Sunday, October 11, 2009

Engergizing Millennials: Key to Dem Victory in 2010

The latest unemployment numbers and poll results have led most observers to predict a major setback for Democrats in the 2010 Congressional elections. But a year is a lifetime in politics and much can change between now and then to influence next year’s vote. As Ron Brownstein recently pointed out, the demographic makeup of the electorate is likely to be a key factor in whether or not the Democrats can maintain their current majority margins in 2010. While traditionally Democrats have focused on turning out African-American and Hispanic voters to offset Republican strength among white male voters that equation is no longer the only calculation Democratic strategists need to make.
Today the level and intensity of interest among Millennials young voters 18-28, is equally important in ensuring Democratic victories. But for that group of voters to turn out in large numbers, Congressional Democrats will have to make a much more concerted effort than they have to date to deliver on a series of policy issues of major concern to Millennials, the generation that provided Barack Obama 80% of his popular vote margin over John McCain in 2008.
As with most other Americans, the number one concern among Millennials is the state of the economy and the need for jobs. But Millennials have a unique perspective on this issue, one that Congress must understand and address. Millennials believe there is a clear link between education and employment and are increasingly concerned that the pathway through the educational system into the world of work is becoming increasingly more difficult and expensive to navigate. Two-thirds of Millennials who graduate from a four-year college do so with over $20,000 in debt. A job market with Depression-level youth unemployment (18.5%) and a wrenching transformation of the types of jobs America needs and produces makes the implicit bargain of education in return for future economic success harder for Millennials to believe in every day.
Recently Matt Segal, Executive Director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE) and Founder and National Co-Chair of the “80 Million Strong for Young Americans Job Coalition” presented some ideas to the House Education and Labor Committee on what Congress could do to address this challenge.

He advocated increased entrepreneurial resources be made available to youth; Senate action on the student debt reform bill recently passed by the House; more access to public service careers through internships and loan forgiveness programs; and the creation of “mission critical” jobs in such fields as health care, cyber-security and the environment that would tap the unique talents of this generation. Coupled with the recent passage of the Kennedy Serve America Act, enacting these initiatives would demonstrate that Democrats are serious about improving the economic situation of Millennials and, at the same time, provide organizing ammunition in the 2010 campaign.
Of course no economic program can ignore the impact of health care on this generation’s—and America’s—economic well being. Many of the entry-level jobs young people seek and obtain come from employers who simply can’t afford to provide health care coverage under today’s system. Young adults between the ages of 19 and 29 represent nearly a third of all uninsured Americans, and two-thirds of those uninsured young people reported going without necessary medical care in 2007 because they could not afford to pay for it. As a result, polling has consistently indicated that a majority of young people support President Obama’s health care proposal, especially if it contains a public option to control costs. One of the more compelling components of the president’s plan for Millennials is that it would allow parents to cover their children through the family’s health insurance up to the age of 26 instead of the current limit of 19. And Millennials expect Congress to act. Only a third of Millennials, as compared with half of older generations, are concerned that the government will become too involved in health care.
Yet many pundits continue to perceive health care reform as an “old people’s issue,” likely to increase the turnout of seniors, but not Millennials, in the 2010 elections. Some have even suggested that Millennials will object to a health care system that limits the differential in premiums insurance companies can charge relatively healthy young people vs. older, less well adults. But this theoretical inter-generational transfer of wealth is not likely to stir up much opposition among Millennials. Unlike the Baby Boomers of four decades ago, Millennials do not speak to their elders across a generation gap, but have actually formed strong and enduring bonds with their parents and come to the public arena determined to find solutions that work for people of all ages. Already, Young Americans for Health Care Reform has accumulated 1200 fans on Facebook since the group was formed less than a month ago.
If Congressional Democrats can successfully negotiate passage of a health care reform bill that provides cost-effective coverage for the 30% of Millennials who currently are not insured, Democrats will have another major arrow in their quiver going into the 2010 election.
Millennials, like their GI Generation great grandparents in the 1930s, are facing economic challenges that caught them by surprise and for which no one prepared them. But Millennials aren’t looking for a handout or sympathy. Instead, in the “can do” spirit of their generation, they are organizing to overcome the challenges created for them by their elders. It’s time for Democrats in Congress to recognize these concerns and the loyalty of a generation that identifies as Democrats over Republicans by a 2:1 margin. One way to accomplish this is by passing meaningful health care reform while helping to create new pathways to economic opportunity, especially for young people who are just entering the work force. Doing so now, as the battle for 2010 shapes up, will help energize the newest and most loyal element of the Democratic Party’s 21st Century coalition, the Millennial Generation.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Civility Crisis and How to Cure It

While the nation has been right to focus on the most recent outbreak of incivility, if not downright hostility, directed toward President Obama generally and his health care proposal specifically, the diagnosis of what ails the country and what must be done to end this type of behavior has been way off target.
Republicans, who were quick to compare the actions of their party’s fringe elements to harsh, sometimes over the top Democratic criticism of former President George W. Bush missed the qualitative difference between expressing strong policy disagreement with the opposition, which is fair game in any political season, and taking guns to Presidential appearances. Ironically, Republicans are guilty of the same “moral equivalency” judgment error that they accused Democrats who minimized Communist war crimes in Vietnam and the actions of urban rioters of in the 1960s of committing. Speaker Nancy Pelosi was closer to the truth when she likened today’s vitriolic rhetoric to the hate speech directed toward gays in San Francisco in the 1970s, but she failed to pursue the historical analogy far enough.
This kind of anger, born out of a sense of fear of a rapidly changing world, and directed at those that seem to be causing the world to move both too fast and in the wrong direction, has erupted regularly whenever America has gone through the type of generational change it’s now experiencing.
As generational theorists, William Strauss and Neil Howe pointed out, an idealist generation animated by moral beliefs, such as today’s Baby Boomers, have, in their youth, regularly shaken American society by confronting the cultural values of older generations. Such generations have always been followed by an alienated, individualistic generational archetype, which tends to be rude and disrespectful, especially toward its elders. The most recent historical examples of this archetype are the Lost Generation who came of age in the 1920s and Generation X, born 1965-1981. As members of these two types of generations mature and assume positions of leadership, society coarsens and rhetoric escalates from being merely confrontational to speech that is deliberately designed to provoke and incite. It’s the difference between Boomer rock n’ roll and Gen X rap--or between Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin.
But inevitably, this harsh cultural style engenders a backlash from an emerging civic-oriented generation. The most recent civic generations are Millennials (born 1982-2003) and, in the 1930s and 1940s, the GI Generation. Historically, the type of generational alignment we see now is associated with the most traumatic and significant crises in American history: the American Revolution and adoption of the Constitution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and World War II. The way this generational confrontation has been resolved in American history should give pause to those who encourage incivility, either by their silence or their direct involvement.
Popular opinion was sharply divided during the Revolutionary War. Between a fifth and a third of the population of the Thirteen Colonies supported the British. Estimates are that after the war, between sixty and one hundred thousand Loyalists fled the newly born United States. Nor did the Constitution’s ratification end our divisions. In spite of George Washington’s warning against the “partisan spirit” and the intentional failure of the Constitution to mention them, nascent political parties— Republicans and Federalists —formed by the end of his administration to confront one another on the issue of the proper role and size of the federal government.
Roughly eighty years later, seemingly irreconcilable differences between generations and regions led to the Civil War. Once Lincoln assumed the presidency, he faced opposition from all sides. The words, if not the deed, of his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, “Sic semper tyrannus” (“Thus always to tyrants”) succinctly expressed the thoughts of most white Southerners about Lincoln. In the North, much of the criticism was intensely personal: Lincoln was called an “ape,” a “baboon” or worse. Many opposed what they perceived to be a war sacrificing the blood of white men to free blacks. Riots protesting the military draft broke out in Northern cities. In New York blacks were lynched and the city’s Negro orphanage burned. Even within his own Republican party, a faction called him timid for failing to emancipate the slaves sooner than he did or to pursue a more vindictive policy against the secessionist states.
When the generational archetypes were again aligned in a similar way in the early 1930s, the country was confronted by the greatest economic crisis in its history. While a hero to many, a month before his inauguration, Roosevelt was nearly the victim of an assassination. Giuseppe Zangara, an unemployed bricklayer with anarchist leanings, fired at FDR but hit Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago instead and killed him. Once in office, Roosevelt was personally criticized from the right for being a “traitor to his class.” In shrill language that is once again being tossed cavalierly around Washington today, FDR’s policies and programs were labeled “foreign,” “socialist,” “communist” and “fascist.” His Social Security proposal was derided as a severe invasion of privacy. At the same time, from the other side of the political spectrum, Roosevelt was criticized for not doing enough to dismantle the capitalist system and, in the words of Huey Long, “Share the Wealth.”
History demonstrates that the first years of a transition from an ideological era, such as the one Boomers and Xers dominated from 1968 to 2008, to an era dominated by civic generations, like the GI Generation and Millennials, are initially among the most rancorous, contentious, and sometimes violent, of any in American history. But history also provides valuable lessons for how to deal with these tensions in order to increase civic unity.
The Founding Fathers worked hard to promote an “era of good feelings,” admonishing citizens to maintain decorum in their public debates, even as they privately excoriated their opponents. Lincoln confronted his detractors directly, most famously with his principled stance that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” And FDR condemned “economic royalists” intent on defending their privileged position to the detriment of the “forgotten man.”
As the newest civic era begins, both Republican and Democrats must, in President Obama’s phrase, “call out,” those who engage in lies and demagoguery or threaten physical violence toward governmental institutions and leaders. Both sides need to brand such actions, not just wrong-headed, but a threat to the nation’s ability to successfully sail through the troubled waters of our current generational alignment. History suggests that a true sense of national solidarity will return when the nation successfully confronts the major challenges it will continue to face. But in the interim the least that must be done is to denounce actions and behavior that will make future unity more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.