Politicians Still Trying to Woo the Generation of Baby-Boomers

William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

For those interested in cultural milestones, here is one to contemplate: The products of the postwar baby boom begin to turn 40 this year.

The baby boom is one of the great demographic achievements of U.S. history. After making it through the Great Depression and World War II, Americans decided to try something different. They bought automobiles, built houses, moved to the suburbs and raised a bumper crop of children, all with the help of government subsidies (highway construction, VHA and FHA loans, tax exemptions). Between 1946 and 1964, the birthrate soared. More than 70 million Americans were born--the most affluent, best educated and most self-conscious (and self-absorbed) generation in American history. In 1988, baby-boomers will represent almost half the electorate.

Now that the entire generation has reached political maturity, political strategists are asking, "So what?" For years, politicians, advertisers and media programmers have known that winning the baby boom meant controlling the market. Marketing specialists have had some success, but no one in politics seems to know how to reach the Pepsi generation. Many have tried, with limited success: George McGovern, Edmund G. Brown Jr., John Anderson, Gary Hart, even Ronald Reagan. One of the most striking facts about the 1984 presidential election is how undistinctive younger voters were; they voted 59%-41% for Reagan over Walter F. Mondale--the same way everyone else voted.

Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have a particular advantage among baby-boomers. When asked their party preference, baby-boomers tend to be more independent than other voters. Nor does their ideology tip consistently left or right. On economic issues, baby-boomers tend to be free-enterprise-minded and suspicious of the big government, big labor commitments of the traditional Democratic Party. On social issues, however, they are strongly libertarian. Baby-boomers grew up with the civil-rights and women's-rights movements and are deeply antagonistic to the Moral Majority strain of thinking in the GOP.

Is there anything characteristic of the baby-boom generation--something a political figure can grab and ride to victory in 1988? There is, and it has less to do with ideology than with political style. It stems from the baby-boomers' particular generational experience. The simplest way to characterize that style is anti-Establishment. Baby-boomers reached maturity in an era when nothing worked the way it was supposed to--not government, not business, not labor, not the military, not religion, not even education. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a dividing point. Baby-boomers experienced a sharp dislocation between the naive idealism of the early 1960s and the dismaying failures of the late 1960s and 1970s. They became distrustful of ideologies as well as institutions. First their music and later their politics gave them a sense of generational distinctiveness, of seeing the world as "us" and "them."

The early baby-boomers grew up during the 1950s, the era of affluence and conformity. It was rock music that first gave them a sense of generational identity--music "we" appreciated and "they" didn't. From Elvis to Madonna, the whole point of rock music has been to shock the Establishment and make fun of bourgeois values. Music gave young people a feeling of identity, a sense of being a distinctive subculture. Interestingly, rock music also caught hold in another anti-bourgeois subculture--working-class England. (The French, on the other hand, have no talent for rock music. That is because they are the most completely bourgeois culture on earth.)

Is there an anti-bourgeois subculture in the United States? Of course there is--blacks. Rock music started out as black music (rhythm and blues), and the appreciation of black music went hand-in-hand with the earliest political experience of the baby-boom generation--namely, civil rights. From the civil-rights movement, baby-boomers learned about protest and idealism. Civil rights was one of the great moral revolutions in world history, and it raised the aspirations of an entire generation of Americans. They could make a difference. They decided the system could be changed.

The culmination of this early idealism was the Kennedy Administration. Kennedy was a different kind of President. He supported a civil-rights bill. He started the Peace Corps. He got a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets. His assassination in 1963 marked the end of this period of youthful idealism. It was the beginning of two decades of frustration and failure. First came the '60s, a sequence of events that seemed to expose the underlying corruption of U.S. institutions: the Vietnam War, racial violence, feminism, environmentalism, consumerism, campus protest and, by the '70s, the final paroxysm, Watergate. In the '70s, the news became just as bad, only now most of it concerned the economy: the energy crisis, recession, hyper-inflation and surging interest rates.

The experience of having their aspirations raised and then dashed created a legacy of cynicism and distrust toward government. The civil-rights revolution was a triumph of government; it demonstrated that the power of the federal government could be used to promote social justice. But the failures of the '60s and '70s were failures of government. Not only did the federal government fail to manage problems like Vietnam, Watergate, inflation and the energy crisis--it created them.

When baby-boomers think about government, those are the experiences that come to mind. Their experience was far different from that of their parents, for whom government meant the New Deal, World War II and the prosperity of the 1950s. To Depression-era Americans, government is the solution. To the baby-boom generation, it is the problem.

Another great shock to baby-boomers was the economy. Many had grown up in suburban affluence, where material prosperity and upward mobility were assumed. As a result of the 1970s economic downturn, baby-boomers found that even in two-income households, they had to struggle to maintain their parents' standard of living. Moreover, the baby-boomers are the best educated generation in American history; almost half of them went to college. The effect of education is to promote upper-middle-class values, specifically, the value of self-fulfillment.

The "new rule" of self-fulfillment replaced the old rule of self-denial. There was only one catch. The search for self-fulfillment can be costly. It requires taking risks with your life, and people who do so ought to have something to fall back on. Mass higher education promoted the spread of upper-middle-class values to a broad segment of the population, including many who could not afford them. The result was a widening gap between aspirations and resources. Here the stereotype of the young urban professional, or yuppie, that caught on during the 1984 campaign, is revealing. Obviously, most baby-boomers are not yuppies. They don't have enough money. But it is probably correct to say that most baby-boomers aspire to be yuppies--to follow the rule of self-fulfillment to its logical conclusion and do what they want with their lives, to "have it all."

To baby-boomers, then, the great depression happened in the 1970s, not in the 1930s. That is one reason why they responded with some enthusiasm to Reagan. Reagan was the first President in 20 years to succeed in his job. He turned the economy around. This was particularly important for the youngest baby-boomers, those who started their careers in the 1970s and faced highly uncertain economic prospects. Still, an essential condition for Reagan's success with the baby boom is that he did not do anything to threaten their social or foreign-policy values. If an anti-abortion amendment had been passed, or if the United States had sent troops to fight in Central America, it is unlikely that Reagan would have gained anything like the support he won from baby-boomers in 1984.

The fact is that baby-boomers' distrust of government is not quite the same as the Republican Party's ideological conservatism. The spark of idealism and the passion for social justice are still there; they show up in all the polls. But the bitter experiences of the '60s and '70s have created widespread suspicion of the old Democratic solutions. Hence the antipathy toward Mondale in 1984; he was another Hubert H. Humphrey, the embodiment of the old politics. What baby-boomers look for in a politician is idealism, pragmatism and independence, someone unbeholden to the ideologies and interests of the past. In other words, another Kennedy.

Hart self-consciously modeled himself after Kennedy in 1984. He offered "new ideas" and sought to be the candidate of a new generation. He couldn't quite bring it off, however, because he failed to connect personally. He didn't like to talk about himself and therefore came across as inauthentic. What baby-boomers are looking for is a candidate with roots in their special generational experience, someone who can say, "I am one of you, I experienced the same frustrations and failures you did, I share your longing for a return to the passion and idealism we once knew."

If the Democrats can find a candidate who connects with the baby-boom generation, they may have a chance to win in 1988, especially if the Republicans nominate Vice President George Bush. Remember what happened in 1960. The Republicans had governed for eight years under a beloved father figure. They nominated their incumbent vice president, a man with far less personal appeal. The Democrats took a chance on a young and largely unknown candidate who presented himself as the leader of a new generation. His campaign theme was, "Let's get the country moving again." In a close election, the voters opted for change, but not too much change.

In 1988, the Democrats have to find a candidate not tied to the past, someone who offers change but not too much, who will not go back to the bad old days of Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter. His campaign slogan should be, "We can do better." The candidate is not visible yet, but the constituency is.

How will we know when the baby boom has finally elected its own President? Simple: Tina Turner will be invited to perform at the White House.

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