". He was joined by Los Angeles Bureau Chief and former Chief National Political Correspondent for the New York Times Adam Nagourney; senior fellow at CCLP and veteran political reporter Cinny Kennard, the former West Coast Chief for NPR and an award-winning CBS News correspondent and bureau chief; and finally by Tom Dotan, editor-at-large for Neon Tommy. More information, including a video of the panel discussion, resides here
With President Obama’s speech in Osawatomie, Kansas channeling Teddy Roosevelt and decrying the growing economic inequality and lack of upward mobility in America, the issue has finally arrived at the center of this year’s campaign debates. While most discussions of this growing inequality focus on the gap between America’s poorest and richest citizens, a recent report by the Pew Foundation highlights how the same economic trends over the last two and a half decades have also widened the wealth gap between the oldest and youngest Americans to the highest levels in history.
In a time of great political unrest and economic anxiety, this inter-generational wealth gap has the potential to throw gasoline on an already white hot fire. Only by understanding the sources of this increasing disparity can the country develop policies that will help to close the gap and create a fairer, less economically stratified society.
Drawing on data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), Pew documents the tectonic shifts that have occurred in households’ net worth based upon age between 1985 and 2009. During this time, the average net worth of households headed by those under 35 fell from $11,521 to just $3,662, a drop of 68%. During the same period, the net wealth of households, as measured by adding up the value of all assets owned minus liabilities such as mortgages or credit card debt associated with those assets, headed by those over 65 increased by 42%, from $120,457 to $170,494 (all figures are expressed in 2010 dollars).
Of course younger households have always been less wealthy than older ones, since the heads of those households haven’t had a lifetime to acquire wealth. In 1984, this effect of age on household wealth meant that senior citizen households had, on average, ten times the wealth of those headed by people younger than 35. However, the enormous generational shift in household wealth that occurred in the intervening twenty-five years meant that, by 2009, the net worth of senior citizen households was 47 times greater than younger households. The resulting disparities in economic well-being are reflected in each generation’s perception of its own economic situation.
Those Americans over 65 in 2009 are members of what generational historians call the Silent Generation. Only 25% of Silents expressed any dissatisfaction with their personal financial situation that year, a percentage that did not increase in the next two years of the Great Recession.
By contrast, 36% of people under 35 in 2009 – mostly members of the Millennial Generation – expressed dissatisfaction with their individual finances in 2009, a number that rose to 39% in 2011. But the biggest jump in dissatisfaction with personal finances between 2009 and 2011 occurred among the next older cohort, who are considered to be members of Generation X. In 2009, only 30% of Xers felt dissatisfied, a number that shot up to 42% in 2011. Finally, 32% of the Baby Boom generation, born from 1946 to 1964 and approaching their retirement years in 2009, were dissatisfied with their personal financial situation, a number that rose only to 39% by 2011.
One of the reasons behind this disparity of financial and economic concern among generations lies with the different impact the nation’s housing market has had on each generation between 1985 and 2009. The great housing price collapse that began in 2008 had little impact on Millennials, only 18% of whom currently own their own home. By comparison, 57% of Gen Xers own their own home. Three-fourths of them bought after 2000 when housing prices began to soar. As a result, about one in five members of Gen X now say their home mortgage is under water, with the balance owed greater than the value of the house. By comparison, only 13% of Boomers and a miniscule 4% of Silents, most of whom bought homes well before the crash, report having under water mortgages. In fact, if it weren’t for the overall rise in housing prices since 1984 that Silents were able to take advantage of, that generation’s net worth would have fallen by a third in the twenty-five years since, instead of rising by 42%. Clearly, to improve Gen X’s attitudes toward the economy and reduce the inter-generational wealth gap, something must be done to fix the nation’s housing market.
For older generations – Boomers facing retirement and Silents already enjoying their new life – housing is not an especially large concern. Retirement savings based on stock market valuations and/or interest rates and the certainty of pension payments are clearly a much bigger issue with these generations. Almost two-thirds of Boomers believe they may have to defer their retirement beyond 65 because of the decline in their savings and net worth, with about one in four now expecting to work until at least 70. While the stock market has almost fully recovered from the 2008 crash, for those counting on a more interest-oriented set of retirement payouts from bonds or CDs, years of rock bottom interest rates, designed by the Federal Reserve to stimulate the housing market and help the economy recover, have made these investments problematic at best. In some ways, economic policies that are designed to help Gen X with their housing challenges offer older generations scant comfort, and in certain instances actually exacerbate their concerns over their personal finances.
Millennials diminished sense of economic opportunity remains focused almost entirely on the job market. About two-thirds of Millennials are employed but only slightly half of those are working full-time. Almost two-thirds of Millennials without a job are looking for work. Unemployment among 16-24 year olds rose to 19.1% by the fourth quarter of 2009, a full eight points higher than in 2007 before the crash. For all other generations, unemployment has gone up on average by only 5 points during the same time period. It seems too obvious to be worth stating, but the best way to increase Millennials’ wealth is to create an economy where they can all find jobs.
Anxiety that the nation’s economy is only working for the wealthiest drives much of the overall feeling of fear, uncertainty and doubt that pervades the nation’s political debate. But an examination of household wealth suggests the remedy to this disease varies by generation.
Senior citizens turned out in record numbers in the 2010 election to decry the policies of the Obama administration, but it would appear from both the economic and attitudinal data that most of them are more interested in fighting to hang on to what they have or in resisting other societal changes than in expressing any dissatisfaction with their own personal financial situation. Boomers complain about what has happened to their plans for retirement, but it is hard to see how fixing entitlements by raising the retirement age, or cutting the overly generous pensions of public employees will do anything to impact their own retirement prospects directly. To really close the generational wealth gap, policies should be adopted which raise the economic well being of America’s two youngest generations, rather than focusing on those who are already relatively better off.
To bring up the least wealthy of the nation’s households to levels closer to those more fortunate would require taking much more aggressive steps than Washington has so far been willing to consider. This might require expanding the scope and size of government, something older generations especially are steadfastly resisting. This inter-generational debate over the nation’s “civic ethos,” driven by the differing economic circumstances of each generation, will be and ought to be the fundamental issue of the campaign – precisely where President Obama’s speech in Osawatomie, Kansas placed it.