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The ‘B’ Word: Republicans Fan the Flames of Ageism

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Posted on Jul 9, 2013
AP/Matt Rourke

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

By Susan Zakin

“The average Republican primary voter is deceased,” Frank Luntz, Fox News commentator and GOP uber-pollster, said in February.

His advice for wooing younger voters? “Don’t give them terminology they don’t understand.” It’s about “communicating a simple phrase, three words: ‘I get it.’ ”

Luntz was sharing his prescription for dumbing down political rhetoric with outlier tea party candidate Allen West on a new website called Next Generation TV, but as The New York Times reported June 29, GOP stalwarts are taking his advice, courting millennials, the 80 million potential voters born from about 1980 to 2000, mostly by cracking wise about Democrats of a certain age. Electing Hillary Clinton would be like going back in time, Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s campaign strategist, told reporters: “She’s been around since the ’70s.” Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell compared the 2016 Democratic field to “a rerun of ‘The Golden Girls.’ ”

The nasty edge of Republican rhetoric isn’t new, but Luntz, a master of the zeitgeist, is exploiting fears that run deeper than election strategy. Ironically, thrice-married serial cheater Newt Gingrich introduced the backlash against baby boomers, rallying conservatives against counterculture permissiveness in the 1990s. But boomer bashing has taken on a new character. With the future looking bleaker all the time, Americans are externalizing their fears. Trashing people over 40—or worse, 50—is not only socially acceptable, but a form of self-protection.

Don’t fret: It’s not you whose tech skills are outdated, or whose liberal arts education makes you dead weight in The New New Economy. It’s those pathetic former hipsters who followed their bliss instead of covering their asses. Job discrimination against boomers is rampant, from the help wanted ads that tell you not to apply if you don’t want to use Dropbox to the kiss-off phrase delivered to one of my friends: “Sorry, but we’re looking for some leadership from the millennials.”

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Leadership? Be careful what you wish for. This is the generation of Mark Zuckerberg and Edward Snowden. Zuckerberg’s embarrassing forays into politics have revealed the ruthlessly self-serving mentality we hoped was the inaccurate part of the film “The Social Network.” Snowden is, in many ways, the more interesting face of his generation. According to research by the dean of Washington, D.C., political analysts, Charlie Cook (born in 1953), millennials are distinguished by a lack of faith, not only in government, but in social institutions in general.

Not exactly news to anyone who has struck up a conversation while quaffing a microbrew at his or her local watering hole. Here in Montgomery County, Md., where I’ve been spending considerable time this year, every man under the age of 30 seems to be calling himself a libertarian. Yet Maryland is one of the most reliably progressive states in the U.S. and with an ordinance requiring stores to charge an extra five cents for every shopping bag, in terms of policy, if not ambience, Montgomery County is the Berkeley of the east.

To paraphrase Harper’s columnist Thomas Frank, whose 2004 book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” explained why Americans were voting against their own interests (it’s culture, stupid), what’s the matter with Montgomery County? Why are millennials falling for the tired rhetoric of the tea party and Kentucky’s other senator, Rand Paul?

It’s corruption, stupid. Like the majority of ’60s radicals, who came from liberal families, millennials feel betrayed by their parents’ generation. Instead of placing the blame on the doorsteps of K Street lobbyists, many see government as the problem.

“Government has obviously become a place where opportunistic people go to get rich,” said a 32-year-old Internet entrepreneur. “Most millennials know only Bill Clinton, who seemed kind of cool until it turned out he was a shill for corporations and the banking lobby, and Bush, who was unabashedly awful as we all know. Then there’s Obama, who seemed great until he turned out to be a lying, spying, bailer-out who gets all his advice from the same lobbyists he promised over and over ‘will not work in my White House.’ ”

That disenchantment is emerging in voting numbers. In 2008, Barack Obama won the 18-29 vote by 34 points. But in 2012, as disappointment with his performance rose, Obama’s edge among these voters dropped to 23 percent. The erosion of support wasn’t lost on Republicans. Like Latinos, the millennials are considered up for grabs in 2016.

Although the feeling of betrayal is understandable, there is something regressive and childlike about ascribing so much power to your parents. Viewing history through the lens of a generation has its limits. Idealists are always flawed, and every generation has its complement of hustlers, toadies and arrivistes. Historical forces larger than the individual determine winners and losers: in this case, globalization, technology, and America’s rise and fall as an imperial power.

What few millennials seem to realize is that libertarian hero Ronald Reagan’s “transformative” presidency began the decline of civil society in the U.S. Perhaps that’s too much history for an ahistorical generation. What Reagan, a farm boy turned Southern Californian, “transformed” was the traditional anti-government bias of the American West into a social movement. By defunding schools, mental health services and health care, all the things that make people feel good about government, the Reagan administration laid the groundwork not only for today’s disaffection with the rule of law, but, in a worst-case scenario, for a failed state.


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