The truth about twenty-somethings.
Inside a meeting room at the end of the hall, while guests schmoozed with Phyllis Schlafly and sidled up to a cash bar, William Kristol, the current Republican Clausewitz, took the podium. "With this election," Kristol announced, "the 60-year dominance of liberalism and the Democratic Party are over."
In the audience as Kristol offered this assessment was 22-year-old Kevin McDermott, who, like hundreds of other young Republicans, is coming to Washington to work for a new GOP congressman. "I don't know that government can do anything right," McDermott said later, adding that a formative political influence in his life was Patrick Buchanan's era on "The McLaughlin Group."
You might want to dismiss McDermott's voice as an extreme example, the kind of thing you would expect to hear from people who go to meetings that feature National Rifle Association and Heritage Foundation exhibits. But that would be a mistake, for if anything McDermott represents the prevailing view among the bright young people in politics in America in 1995--shrewd, pragmatic, anti-government. Discount the conventional wisdom that, in 1992, MTV permanently brainwashed a whole generation into an army of lefties. The young did vote for Clinton in droves in '92, but now two thirds of them disapprove of the job he's doing, and more and more identify with the Republicans. In fact, according to a bipartisan "Battleground '94" survey last fall, by a huge ratio, 56 percent to 32 percent, young voters believe the GOP better shares their values than the Democrats.
To be sure, anti-government sentiment is not just generational; it would be very tough to find anyone today who would boldly declare blanket confidence in Washington. But this attitude is especially prevalent among twentysomethings, right and left. According to Louis Harris, 78 percent of people 18 to 24 disagree with the statement, "government can generally be trusted to look after our interests."
"I don't have a lot of faith in the government in general," says Kristen Joiner, 25, who grew up in liberal Madison, Wisconsin. "I don't think it has the means to get things done, frankly." If a Young American for Freedom alumnus who canvassed for Buchanan in New Hampshire said this, it wouldn't be very interesting; that a young woman like Joiner--who works for Habitat for Humanity International--believes it is striking. To understand how important this is, remember how popular liberal government used to be. The twentysomethings of the thirties, for example, were overwhelmingly Democratic; in 1936, Gallup found that voters under 24 favored FDR, 57 percent to 38 percent. In the forties, young people were so pro-Roosevelt that Republicans tried to make it harder for GIs (whose average age at that point in the war was roughly 24) to vote absentee in 1944, expecting a huge FDR margin. And in the eight presidential elections between 1952 and 1980, young people voted Democratic six times.
No more. Many twentysomethings assume that, as MTV vice president Gwen Lipsky characterizes it, "the system just seems broken." This view has become, outside of having divorced parents, the most common characteristic of my generation (I was born in 1969.) And what's interesting is that lots of people you would ordinarily expect to be liberal are in fact increasingly conservative.
This, roughly, is the young liberal cohort of the anti-government movement: young Democrats and left-leaning activists who work long hours, drink lots of Starbucks coffee and microbrewed beer, recycle, ride mountain bikes, wear Teva sandles, sleep on futons, occasionally sport nose rings, and backpack in Nepal or Burkina Faso or Tibet. They shop at Kramerbooks in Washington's Dupont Circle, Shakespeare & Co. in Manhattan, or the Coop in Cambridge. Their Port Huron and Woodstock are Rio and Cairo, where earnest internationalists ponder the fate of the Earth. They talk a lot about grassroots community service. They read Al Gore's Earth in the Balance, and their seminal journalistic experience of 1994 was the publication, in February's Atlantic Monthly, of Robert Kaplan's apocalyptic piece "The Coming Anarchy." The article argued that environmental degradation, tribal upheavals, and poverty are so widespread that pretty soon national boundaries won't matter anymore. Bill Sherman, a 26-year-old Clinton Interior Department appointee, says, "That article comes up in three-quarters of conversations among young politically interested people when they begin talking about world issues. I've still got a copy of it sitting on my desk."
Yet, at heart, people my age are about as conservative as the rest of the country is becoming. "People were trying to create issues salons when Clinton first got to town," says Brian Trelstad, who founded Campus Greenvote at Harvard and now works for AmeriCorps, the administration's national-service operation. "But the energy and enthusiasm for those things have mirrored people's energy and enthusiasm for the administration. So people are tuning in to 'Seinfeld' and 'Melrose Place' a lot more than they were in the first six months."
The explicitly conservative twentysomethings are watching these shows, too, and they are cooler, somehow, and even more detached. Unless they are from the evangelical wing, conservatives seem to drink a lot more, especially more liquor. They tend to dress like Fred Barnes (lots of solid shirts and rep ties). Devoted to Dinesh D'Souza, the more erudite among them read Hayek, Russell Kirk, and talk about Leo Strauss. (Tom Clancy is a favorite beach read.) On campus, they tend to start their own versions of the iconoclastic, right-wing Dartmouth Review (100 at last count), and display bumper-stickers (usually purchased from the classified section of The American Spectator) saying things like, "First Hillary, Then Gennifer, and Now Us." They like to point out that while Dan Quayle may be no Lincoln, at least he's never killed a woman in his car. The really hard-core consider jack Kemp a squish and Phil Gramm the man to beat in 1996. The young conservative's dream evening, failing a date with Mary Matalin, is helling around with R. Emmett Tyrrell, smoking defiantly. Subscriptions include National Review, the paleoconservative Chronicles, Policy Review, and, of course, The Limbaugh Letter. Marc Short, a 1992 graduate of Washington & Lee University who worked on Oliver North's Senate campaign, describes his political awakening this way: "One of the big things I read was Barry Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative," says Short. "Those themes are very universal."
Why this basic conservatism? For one thing, it is the political implication of all the discontent you hear from twentysomethings. Roughly since the publication, in 1989, of Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X, the conventional wisdom has been that the people born after the baby boom are adrift, unified only by endless funds of TV trivia and credit-card debt. The animating drama of the ever-growing twentysomething commentaries, from Coupland to Details to The Next Progressive to 13th GEN to a new book called Late Bloomers (subtitled, "Becoming Adult at the End of the American Century"), is that people born after 1964 are somehow disappointed, unable to get on with life, futilely searching for permanent jobs. In such a time, you might think that one reaction would be revolution. But the much more common response is to hunker down and wait it out, watching out for yourself and no one else. Irony and detachment become the prevailing poses. It's not nihilism, but there is a certain coolness in elite circles, and currency is placed on not getting caught believing too much in any one thing.
Another reason for cynicism about the possibility of progress--a fundamental conservative tenet--is that those under 30 face undeniably more difficult economic prospects compared to their post-World War II predecessors. Worry about jobs and debt feeds skepticism; if people don't think they are getting ahead, then they are unlikely to be very interested in improving something as seemingly vague as "the country." Of course, we have never lived through a sustained time in which government was broadly effective. In fact, we were in elementary and junior high school when the dominant news story--our first "dominant" news story--was the U.S. government's daily, humiliating failure to free the American hostages in Iran. Then came Reagan, and the conventional wisdom that government wasn't the solution, it was the problem. "We were young and impressionable, and we couldn't help but be influenced by the conservative trend in the country," says Kevin Pritchett, 25, a former Wall Street Journal editorial writer who now works for Mississippi Senator Trent Lott. And in the early nineties, when Clinton seemed unable to deliver major change fast, the MTV-driven early enthusiasm for the president diminished quickly. As that pro-Clinton sentiment sank, it took much of the willingness to give Washington a chance to make things better down with it.
This is a big win for the right. Today's young conservatism is a direct descendant of Goldwaterism, which gives the public sector no quarter, and this view remains virtually intact in the GOP. On the other hand, while today's young liberalism is the grandchild of the New Deal, it couldn't be farther from what lay at the heart of Roosevelt and Truman's visions: a fairer redistribution of wealth and an urge to make government a positive force.
Mention fixing the tax code to young liberals to get more out of the affluent and you get vague nods--Yes, of course, that's imporant--but the conversation quickly moves on to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the spotted owl or global overpopulation. "Nobody I know talks about going and working on issues about the inner city or the working poor," says one young Washington environmental activist who also worked on the Clinton-Gore campaign. "They're not sexy, they're not covered in the press."
To understand the significance of the dwindling support for government among young people, you have to understand how profound the reversal is. From the twenties to the late seventies, the only acceptable way to be cool in most circles was to be liberal. In the thirties, at least until the Hitler-Stalin pact took some of the shine off Bolshevism, pro-Soviet radicalism was chic. Only after World War II and the slow demise of the Eastern European nations, culminating in the fall of Czechoslovakia in 1948, would a liberalism sympathetic to the Soviet Union fall decidedly out of fashion among most reasonable people. And in the fifties, a new element came into liberalism when Adlai Stevenson became the dominant Democrat, and part of the left moved from its New Deal and Fair Deal ethos. Then, being a liberal meant you loved the average guy. Once Stevenson's professorial air took over, however, being a liberal meant you were smarter than the average guy.
And although conservatives began acquiring a certain intellectual and social respectability with the publication, in 1951, of William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale, his founding of National Review, in 1955, the writings of Russell Kirk in the early fifties, and the emergence, in the late sixties and early seventies, of neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, the right remained, for the most part, unfashionable in elite circles. (It's no wonder, then, that popular conservatives such as Bill Bennett and Bill Kristol today relate, as revealing biographical anecdotes, how iconoclastic they were to support Nixon-Agnew while at Harvard in the late sixties.)
But beginning with Stevenson, if being considered cool and smart meant being liberal, you couldn't just take up lunch-bucket liberalism, even if that was what was important to the great majority of Americans. Instead, to set yourself off, it became essential to champion issues that the factory worker who wanted his kids' schools to work or the guy who didn't want to lose his health insurance if he got fired weren't thinking about. To be intelligent meant "understanding" criminals, looking down on family values, and being standoffish about patriotism. The result was a divided Democratic Party and a liberalism whose own snobbery made it unpopular.
Many of today's young liberals have inherited the worst elements of that elitism. Although Clinton has moved the Democrats back to the center on crime and values, there remains a streak of radical chic in, for example, the widespread interest in environmentalism. It is, after all, a broad and sexy topic, complete with furry victims to champion and the air of absolute importance--This is the earth we're talking about here. In a 1992 MTV survey, environmental activists outpolled pro-choice activists as the people twentysomethings admire most. One 25-year-old Yale graduate remembers attending meetings of environmentalists in New Haven where pro-green students passionately argued for allying to stop hunters from using the Yale forest, not realizing that hunters (because they want to keep on hunting, and so are pro-conservationist) are the movement's natural allies. "It was cool--too cool, really--to be into the enviroment," this graduate recalls. "But they rarely thought seriously about what they were doing."
Thinking seriously about what to do about the country's problems (which young people are quick to define, rightly, as failing schools and diminishing economic opportunity) is, in fact, all too rare. What is essential is learning the lessons of how the country has worked together best and then using those examples to help solve what's wrong today.
In failing to do this, the young are repeating the recent past in all the wrong ways even when they sincerely believe they are doing good work. In one significant area, for instance, left and right are making the same mistake. Like the radicals of the sixties, the current crop of twentysomethings believes, almost universally, that small, locally based community groups can do more good than large-scale federal action. Say this at a cocktail party and you are a genius, someone who has surveyed "the welfare state" and found it wanting. For conservatives, it is a way to argue against Washington, a favorite and familiar target, and appear to be offering a principled, realistic alternative. For liberals, making the case for local power gives you some credibility; it shows you know big government doesn't always work and that you are a reasonable person able to confront what's wrong with your philosophy.
What unites the two is best thought of as the "Think Globally, Act Locally" view, the inevitable product of the skepticism toward government. Its latest, best articulation comes from Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor who is driving across the country in a prepresidential campaign. "Nearly everyone I have stayed with," says Alexander, "believes the answers are to be found at home--in the shops, living rooms, diners, community centers, churches, synagogues, and classrooms of America, and certainly not in Washington, D.C."
Whatever the surface common sense of Alexander's case, as a Southerner he should know better. Had the answers been left up entirely to towns and states in the fifties and sixties, Jim Crow might never have been taken on; the great civil rights victories resulted from the national community imposing its will on recalcitrant smaller institutions, like the states of Mississippi and Alabama.
So young liberals might be surprised to learn that when they argue that power should lie with grassroots groups (as they did in the debate leading to the creation of Clinton's Ameri-Corps), they are associating themselves with one of the oldest strains of American conservative thought. The assumption of this approach is that the national capital is only good at writing checks. But some of the most successful things Washington has done in this century has been to organize and mobilize young people--in the Civilian Conservation Corps, in the military, in the Peace Corps. Moreover, one reason the public is so skeptical of government is the undeniable failure of many of Johnson's War on Poverty programs--nearly all of which were run by local groups receiving checks, not orders, from the federal government. In an example unearthed by Nicholas Lemann, the Newark, New Jersey, arm of the War on Poverty spent part of its grant funding a play by Leroi Jones depicting Jack Benny's butler, Rochester, murdering a white man.
Still, most people, especially the young, don't know this long history. Aaron Knight, a twentysomething student in the graduate Women's Studies program at George Washington University, is a leader of Washington's Noodle Club, an informal network of young left-leaning activists. Yet even he bristles at the idea of a new CCC. "I see government as a necessary evil, but it doesn't work very well and can't work very well," he says. "I would like to see a lot of local power because that's the best way to make decisions." But not always.
Twentysomethings seem largely unaware that a good historical case can be made that the times America has been at its best--in combating the Depression, winning World War II, and building the great postwar middle class--have been times when the central government has been trusted and carefully tended to. (Note the connection: Common sense suggests that any institution, whether it's the FAA or IBM, requires constant attention to make it work.) And by "government," I don't mean something utopian or weird or even unfamiliar. This is the point that liberals and moderates and conservatives have to understand: Government is how a democracy organizes itself and decides how to deal with large problems, whether it's the education of the young, the safety of our food, or the defense of the nation. Arguing that government can work is not some nutty, lefty reflex to defend broad public enterprises, though to watch the talk shows and listen to successful politicians these days, it certainly seems so.
What's missing today is an acknowledgment that government, in this sense, can be a useful tool to get certain things done. It wasn't always this way, though. From the thirties to the mid-seventies, for example, because they had a greater sense of belonging to a national community, rich Americans were willing to pay higher taxes (the top rate, now 38 percent, was 91 percent under Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy) and most American men, in the democratic military draft, gave up a couple of years of their lives to serve.
But try to talk about smart government now--recount how, say, the CCC rescued unemployed youths or how the REA brought electricity to rural America in the thirties--and people tend to drift to another part of the room. (That's understandable, but the point is how little interest there is in finding out about government programs that have worked.) The young are supposed to have a capacity for hope that we can do better--the young of the thirties and the sixties surely did. Today's crew does not believe that.
The most revealing case study of how these trends--distrust of government, self-centeredness, and little awareness of what well-executed public action can accomplish--play out in real life is the student lobby's near-wreckage of key provisions in Clinton's revolutionary student loan reform. [For more on this issue, see Steven Waldman's article on page 27.]
To make college more affordable, the Clinton administration, in 1993, proposed having the government loan money for school directly to students. (It costs the government half what the private sector charges to make a loan.) The United States Student Association, a lobby which boasts members on campuses in every state, fought for this direct lending, attracted by the lower interest rates and reduced fees that would result. Government, in that sense, was fine with them. Part of Clinton's reform was making the rate of loan repayment contingent on a graduate's income rather than sticking the student with high set payments. Better thought of as "pay-as-you-can" reform, this means students with large debts can go into low-paying but useful work and still make good on their loans, only over a longer period of time. A marvelous idea, and one of the great social reforms since the GI Bill first threw open the doors of college to millions who could not have paid for it otherwise.
To make this work, however, it is critical to have the Internal Revenue Service in charge of collecting the loans. The IRS has the means to do it (just about everybody files a tax return), the ability (there's already a line on the standard 1040 that could be used), and is in the full-time business of tracking and collecting what people owe. And when it comes to student loans, repayment is not a side issue: From 1988 to 1993, Washington had to eat $14 billion in defaults. Why? Because the banks who, under the old system, contracted with the federal government to loan students money, had no incentive to collect because Washington guaranteed the deal. So if you don't have the IRS involved, you leave collections in the incompetent hands of the Department of Education and its contractors, meaning money that could be helping students could be lost.
The twentysomethings who lobbied Congress about student loans, however, weren't interested in making government--which they gladly dun for grants and loans that are hard to collect--work. On Capitol Hill, students testified against the IRS provision and ginned up letters from key states and districts. At one hearing, USSA entered this into the record of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee:
"Where are students supposed to turn to for counseling and information on their student loan repayment options and problems? The IRS? The current system is far from perfect, but at least students can work with their lender on deferment and forbearance options. Will the IRS provide counseling?"
What did USSA want? More federal grant money. "USSA would say if you want to end the default rate, why doesn't the federal government give more grant money so that students don't have to borrow so much?" asks 22-year-old Laura McClintock, USSA's president. "You don't default on grants." So a premier activist group, made up of students, wants the government in the game enough to take money from Washington but not enough to make repayment--a reciprocal responsibility that conservatives, with their Burkean tradition of self-reliance, should love--more reliable and more humane. Sounds like every other kind of interest group, liberal, conservative, and in-between: Give us ours, but don't ask us to give anything back.
In the end, because the House Ways and Means and Education and Labor committees could not resolve the issue, the IRS role was banished to a study group of Treasury and Education officials, from which it has, more than a year later, not yet emerged. But pressure from the group all this is supposed to help--the students--could force the issue out into the light of day where the president could rally support to break the bureaucratic logjam. But there was--and is--no such pressure. Instead, students, like Western ranchers or trial lawyers or any other narrow interest group, are guarding their turf at the expense of good ideas.
What would prevent this? A willingness to trust government with collections (after all, when it came to the government writing the checks, there was plenty of trust); a concession that students, in exchange for benefits, should be willing to pay the system back; and finally a sense of history, the appreciation that a new GI Bill could work wonders to make college more accessible and graduates' choices later in life less directly tied to money.
A generation that could see these points is what we want, but it is not what we have. Turning this around will take nothing less than breaking the mental blocks about government that most Republicans and even many Democrats have. Once those blocks are broken--once people understand that government is a way to solve problems we all want solved, not an automatic evil--then the fog may lift, and perhaps--just perhaps--it will once again be cool to believe.
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|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1995|
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