The Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton contest is usually presented as a battle for the ideological soul of the Democratic party. He’s a socialist, for heaven’s sake – do they really mean to go that far? Can they let the hard left dominate?
But there’s another way to look at Sanders-Clinton: not as a competition between ideologies, but between generations. It’s one more round in the ongoing battle between Baby Boomers and Millennials. Each side fields a distinctive view, not merely of taxes or regulations or other details of public policy, but of life itself, how things should work and do work, and what really matters.
The Millennial attitude comes down to this: how you feel about yourself is more important than what you actually accomplish.
It’s an understandable position. The Millennials have had the misfortune to be born into an incredibly challenging environment in which it’s difficult to accomplish much: crippling student debt, the gig economy, the greedy Boomers refusing to age and get out of the way. Compound this with an education system preaching self-esteem as the highest goal, and offering protection from the real world as long possible.
No wonder they flock to Bernie Sanders. He offers the delicious double opportunity to not only feel virtuous, but courageous at the same time. He enables you be on the side of Good, and to do so fearlessly, in defiance of polls and focus groups and weasel words and all the grubby verbal and operational compromises of the usual political process. The very fact that he is a such a long-shot, that he won’t dilute his position to make it more broadly appealing, is part of the thrill. His supporters don’t get there through logic, they feel the Bern – not for them the cold-blooded reasoning, the sweaty bobbing and weaving, of the real world. That it’s an uphill battle, maybe even a lost cause, is the whole point.
Baby Boomers bring exactly the opposite philosophy, and Hillary Clinton is its perfect embodiment: nothing matters but results.
In pursuit of results, the Boomer generation has shown a fanatic work ethic and willingness to constantly change priorities and even identities. From hippie to Yuppie, from Woodstock to Wall Street, without batting an eye. You do what works. You do what advances the cause. And if a large part of that cause is…well, yourself? Hey, no problem.
Not surprisingly, this makes Boomers an easy group to dislike. Here’s Paul Begala, political commentator and former aide to Bill Clinton: “The Baby Boomers are the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American history. I hate the Boomers.”
Many of those adjectives are being applied to Hillary Clinton. She’s seen as untrustworthy and unsympathetic, out only for herself. A nag, a scold, a grim score-keeper. She reminds you of that kid we all had in our high school class – you know the one I mean – who always reminded the teacher, on the last day of school, that she’d forgotten to hand out the summer reading assignments.
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders offers an emotional experience that makes you feel like a hero just for supporting him. You don’t have to worry about whether or not he can actually win, let alone accomplish his stated goals. Those are Boomerish topics – outcomes, results. So pedestrian.
And right on cue, the finger-wagging Boomer steps in. Every Hillary Clinton speech is a resume – I did this, I fought for that. Busy, busy, busy. Committees, policy papers, amendments, coalitions.
Even when she grasps at progressivism, she makes sure to pour a little cold water on it. The Boomer reality check. “Progressives,” she sniffs, “make progress.” What are your numbers? What bills did you pass? What programs did you implement? What good is your ideology if it doesn’t actually, um, accomplish anything?
Thus, the pop-up ad on her website: “I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.” The visitor is invited to click on “I Agree” before proceeding to the site itself.
But wait a minute. Surely the Boomers had their own phase of youthful rage against the system? What about the sit-ins, the Vietnam War protests, the Freedom Riders? Surely the Boomers weren’t always such calculating main-chancers?
Right. But even here – in fact, especially here — we see the same clear distinction between the generations. The Boomers, even as rebel hotheads, were all about results. Feel-good sentiments were never enough. The Vietnam War protests took years, as did the civil rights struggle. People went to jail, people died, and still the Boomers persisted. They made alliances, they worked the system, they were patient, and never confused about what success looked like.
Even the far-out radicals of that time, like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), had to put forward detailed, tightly reasoned strategies that emphasized results and not just theatrics. Their Port Huron Statement, written in 1962, runs to more than 30 pages of step-by-step plans and tactics, including a very long-term program to capture and dominate university faculties. (Total success on that one.)
By contrast, look at the Occupy movement of 2011.
Here was a protest, largely driven by Millennials, against the very same inequality that Bernie Sanders condemns so eloquently today. Helped by the Internet, it quickly morphed from Occupy Wall Street to Occupy organizations in many other cities. The Occupy Toronto website proclaimed it intended to “work towards drastic changes to economic systems.” What changes, exactly? “We have not yet put out a unified message but be sure it will come.”
It never did. What came, instead, was winter — and everyone went home.
At that point, Adbusters, the Canadian magazine that was a major influence in the movement, offered this strategic advice for the next step: “We declare ‘victory’ and throw a party…a festival…a potlatch…a jubilee…a grand gesture to celebrate, commemorate, rejoice in how far we’ve come, the comrades we’ve been, the glorious days ahead…We dance like we’ve never danced before and invite the world to join us.”
A grand gesture. Exactly. Can you imagine the Boomers settling for anything so fatuous?
And now the Millennials have another grand gesture on offer. Another opportunity to “dance like we’ve never danced before.” And meanwhile the Boomers chug-chug-chug away in all their “can-do” earnestness, pushing, prodding, parsing, back-filling. Keeping score, like Madame Defarge at the guillotine.
There have been two primaries so far. In Iowa, Clinton barely won, if she won at all (some delegates were chosen by coin toss). And in New Hampshire, she was crushed by the biggest margin in New Hampshire since JFK.
And the actualdelegate count as of today? Clinton: 394. Sanders: 42.
How is this possible?
The Democratc party has a whole other layer of delegates who are not chosen in the primaries. These “super delegates” — party and officials and insiders — exist precisely to inhibit the primary voters’ ability to take the party in a direction the establishment doesn’t want. And the overwhelming majority of them (in New Hampshire, six out of eight) are already in the bag for Hillary.
Oh, and Paul Begala, the Boomer-hater?
He’s a strong advocate for Hillary Clinton. Maybe it’s because he is (gasp) a Boomer, too, though at the youngest end (born in 1961).
Boomers versus Millennials. Outcomes versus dancing.