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Generation Backlash

It’s back! Bet you thought all that blather about Generation X had ended, what with Douglas Coupland’s sales declining and slacker movies failing at the box office. But, no, the idea of Generation X has returned with a vengeance. This time it’s not about culture, it’s about politics. Novelists might have given up on the idea, but political pundits haven’t. They’ve discovered that talk about Generation X is just the thing for rolling back the welfare state. Having found a whole crop of young heroes to carry on the legacy of Ronald Reagan, they’ve convinced the nation that the motto of youth is, Give us the market or give us death!

It all started back in 1992 (a year after Coupland published Generation X). Two bright-faced boys—Jonathan Cowan and Rob Nelson—had landed jobs in our nation’s capital. One was an aide to a Democratic representative, the other worked for a direct-mail fundraising organization. As the story goes, they were disillusioned with life inside the Beltway. Sitting in a bar and pondering the sadness and anomie that was the lot of all young successful white people, they cooked up an idea for a national organization based around Generation X. Curiously (or maybe not so curiously) they decided that their generation’s paramount concern was that evil old federal deficit. They gave the new group the spunky name “Lead or Leave” (LoL) and promulgated this ultimatum: Politicians had either to lower the deficit or incur the wrath of righteous youth. Despite its obvious silliness, the idea was a hit, and Cowan and Nelson quickly became media darlings, their visages splashed across the cover of Newsweek. At photo-ops, they appeared in the Gen-X costumes de rigeur—baseball caps pulled backward and stylish T-shirts. They even wrote a 1994 manifesto that they called Revolution X.

It read like a pep rally, going through all the expected motions. Cowan and Nelson began by rejecting the Gen-X slacker stereotype, then segued neatly into the classic we’re-not-like-the-protesters-of-the-Sixties act: “No fire hoses, tear gas, police dogs, or riots. Let’s face it: Most of us aren’t looking for unnecessary confrontation.” With great historical acumen, Cowan and Nelson argued that the 1960s—get this—witnessed ideological partisanship. But their fine, clear-eyed generation had said goodbye to all that; Generation X, in their words, was “post-partisan” and “pragmatic”—terms that would soon become fixtures in Gen-X political coinage

Of course, when someone says they’re not ideological, they’re ideological. And once you slice through their rhetoric of noble neutralism, you find that Cowan and Nelson had a pretty clear, pretty partisan program. They weren’t just sick of boomers and their silly riots, they were sick of federal budget deficits and everything they made possible. Now, announcing that you’re sick of big deficits might seem like common sense when the government is running the largest deficits in history, but Cowan and Nelson went much further than that, taking issue with the very basis of the welfare state. They couldn’t help but frame their thinking in sobbing terms of the wallet: “Our generation pays the highest relative taxes of any age group in America. Yet we get the fewest direct benefits.” Arguing that Social Security rang up a debt that would fall mainly on their generation, Cowan and Nelson equated it with the Vietnam War. Here was the perfect Generation X rallying cry—a mixture of generational anger with a call for privatization. Cowan and Nelson didn’t just want to reverse the excesses of the Sixties; they wanted to confront the legacy of the New Deal itself, to rally their young troops against the geezers.

Lead or Leave left in 1995, folding amid bitter staff complaints, lack of membership, and mismanagement of funds. One journalist who followed LoL criticized Cowan and Nelson for “having half-baked crowd pleasing ideas and. . .seducing a credulous press corps while leaving no substantive legacy.” In fact the duo left quite a significant legacy, one whose bad ideas and self-righteous shrillness entrances policy-makers to this day. LoL provided a formula for all future Generation X political groups: attack Social Security in the name of selfless, nonpartisan youth. During the mid-Nineties, organization after organization formed under the banner of youth and with this exact purpose in mind. There was the Project for a New Generation, the Generation X Coalition, the National Association of Twentysomethings, and X-PAC. Following the example of Lead or Leave, these organizations all went belly-up. But one group, called Third Millennium (TM), did outlast the rest. Formed only a year after Lead or Leave, it had a largely indistinguishable program and self-infatuated style. TM also had a manifesto, which the group imagined as an updated Port Huron Statement. And TM founders were—you guessed it—“post-partisan” and (like all Gen-X’ers) hip to pop culture. In ringing language they declared: “Like Wile E. Coyote, waiting for a 20-ton Acme anvil to fall on his head, our generation labors in the expanding shadow of a monstrous national debt.” The group had a single idea that it chanted like a mantra: privatize Social Security. As Richard Thau, executive director of TM, put it in a speech to the ever so nonpartisan Cato Institute: Social Security might seem like “social insurance” to the elderly (read: the has-beens), but for “my generation it is just another tax.” And you know how we feel about taxes.

The big difference between Third Millennium and the more short-lived Gen-X shell games—excuse me, advocacy organizations—is that it has no qualms about taking money from its better-heeled allies in the war on Social Security. After all, just thinking about privatizing Social Security gives Wall Street CEOs hard-ons, and groups like TM are willing to help them get the goodies. So the corporations line up like dirty old men offering candy to little girls. TM has taken money from the J.M. Kaplan Fund (a foundation that has funded numerous initiatives to privatize Social Security). the Coalition for Change (whose members include the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), Merrill Lynch, and others.

TM leaders have testified before Congress to call for the privatization of Social Security and, more recently, Medicare. Sounds political, right? But no. As they explain in their own literature, TM “isn’t liberal, moderate, or conservative, but post-partisan.” Known for their assertion that more young people believe in UFOs than the solvency of Social Security (one of the most talked about factoids in the history of polling), TM has gone on to “discover” that 53 percent of young Americans believe that the TV show General Hospital will outlast Medicare. And polling, as we all know, is just as neutral and unbiased as a voting booth. TM simply lets the facts speak for themselves: If young people don’t think the programs will last, well, gut them.

This is a formula that just won’t die. It doesn’t seem to matter that neither TM nor LoL had any grass-roots following, or that their books and publications are but merdlets of cliché that no one reads. The money is there, the ambition of all those young successful white people just won’t relent, and as a result new Gen-X “leaders” continue to shoot across the national firmament at a regular pace. The latest in this tired parade is one Michele Mitchell, author of A New Kind of Party Animal: How the Young are Tearing Up the American Political Landscape. Mitchell doesn’t work for TM but she sure sounds like she does, repeating the “post-partisan” mantra and carefully honing the most important skill mastered by her Gen-X forebears: sloppy thinking.

Reading Mitchell’s book is like listening to a child describe his or her day at school—story after story is thrown at you with few connections. Of course, her preliminary assertions are borrowed from Cowan and Nelson: Generation X “didn’t buy into protesting as an effective tactic.” Liberalism, too, gets trashed as the new, “post-partisan” generation steps into its rightful place. Mitchell announces that she associates liberalism “with crumbling housing projects, holier-than-thou attitudes, and ‘wouldn’t it be great if’ theories.” She tosses out the now-antiquated idea that class and economic inequality matter in any significant way. The real social divide is generational. It’s not the wealthy who won’t pay for public schools, it’s the old folks. It’s not the politicians who reject mentoring programs for prisoners (a strange but perennial favorite of the Gen-X “leadership” community), it’s the old folks. Again, it sounds pretty partisan, doesn’t it? Ah, but in a feat of great political daring, Mitchell declares she’s not part of the Christian Right. She wants nothing to do with their effort to ban porn on the Internet.

Let the rich keep their money and enjoy themselves however they want: Once such a politics was known as “country club Republicanism,” but to hear the Gen-X leaders tell it, it is a stance of great novelty and hope for the future. What’s more, as Mitchell sees it, Generation X is, like herself, universally conservative on fiscal issues and moderate on social questions. We all want to repeal the welfare state, but, hey, hands off our Internet—which is essentially universal freedom (with a few commercial messages tossed in to liven things up) walking on earth.

Here’s the new ideology to carry us through the twenty-first century: Roll back the welfare state, let the market take care of things, form a national organization, speak for those you’ve never spoken with, believe in the Internet, don’t listen to liberals, flip off the elderly. Or as one of Mitchell’s heroes brazenly puts it, “Either get it or get out of the way. We can work around you.” Yes, Generation X has busted through and found itself. And what they’ve found looks a lot like unregulated, global capitalism. We’ve seen the future, and it’s us.