Thursday, June 25, 2009

Young Iranians: Takes more than Tweets to Make a Revolution

Seventy percent of Iranians are under 30.

These young people have twice the presence in the population of that country as America's largest generation, Millennials (born 1982-2003), has in ours.

In the immediate aftermath of Iran's disputed presidential election, text messages became the tool for organizing post-election protests. Hundreds of thousands of tweets provided more, if not clearer, information about what was happening each day than traditional media. Opposition and government Facebook pages poured out dueling messages on the Internet. It suddenly seemed as if not only had American democratic values erupted on the barren landscape of a theocratic society, but also that young people's technological capabilities might produce a regime change that no one anticipated. Clay Shirky announced, "This is it. This is the big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media." And the notion that this was a "Twitter Revolution" quickly became the meme for the entire series of post-election events.

But then the entrenched establishment fought back using the very same Internet-enabled technologies to isolate, spy on, and ultimately shut down the resistance. Thanks to new capabilities recently acquired from two European telecom companies-Nokia and Siemens-as part of their country's upgrade of its mobile networks, the Iranian government was able to monitor the flow of online data in and out of sites like Twitter and Facebook, from one central location. The Iranians deployed a technology called deep packet inspection, first created to put a firewall around President Clinton's emails in 1993, to deconstruct digitized packets of information flowing through the government's telecom monopoly that might contain what they considered to be seditious information before reconstructing and sending it on to destinations they were also able to track and monitor. The result was a 90% degradation in the speed of Internet communications in Iran at the height of the unrest, and a previously unseen capability to determine who the government's enemies were down to the individual IP address level.

Once again the world learned that technology does not arrive with a built-in set of values that makes it work either for good or evil. Even though Internet technology has many virtues, it is not inherently liberating or enslaving. Instead how it is used is determined by the values of those who access it. Libertarians celebrate the individual empowerment that the Internet makes possible. But even though Ron Paul supporters used the technology to take on the Republican establishment in 2008, the end result that year was the election of a group-oriented, civic-minded candidate, Barack Obama, whose campaign used the very same technology to guide millions of people to undertake a collective agenda of change that Libertarians certainly did not "believe in."

The difference between what libertarians wanted and what Obama achieved came from the generational attitudes and beliefs of Millennials, Obama's key supporters, not from the technology that generation was so adept at using.

One of the founders of generational theory, Neil Howe, points out that the under-30 population of Iran grew up during a religious awakening in the Islamic world that came later than America's "cultural revolution" of the 1960s. As a result, Iranian youth resembles Generation X, Americans now in their 30s and 40s. Like our own Gen X, these young Iranians are "pragmatic, individualistic, commercial, and anti-ideological (which is why they hate Ahmadinejad so much)."

Those values make them anti-establishment in the current crisis. We are fortunate that they feel deeply enough about the potential of democracy to risk their lives to "tear down that power structure," to paraphrase what President Ronald Reagan, Generation X's political hero, said in a different context. But now the central task of our government must be to translate that democratic impulse into a deeper belief in Millennial Generation values, such as the power of consensus, the peaceful resolution of differences and the need to find win-win solutions to our problems.

That is why the President Barack Obama's recent Cairo speech should be the bedrock on which America continues to engage large young Muslim populations throughout the world, including Iran:

"No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

This statement has the potential to become a governing creed for a new generation of young Muslims. If they come to have, as President Obama does, "an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose," then the power of 21st century technologies will be used to advance the cause of freedom in Iran, rather than suppressing it. But tweeting those words won't make it happen. Believing in them and acting upon them will.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Millennials Meet the Great Recession

It’s a daunting time to be entering the workplace. Today’s young adults—like their great-grandparents eight decades earlier—are graduating from high school and college and starting careers at a time when the American economy is shedding jobs at a record pace.
This newest adult generation, dubbed The Millennials, is known for its optimism and sense of personal confidence. But will those traits survive the new economic realities? Recent survey results suggest the answer is a resounding “yes.” Millennials are demonstrating remarkable resilience in the face of an economic crisis, even though the downturn has affected them disproportionately.
Through the first quarter of 2009, employment for 16-24 years old dropped by 5%, the largest decline for any age cohort surveyed by Merrill Lynch. This produced the lowest employment rates for young people in nearly forty years. And the situation isn’t likely to get better soon. A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that employers plan to hire 22% fewer graduates this spring than last, and that, so far, less than twenty-percent of 2009 graduates who applied for a job have one.
But Millennials have adopted a number of coping strategies to help them weather the economic maelstrom. An AP-mtvU poll found that nearly one-in-five undergraduates have decided to prolong their education hoping the storm will pass. Others have enthusiastically turned to the government and non-profit sectors to fulfill their generation's desire to serve. Teach for America, which places new graduates in low-income schools, saw a 42% increase in applications over 2008. And the recent enactment of the Kennedy Serve America Act will allow many more Millennials to serve at home or abroad while also providing Pell Grant level support for their future education.
One thing Millennials are not doing is losing confidence in themselves or their government. A recent Pew survey found that 56% of Millennials were fairly satisfied with the way things were going for them financially, a significantly greater degree of optimism than aging Boomers expressed in the same survey (46%). Two-thirds of Millennials told Pew survey researchers that they approved of the way President Obama was handling the economy, with only 5% saying his economic policies have made things worse. And while 32% of undergraduates at four-year colleges told Edison Media Researchers that financial worries have increased the stress they're under, 75% of Millennials expressed confidence that Obama is doing the right things to fix the economy.
This type of relentless optimism, and faith in collective action, in the face of hardship is typical of civic generations such as the Millennials. And judging by history, their attitudes will serve them well. Their great-grandparents, the GI Generation, learned to make do with less as they entered adulthood in the 1930s and then went on to defeat fascism in World War II and build the strongest economy the world has known. As young Millennials absorb the lessons of America’s greatest economic downturn since the 1930s, their determination to succeed, like that of the GI Generation before them, will be the source of the economic rejuvenation that in all likelihood will accompany their full entry into America's economic life.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Obama's doing better than Washington thinks

In Washington perception is often reality and, based on the reported results of two new surveys, one by the New York Times and CBS and the other by the Wall Street Journal and NBC, the perception du jour in DC is that President Barack Obama has lost ground because of public concern with government spending, the deficit, and, perhaps most of all, the General Motors "bailout." The New York Times story on its survey is even headlined, "In poll, Obama is seen as ineffective on the economy.

But a look beneath the headlines to the survey data itself indicates that New York Times writers, or at least their headline writer, may have misread their own poll results. Instead of condemning of the president's handling of the economy, in the New York Times/CBS survey, the public actually approves of it by a greater than twenty-percentage point margin (57% vs. 35%), statistically unchanged since the first weeks of the administration. In the aftermath of the president's recent trip to the Middle East and Europe, his marks in foreign policy have actually risen since May. And, even in health care reform, a work in progress and a relative soft spot for Obama, voters approve of his performance by 44-percent to 34-percent.

As a result, Obama's overall job approval rating is unchanged over the past month, down slightly since April, and even up marginally since February and March. To the extent that the president's performance rating has fallen, the drop has been almost totally concentrated among Republicans.

What may contribute to the expectation that Obama is standing on shaky ground, or soon will be, is another incorrect inside-the-beltway perception, this one primarily advanced by Republican commentators since the president's election, that America is "conservative," "center right" or at least "centrist." More often than not these pronouncements stem from narrowly focused interpretations of surveys suggesting that the number of "independents" in the electorate is growing and that self-perceived independents represent some amorphous, undifferentiated group of "centrists" who are decisive in U.S. politics.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The large majority (about 80%) of those who tell pollsters they are independents actually "lean" to one or the other of the two parties. Those who lean to the Democrats differ demographically and, even more importantly, behaviorally and attitudinally from those who lean to the GOP. As a result, the electorate is far more partisan than superficial analyses of survey results might suggest. Currently, the Democrats hold a substantial and growing edge over the Republicans among independents who lean toward a party. About six in ten "leaners" now tilt to the Democrats. Coupled with their large lead among those who do identify with a party, the Democrats are clearly operating as the country's decisive majority party.

John P. Avlon, who served on the policy and speech writing teams of Rudy Giuliani's abbreviated 2008 presidential campaign, is only the most recent of those professing the importance of centrist independents. Citing Pew Research Center data, Avlon claimed in an early June Wall Street Journal article that the number of self-identified independents in the electorate has risen sharply since Obama's win last November while the percentage of both Democrats and Republicans has fallen. Because of these post-election shifts, according to Avlon, "independents hold the balance of power in the Obama era."

On the surface, Avlon's description of the Pew data may be accurate. But his characterization of party identification data is shallow and incomplete. Avlon, like most of those who write about the distribution of party identifiers within the US electorate, refers to only three discrete and presumably undifferentiated categories of voters--Republicans, Democrats, and independents.

However, voting behavior analysts affiliated with the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, who first formulated the concept of party identification in the 1950s, recognized early on that those who identify with a particular political party do so with varying degrees of strength, while those who say they are independents may lean toward one or the other of the parties. As a result, the Michigan researchers developed a seven-point scale to more fully capture the actual complexity of party identification. This scale consists of Strong Democrats on one extreme and Strong Republicans on the other. In between the two extremes are Weak Democrats, Independents who lean to the Democrats, Independents who lean to the Republicans and Weak Republicans. In the very center of the scale are Independents who do not lean to either party.

All of this might only be of academic interest were it not for the crucial importance of party identification. Party identification represents a psychological attachment of voters to a political party. While it certainly is not a contractual obligation to support a party, the large majority of Americans vote for the party with which they identify or to which they lean--and they almost always adhere to its positions on issues as well . Political scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that party identification is the single most important factor shaping the choices of individual voters. In the aggregate, these numbers really do matter. The distribution of party identifiers and leaners is the clearest indicator of the relative strength of the two parties within the U.S. electorate and has now tilted heavily toward the Democrats.

Utilizing the more complete and useful seven-point scale rather than a three-point division paints a far different picture of American voters than the one that Avlon and most of those who report on trends in party identification paint. Based on April 2009 data that is the most recent cited by Pew, here is the overall distribution of party identifiers in the U.S.:

Strong Democrats


Weak Democrats


Democratic Leaning Independents


Non-Leaning Independents


Republican Leaning Independents


Weak Republicans


Strong Republicans


* Table does not total 100% due to rounding

This table makes several points very clear. First, the Democrats are clearly the majority party holding a decisive twenty-percentage point party ID lead over the Republicans (54% to 34%). Second, barely one in ten voters is a non-leaning independent; rather than being the decisive center, non-committed voters actually comprise a small minority of the electorate.

The following table, also using Pew tracking data, displays the distribution of party identification for all election years from 1990 through 2006 and for every year since then.


Republican/Lean Republican


Democrat/Lean Democrat

Overall Democratic Advantage





























































These results lead to a number of clear and important conclusions about the distribution of party identification across the American electorate during the past two decades.

* The Democrats have generally held the edge throughout the entire period. But, that advantage was relatively small during the 1990s and the first three election years of this century. The Democratic margin widened a bit in the two years when Bill Clinton won the presidency (1992 and 1996) and 1998, when some voters may have turned against the GOP in reaction to a politically motivated impeachment effort. By contrast, the Republicans reached parity with the Democrats in 1994, the year of the Gingrich revolution that saw the GOP gain control of Congress, and 2002, when the nation rallied to a Republican president in the aftermath of 9/11.

* The Democratic advantage has sharply and consistently widened since the 2006 midterm elections when that party regained control of Congress. A number of factors--the disastrous George W. Bush presidency, an increasingly diverse electorate, the emergence of the Millennial Generation (young Americans born 1982-2003), the election and continued appeal of Barack Obama--have all undoubtedly contributed to the Democrats' increased party identification lead. Regardless of the relative importance of these and other factors, a greater percentage of American voters now identifies as Democrats or leans Democratic than at any time since Lyndon Johnson's landslide 1964 victory over Barry Goldwater. The Democratic margin over the GOP is larger than at any time since the post-Watergate period of the mid-1970s.

* The number of completely non-affiliated voters has slightly, but consistently, declined each year since 2006. Rather than becoming more crucial, as writers such as Avlon suggest, unattached independents have actually become less important during past several years.

All of this leaves President Obama and congressional Democrats in strong position as they prepare for the major battles ahead on health care reform and energy--if they have the courage to avoid giving in to incorrect Washington perceptions and, instead, take advantage of the rare opportunity that the American electorate has given them.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Republicans Gringo Strategy

In a recent posting on his Web site, Nate Silver raised the possibility that the Republican Party could more effectively compete in the 2012 and 2016 elections by turning its back on Hispanics and attempting to maximize the support of white voters in enough 2008 Midwestern and Southern blue states to flip them red. This would involve positioning the GOP as the non-Latino party by "pursuing an anti-immigrant, anti-NAFTA, 'American First' sort of platform.'" The Republican Party rode similar exclusionary strategies to dominance of U.S. politics during most of the past four decades.

But America has entered a new era. Propelled by the election of its first African-American president, an increasingly non-white and more heavily Latino population, and the emergence of a new, significantly more tolerant generation, the Millennials, America is not the same country, demographically and attitudinally, that it was in the 1960s or even the 1990s. These changes have altered the electoral environment and lessened the usefulness of divisive strategies that were once effective, but may no longer be so.

Superficially, a non-Latino strategy might seem more plausible than anything else the GOP has attempted since the election of Barack Obama. After offering significant support to George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, Hispanics have recently become a solidly Democratic group. Republicans may have little to lose in not courting them in the next election or two. Nationally, Hispanics voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by more than 2:1 (67% vs. 31%). They supported Democratic House candidates last year by an even greater margin (68% vs. 29%). Pew surveys indicate that four times as many Hispanics identify as Democrats than Republicans (62% vs. 15%).

Adopting a non-Hispanic strategy would certainly be compatible with strategies the GOP has been utilizing for decades. From the "Southern strategy" of Richard Nixon and Kevin Phillips in the late 1960s, through the "wedge issues" used by Lee Atwater in the 1980s, to Karl Rove's "base politics" in this decade, the Republicans effectively took advantage of white middle and working class fears of the "other" -- African-Americans, gays, feminists -- who could be positioned as being outside the American mainstream. Applying this approach to Latinos would only be doing what came naturally for the GOP during the past 40 years.

But, while ethnically exclusionary strategies may offer the possibility of short-term relief, they do little to resolve the deep difficulties now facing the Republican Party. The ethnic composition of the United States is far different now than it was in the 1960s when the GOP began to separate white southerners (and like-minded white working class voters in other regions) from their long attachment to the Democratic Party. Four decades ago, 90 percent of Americans were white, and virtually all of the remainder were African-American. Hispanics were a negligible factor within the population and the electorate. Since then, the percentage of non-Hispanic whites in America has fallen to two-thirds. Hispanics now comprise about 15 percent of the population and just under 10 percent of the electorate. Moreover, Hispanics are a relatively young demographic. Even if no additional Latinos migrate to the United States, their importance will continue to increase as older whites pass from the scene.

It is this rise in the Hispanic population that prompted Silver to offer his suggested non-Latino strategy to the Republicans in the first place. But Silver's plan, which he facetiously calls "Operation Gringo," would require the GOP to pull off a rare political balancing act or "thread the needle" to use his term. In order to compensate for expected losses in the increasingly Latino Southwestern states of Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and, without John McCain on their ticket, Arizona, Republicans would have to win states like Pennsylvania and Michigan that they have not carried in decades. They would have to do this while not, at the same time, losing Florida and possibly Texas with their own large Hispanic electorates.

Moreover, while it is true that Hispanics are not distributed evenly across the country, Silver concedes "there are Hispanics everywhere now." Latinos were decisive in Obama's wins in closely divided "gringo territories" such as Indiana, North Carolina, and Nebraska's second congressional district and the growth rate of Hispanics is greatest in "nontraditional" areas like the South and Prairie states. This means that "America first" campaigning may ultimately have the effect of hurting Republicans even in some of the "white" states where it was intended to help.

However, the biggest barrier in running against Hispanics is that American attitudes on ethnicity have changed significantly over the past four decades. A new Pew survey indicates that Americans have become less hostile toward immigrants and more positive about policies designed to incorporate immigrants, even undocumented immigrants, into American society.

The number favoring a policy that would allow illegal immigrants (Pew's term) currently in the country to gain citizenship if they pass background checks, pay fines and have jobs has increased from 58 percent to 63 percent since 2007. While 73 percent do agree that America should restrict and control people coming to live in here more than we do now, that number is down from 80 percent in 2002 and 82 percent in 1994. Finally, support for free trade agreements like NAFTA has risen from 34 percent in 2003 and 40 percent in 2007 to 44 percent now.

The Pew findings are confirmed by the findings of a survey recently released by Pete Brodnitz of the Benenson Strategy Group. That study indicated that, across party lines, virtually all Americans (86%) favor the passage by Congress of comprehensive immigration reform when they are given full details of that plan.

Leading the way in these increasingly tolerant attitudes is the Millennial Generation (Americans born 1982-2003). Only a third of Millennials (35% vs. 55% for older generations) believe that the growing number of immigrants threatens traditional American values. Just 58 percent of Millennials (compared with 77% of older generations) agrees that the United States should increase restrictions on those coming to live in America. A large majority of Millennials (71% in contrast to 62% of older Americans) favors a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And, 61-percent of Millennials favor free trade agreements such as NAFTA in contrast to just 40 percent of older generations.

To date America has only seen the tip of the Millennial iceberg. In 2008, just 41 percent of them were eligible to vote and they comprised only 17 percent of the electorate. By 2012, more than 60 percent of Millennials will be of voting age and they will be a quarter of the electorate. In 2020, when the youngest Millennials will be able to vote, they will make up more than a third of the electorate. Over the next decade, this will make the ethnically tolerant attitudes of the Millennial Generation the rule rather than the exception in American politics.

At this early point in the Millennial era, Republicans remain most open to the intolerance and immigrant bashing of ethnically exclusionary strategies. Pew indicates the number of Democrats and independents who favor a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is up 11 points and 3 points respectively since 2007. By contrast, the number of Republicans who favor that policy is down by six points. In the end, a non-Hispanic approach by Republicans would amount to a continuation of Karl Rove's base strategy. As the Republican base continues to diminish in the Millennial Era, that strategy will be a recipe for disaster for the GOP, certainly in the long term, and very likely in the short run as well.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio? Millennials know the answer

Baseball's reputation hasn't been under such a cloud since the "Black Sox" scandal of 1919. Just as Sen. George Mitchell's report identified 104 steroid users among today's big leaguers, nine decades ago a number of players, including some of the game's biggest stars, were widely reputed to be substance abusers.

Back then, as now, team owners put so much emphasis on short-term gains that they threatened to undercut the game's viability. Players, absorbing this "every man for himself" attitude, even conspired to fix a World Series.

While we haven't quite reached that level of venality today, one of the greatest hitters of our era has been accused of helping opponents at the cost of his own team in return for their assistance in boosting his personal stats. To some observers the game currently has reached such a crisis point that baseball historian Bill James's portrayal of the players of the 1910s as "shysters, con men, drunks, and outright thieves," could also apply to many of this era's all stars.

But just as a new generation of baseball heroes emerged in the 1930s and '40s to save the game's reputation, baseball is already witnessing the emergence of a new generation of Millennial ballplayers who will lead the sport to its next golden era.

Most of the major leaguers of the 1910s and early '20s and again in the '90s and first decade of the 21st century came from a generational archetype labeled "reactive" by theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe. In the first instance it was the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900) and in the second, Generation X (born 1965-1981). In both cases, these generations were raised by relatively self-absorbed parents who left their children to fend for themselves, producing alienated, individualistic, risk-taking adults

Lost Generation players included some of the greatest names – and flawed personalities – in the history of baseball. Babe Ruth's appetites were almost as prodigious as his ability to swat home runs. Ty Cobb was one of the most combative players of his time, and also the most disliked. Rogers Hornsby was the best right-handed hitter of his era, but also a compulsive gambler and member of the Ku Klux Klan. And Shoeless Joe Jackson who, along with seven of his White Sox teammates conspired to throw the 1919 World Series, earned infamy as the object of the plaintive plea that captured fans' disappointment with the behavior of this Lost Generation star: "Say it ain't so, Joe."

Today, virtually all of those who are accused of steroid usage, including Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, and Alex Rodriquez were born within or right on the cusp of the birth years of Generation X.

While there are notable exceptions, like the nondrinking, noncursing Lost Generation pitching great, Walter Johnson, and the clean-cut Gen-Xer, Derek Jeter, it is the ill-performing members of reactive generations who have most distinctly colored the big league baseball of their eras.

But, in baseball, as in every aspect of life, one generation passes from the scene and another arrives to take its place. Reactive generations are followed by another archetype – civic generations – that are almost their polar opposite. Civic generations are raised in a revered and protected manner by their parents, which produces positive, self-confident, high achieving, team-oriented adults.

Starting in the mid-1920s, the youngest members of a rising civic generation, the GI Generation (born 1901-1924), came into baseball. James describes the ball players of the 1930s and '40s as hard-working, team players who were completely schooled in the intricacies of their craft.

Among the earliest GI Generation arrivals was the beloved Yankee first baseman, Lou Gehrig who had a quiet personal style that completely differed from that of his flamboyant Lost Generation teammate, Babe Ruth. Gehrig was followed by other iconic members of his generation including Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio.

Today the members of a new civic generation, Millennials (born 1982-2003), are just starting to populate big league rosters. Already talented, positive, team-oriented Millennials like Dustin Pedroia, Evan Longoria, Zack Greinke, Hanley Ramirez, Chad Billingsley, and David Wright are among baseball's biggest and most promising stars.

At this early point, we haven't seen the full impact on baseball of this generation, the youngest member of which is only 6 years old. But an anecdote about one of them suggests where baseball is headed:

While at Arizona State University, Pedroia voluntarily forfeited his scholarship to permit the recruitment of additional pitchers, thereby allowing his team to win the College World Series. It's hard to imagine many members of the individualistic Lost and X generations doing the same thing.

Nearly nine decades ago, the GI Generation came on the scene to rescue Major League Baseball. If history is any guide, a new civic generation, the Millennials, is arriving right on time to save the grand old game again. Stay tuned for baseball's next golden era.