The point illustrates something important about our society today, and our politics.
Because David Bowie was never too old to rock and roll, and he was too young to die. (Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, who wrote that lyric, is 68 and currently on tour – we have tickets.) Paul McCartney is still rocking at 73. Bob Dylan is 75 and still writing songs. I guess 70 is the new 60. (Which is good because I turned 61 last week.)
When older players refuse the leave the stage, it can be hard for a younger one to shine. That may not be true in arenas like music or sports, but it is definitely true in politics. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is only a few months younger than Bowie. Her opponent, Bernie Sanders, is 74. Republicans can’t complain because their front-runner, Donald Trump, is 70. For those old enough to remember the issue of Ronald Reagan’s health in 1980, it’s a sea change.
It’s not entirely welcome, either. One thing a generational crisis should do is wipe previous history off the political map. Lincoln and Douglas didn’t debate the War of 1812. But 1968 is just as far removed from 2016 as 1812 was from 1860. Clinton and Trump could well try to re-legislate Vietnam. Both were active way back then.
- Vietnam and Watergate are irrelevant to the concerns of 2016.
- An electorate focused on the past has a tougher time dealing with the future.
Barack Obama failed to build a new consensus for the same reason Howard Dean wasn’t nominated for President in 2004. Too damned many old people. Back when Social Security was passed, in 1934, it was expected the average recipient might live two more years. Now the average is 18. And they vote.
They don’t vote to protect Social Security and Medicare. That’s like Karl Rove’s math, something Democrats tell themselves, not something that’s true. Voters over 65 are the most likely to support Republican candidates, up-and-down the ticket. They crowd Tea Party rallies and send money to Ben Carson. It’s not because they are against their own interests (although they are). It’s because they have lived through 40 years of Republican dominance, more than half their lives, and when it’s time for the knees to jerk they jerk that way. They’re still punching hippies, still blaming “the colored” for crime, and still think moo goo gai pan is Chinese food.
This is a problem because it means the concerns of younger voters aren’t heard. Combine this with aggressive gerrymandering (making nearly all legislative districts non-competitive) and old folks’ dominance of off-year elections (Charles Koch is 83 and still a political force), well, you have an environment in which belief in democracy becomes a hard sell.
That’s what President Obama is selling, belief in democracy. That’s what “Yes, We Can” means.
Read his speeches and you’ll see the best Presidential writer since Lincoln. Listen to them and you’ll hear the best voice communicator since FDR. Watch them, pretend he’s Barry Dunham from Kansas instead of Ann Dunham’s boy from Hawaii, and you’re watching Jimmy Stewart, not just Ronald Reagan but Jimmy f’ing Stewart. But you won’t see it reported that way. (Rupert Murdoch is 84 and just got engaged again.)
The crisis of our time has been dealt with. It really is Morning in America today. Right now. Think about it. Gas prices are down, unemployment is down to 5%, the deficit has been cut by two-thirds from its 2009 peak, inflation has disappeared, and interest rates are low. At the same time the rest of the world is hurting, economically. China may tip into recession, the Saudis and Iranians are at each other’s throats, and Vladimir Putin has been sidelined by the equivalent of our Great Depression. If that’s not winning, what is?
Yet Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are acting as if it’s 1980 and they’re running against Jimmy Carter. Within the Republican electorate, it is working. (You can still make money attacking him and he’s still alive – thanks Keytruda.) Polls indicate a race between either Republican leader and Hillary Clinton would be winnable. It’s crazy.
But there’s another impact from all this, one that is profoundly more dangerous to our future as a nation.
The continuing relevance of Bernie, Hillary, Rupert, the Donald and the Kochs means there’s no political air for new people and new ideas to flourish. Aggressive gerrymandering doesn’t just make general elections irrelevant. It has the same impact on most primaries. People can make a career out of public office, regardless of their records or their inclination toward corruption, and young voters are turned off in the process. Those who aren’t have enormous difficulty gaining a foothold.
This has taken out a whole generation of Democratic politicians, and promises to take out another one. Name three Democratic politicians under 50. Very, very few Democrats hold statewide office, since those offices are filled in off-years. There are some good Democratic mayors and county officials, but their promotion is barred by seniority on their side and by gerrymandering on the other, along with the normal tendency of off-year electorates to be older. Throw in media cynicism, the continuing capture of media entities by oligarchs (since papers don’t have a business model anymore they can’t resist) and you have a very, very scary situation.
What America needs today are some young Hispanic politicians, some young Asian politicians, politicians of any color or sex who can take the concerns of those born in the 1980s or later and make them relevant, who can propose solutions that get their age cohort excited about trying to solve what they see as the nation’s problems. Even if they’re doomed to lose this year.
The torch needs to be passed to a new generation of Americans. We old people, continuing their Civil War dating back 50 years, have made a mess of things. The kids need to put it right. Failure, in this case, is not an option.