New Kids in the Bloc

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michele Mitchell knows the Generation X litany by heart.

When it comes to politics, Gen-Xers have been called slackers, cynical, apathetic, uninformed and uninvolved.

But Mitchell, author of a new book about America's young voters, disputes the stereotype of the generation of Americans born in the wake of the baby boomers.

In "A New Kind of Party Animal: How the Young are Tearing Up the American Political Landscape" (Simon & Schuster, $23), the former Capitol Hill press secretary and political reporter shakes up preconceptions about Generation X--a term the 28-year-old Mitchell, like many of her peers, detests.

Mitchell, who grew up in Yorba Linda and now lives in New York City, paints a broad-brush portrait of an independent-minded, socially inclusive, gender-bias free, media-hype savvy and "spin"-proof generation.

Mitchell avoided coining her own term for her generation because, she said in an interview, "We all hated 'Generation X' so much, it would be just as bad for me to come up with a cute term."

Defining members of this generation as those born between 1961 and 1981, Mitchell predicts they'll become the most powerful potential voting bloc in the year 2000 when all 80 million of them will be eligible to vote. Contrary to the stereotype, they do vote--about as much as any age group in this era of low voter participation, she said.

In 1992, 42% voted in the national elections, the second-highest number of young voters since 1972, according to Mitchell. Even in the 1996 elections, which saw record-low voter turnouts nationwide, the young generation--which wasn't courted by either political party--had a 21% voter turnout, she said. That was only 2% less than heavily targeted senior citizens.

Armed with a slew of surveys and poll numbers to support her generational profile, Mitchell provides portraits of young people who are having an impact--not on the national scene, at least not yet, but at the local level.

Young people such as Jerry Morrison, a 30-year-old political upstart who registered thousands of young Chicago voters and challenged the entrenched Democratic Party's handpicked candidate for committeeman in a city ward. Or Kim Alexander, a 30-year-old Sacramento woman who created the first Internet voter guide to include information on campaign contributions and expenditures. Or two North Carolina men, Quillie Coath Jr. and Charles McKinney, both under 30, who head a community service program for troubled youths.

More Young Voters on the Move

But is the younger generation, as the subtitle of Mitchell's book suggests, really "tearing up the American political landscape"?

Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, for one, takes exception to what he calls "both an exaggeration and a sweeping generalization."

"Now as always, the country's political landscape is changing, but as yet there has been no upheaval comparable to what Mitchell's language implies," he wrote. "Because the number of young people actively involved in politics is relatively small, she should be more reluctant to make large claims for their influence."

Mitchell, however, said increasing numbers of young people are becoming politically active.

"There are thousands of them," she said during a recent interview at her parents' home in Yorba Linda, where she was staying during a promotional swing to Los Angeles that included an appearance on Tom Snyder's "Late Late Show."

"In Oregon, actually, they have a whole group of young candidates running for local office and, I think, they even have a Gen-X PAC up and running, so it's happening all over the place."

Mitchell said she knew when she started working on her book that the generational stereotype wasn't true.

As press secretary for Rep. Pete Geren (D-Texas) from 1993 to 1996--a job she landed at 22 when she was fresh out of Northwestern University and armed with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism--Mitchell read media reports and heard the assumptions of the political pundits and consultants who claimed the younger generation was breaking down along the usual Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative lines.

But what she discovered while reading think-tank reports on party affiliation was that many members of the young generation were shunning the two major parties and instead were registering as independents or with third parties.

Although she was surprised by several generational discoveries she made while researching her book, Mitchell said she was most surprised to learn that virtually every previous young generation has gotten a bum rap from its elders.

Today's senior citizens, she said, were decried as apathetic and slackers when they were young.

"It was the exact same words," Mitchell said with a laugh. "My favorite line [from Harper's magazine] being 'a lost generation that is even now rotting before our eyes.' And these were the people who went on to win World War II."

A Demographic of Shared Experiences

In defining Generation X as those people born between 1961 and 1981, Mitchell is including the tail end of what is usually considered the baby boom generation, the 70 million Americans who were born between 1946 and 1964.

But, she said, most pollsters and demographers now accept the contention of William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of the book "Generations," that the baby boom generation began with the "victory babies" in 1943--three years before the demographic boom--and ended in 1961, three years before the drop of the birthrate in 1964.

Shared cultural experiences, rather than birth rate, more accurately define a generation, Mitchell maintains.

"When I asked people about this, they said, 'Look, people born in the '60s don't have the same experiences as the boomers you would think of,' " she said. "I'm sure the older my age group gets, we're going to find the kids way behind us don't break down exactly the same way we do."

In her book, Mitchell identifies six distinguishing characteristics of the young generation:

* A lack of party affiliation. Nationally, according to a studies cited by Mitchell, more than 60% of the group doesn't identify with either major political party.

Having grown up with political scandals and witnessed broken political promises from both major parties, Mitchell said, members of this generation generally vote on specific issues rather than party loyalty or a politician's personal character.

* A diverse interest in a range of issues, rather than rallying around a single issue such as taxes (a favorite of baby boomers). This diversity, Mitchell maintains, makes this voting group difficult to pin down--and even more difficult to influence politically.

* A community-based approach to problem solving. Unlike members of the boomer generation who joined the Peace Corps or dreamed of saving the world, Mitchell says members of her generation "are much more focused on our community and into sort of 'I can solve a problem on that block' and once you do that, the next one. I call it block-by-block activism, but it's very globally based."

In her book, Mitchell cites a 1997 UCLA survey of college freshmen, 72% of whom said they had performed volunteer work in the last year, the highest the study has recorded in more than 30 years.

Members of her generation also "are very interested in our local politics," said Mitchell. "That's where we're running and we're winning--and that's where we're voting. We're very active on those levels, but not everywhere, of course."

* A lack of gender bias in politics. A recent poll, according to Mitchell, shows that more than 80% of young people believe more women should run for office.

"We're sort of the great victory of the feminist movement," said Mitchell, adding that members of her generation, who grew up with working mothers and now may be working for female bosses, take for granted that a woman one day will be president.

* Marketing and advertising skepticism. "We grew up saturated with advertising," she said. "The younger half of our generation has never walked across the room just to flip the TV channel, and we grew up with billboards and magazines and newspapers, and radio and TV and cable and now the Internet. So it's harder to get our attention, and we're less likely to be swayed by something very stylish."

* Computer savvy. The young generation uses the Internet as an information source and views it as a tool for political strategy.

Despite the book's subtitle that the young are "tearing up the American political landscape," Mitchell emphasizes that she wrote the book as a "projection."

"You already are seeing huge changes in terms of [a lack of] party affiliation, and I think the spin thing is going to be more and more evident. Campaign strategies are going to have to change," she said.

But, she concedes, "some of these other things you're not going to see for another five or 10 years, and I didn't pretend to say that it's going to happen now. Jonathan Yardley, in his review, said, 'You should be a little bit more careful before you make these wide spanning claims,' and that's fine."

With a laugh, she added, "If they want to beat up on me now, we'll talk [again] in five years."

Mitchell said she worried about how her book would be received "because I am young; I am female. That's a deadly combination in politics." She's found, however, that "people are taking it extremely seriously."

Indeed. "A New Kind of Party Animal" has created something of a Beltway buzz.

Mitchell has made the rounds of "Inside Politics," "Washington Journal" and other television political shows. And, she said, "I've gotten phone calls from both political parties to come and speak with them about how to get young people to turn out [in 2000]."

One of Mitchell's suggestions: "Don't try gimmicks." She said Democrats With Attitude, a youth-oriented group designed to get young people involved with the Democratic Party, has recommended passing out beach balls and Blues Brothers sunglasses at campaign rallies.

"Their whole thing is politics needs to be made fun for [young people]," she said. "Forget that. You're going to have to talk seriously and directly to them."

She recommends candidates seeking young voters put a more modern spin on campaigning by following up the traditional efforts with live online discussions that "give young people an opportunity to ask them more questions and get very specific."

Unexpected Affinity for Politics

Despite her outspokenness, Mitchell does not view herself as a spokeswoman for her generation.

"Let's face it," she said with a laugh. "This is a racially and economically diverse generation, and I'm a white girl from Orange County."

Mitchell gave little thought to politics while growing up, although she said she had "a blast" in an advanced placement government class at Esperanza High School.

While at Northwestern University, she worked part-time covering local sports for the Chicago Tribune, and dreamed of one day working for Sports Illustrated while writing "the great American novel" on the side.

Her political awakening didn't come until the summer of 1992 when, as part the master's degree program in journalism, she worked as the Washington correspondent for the Biloxi, Miss., Sun-Herald.

"It was a very exciting time to be in D.C.," she recalled. "That's where I first got interested in sticking around because it's fun to debate politics. But it's really fun to debate it when you know when you're talking about."

Mitchell, who served as a political commentator for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" during the 1996 election and worked a three-month stint writing editorials at the New York Times in 1997, has sent Simon & Schuster a proposal for a book about the American family.

"I'm very interested in what's happening socially, politically and culturally with the future of this country," she said.

Mitchell has high hopes for her generation.

"We've been rapped on so hard for being cynical, but actually, as a boomer journalist points out to me, 'I think your generation has gone from being cynical to being idealistic, whereas my generation went from being idealistic to cynical.' And I think that's exactly what's happening because look around at my peers.

"I look at the numbers, and over 50% of us feel very optimistic about our future and about our kids' future. We know that we can make some contributions. . . . We do see pitfalls ahead, and I think also we're very cognizant of the fact that we do have a finite amount of time to make those changes before you lose your initiative, so to speak. Either you do it or you don't; put up or shut up."

Mitchell is looking forward to having a ringside seat over the next decade. "As someone was saying to me, 'Changes are going to happen,' " she said. "They are already happening, and we'll just see the way it shakes down."

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