Forget the Boomers and Millennials, this is the Gen-X Election Cycle
by Allan Branstiter
During Marco Rubio’s triumphal bronze medal speech in Iowa he used the word “generation” seven times in less than a minute. I couldn’t help but wonder what generation he was trying to speak to. Rubio’s speech was more or less the rehearsed “New American Century” schtick he’s been polishing since last year, but last night speech was notable to me because it was an odd Frankenstein of Boomer sanctimony, Millennial idealism, and (more importantly) Gen X cynicism.
Boomer v. Millennial gets a ton of airtime these days (see: Weber, Meacham, Nentl, et al.), but this leads me to wonder if we are overlooking Generation X’s more silent influence over the 2016 Republican primary campaign? Let’s make the (wholly unscientific) case:
Meet the Defendant: America’s Angry Middle Child
“Generation X” is commonly used to refer to Americans born sometime between the early 1960s and early 1980s—or more qualitatively, those who were either young children during or born after the height of the upheaval of the 1960s. Gen Xers tend to be overlooked because they are, quite frankly, less interesting as a demographic sample than the gigantic and contrasting generations that immediately preceded and followed them. In almost every category—racial profile, political ideology, religious and social values, economic status, education levels, technological aptitude—Gen-Xers are useless to journalists and pundits obsessed with the drama and polemics of generational conflict. If one views the Boomers and Millennials as dualistic black and white opposites, then Gen Xers are the disinterested and angsty gray somewhere in the middle.
Unlike the Boomers, they did not come of age during the tumultuous 60s and were probably too fully participate in the rise of the New Right in the 1980s. And unlike the Millennials came of age before a time when iPhones, Coachella, and Barrack Obama rendered kids unproductive and naive members of society. Gen-Xers tend to be stereotyped as a generation of disillusioned slackers who were raised on John Hughes movies only to become the cynical man-children of Clerks and Fight Club. Truth be told, the generation (like every generation) is a much more complicated and diverse. One point that may become more relevant to our discussion here is an apparent ideological divide between older Xers (1960ish to 1970ish) and early Xers (1970ish to 1980ish).
A Gen X Revolution?
While Barack Obama is America’s first Gen-X POTUS, Pew found that the older cohort of Gen X tends to vote for the GOP (emphasis on older Xers, since . Generation X’s influence on American politics is overlooked, understated, and increasing. Several current and former 2016 POTUS candidates are Gen Xers: Chris Christie (b. 1962), Marco Rubio (b. 1971), Ted Cruz (b. 1970), Rand Paul (b. 1963), Scott Walker (b. 1967), and Bobby Jindal (b. 1971). All of the congressional “Young Guns” were Gen-Xers, too (Paul Ryan b. 1970, Kevin McCarthy b. 1965, and Eric Cantor b. 1963). If you’ve noticed the fact that all of these men are Republicans, that isn’t a coincidence. You might even notice that these politicians (to one degree or another) have built their careers around reputations as anti-establishment, small-government, and pragmatic conservatives—traits often attributed to their generation more generally.
The rise in Gen-X in politics has transformed the Republican Party (and the Democratic Party to a less obvious extent). In their youth Gen Xers were seen as self-reliant, pragmatic, anti-institutional latch-key kids who resisted social institutions and practices like going to church, voting in elections, and supporting partisan politics. While some thought they’d mature into socially and culturally agnostic adults, the opposite appears to be coming to fruition. To me, this generation’s political legacy is the rise of a second “Reagan Revolution.”
Additionally, Gen X’s sense of political apathy appears to have waned as they’ve gotten older. During the late-1990s, polls found that Xers were less politically or civically engaged, less likely to trust social institutions, and had less confidence in government and political parties. But by 2013 the generation had become heavily involved in local and national politics. This shouldn’t surprise anyone since Americans have always been more likely to participate in politics as they aged, regardless of their generation.
One only needs to look at how many Gen Xers view themselves. One Gen-X futurist and “generational consultant” argued that her generation was one of neglected children growing up amidst crumbling institutions who “had to be fighters and learn to speak for themselves.” Many Gen Xers tend to see themselves not purely as victims, but as modern Horatio Alger characters that did not need the old social institutions (like public education and banks) to succeed. Truth be told, most Gen Xers were right to not place their trust in the government institutions undermined by Baby Boomers. What’s notable about the Generation X isn’t its pragmatism, multiculturalism, and political ambivalence—it’s in its Reaganite sensibilities.
Young Guns, Rage Against the Machine, and Irony
In 2012, most progressive people of my age (I was born in 1983) laughed dismissively when then VP candidate and current house speaker Paul Ryan claimed Rage Against the Machine was one of his favorite bands. Four years later, it’s becoming clearer that Gen-X pop culture sensibilities do necessarily negate conservative ideology. If Generation X did anything well, it was ironic noncompliance. Think rich kids rioting against the World Bank in Seattle, or Paul Ryan doing his P-90x workout beneath a portrait of Ayn Rand while “Killing in the Name” plays in the background. Think the mainstream success of “Alternative” rock.
Consistency matters less for Gen Xers than pleasure and cynicism; thus, is should be no surprise that once they came to political power, many (white) Xers were naturals at undermining and reinforcing traditional institutions and hierarchies. A Washington Post examination of Republican Gen Xers said it this way:
Politically, they are painting themselves as young, fresh alternatives to lead the country in a new direction, away from candidates named Bush and Clinton. Their politics largely lie in the same narrow band as most of the rest of the GOP field. What’s different – often around the margins, sometimes front and center – are the stories they use to relay those views and the experiences that shaped them.
What was “the experienced that shaped them?” While their pop culture tastes differ (Cruz loves The Simpsons, Star Trek, and Star Wars while Rubio prefers Tupac Shakur, NWA, and Eminem), what these middle-aged Republicans hold dear is (surprise) Ronald Reagan. Again from the Washington Post:
Then again, the ‘80s nostalgia can play a politically advantageous role with GOP audiences, with many Gen X candidates often sharing memories of Reagan from their elementary school days.
Rubio wrote in his memoir that Reagan’s election was a defining political influence on him, pointing to a paper he wrote in the fifth grade praising the president. Cruz has gone even further, laying generational claim to The Great Communicator.
“For me, I was 10 when Reagan became president. I was 18 when he left the White House,” Cruz said two years ago. “The World War II generation would often talk about FDR as, quote, ‘our president.’ I’ll go to my grave with Ronald Wilson Reagan defining what it means to be president.”
And you thought your Boomer parents were crazy about the Gipper…
Blame Generation X
Like all generational stereotypes, popular perceptions of Xers ring both true and false. According to the Pew Research Center, Xers tend to by more pessimistic and cynical than Boomers and Millennials, however their political representatives harbor an ironic sense of optimism within their angst. Marco Rubio’s combination of Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise” and Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” speeches provides an interesting example.
In his speech on Monday, Rubio simultaneously tapped into a nostalgic view past while rejecting it, promising voters that his generation will ensure that the 21st Century will be better than the 20th Century. Why? It doesn’t take much to read a generational argument into Rubio’s answer. America is nation of self-reliant and sacrificing citizens, forsaken by the corrupted values of the 1960s, as well as the narcissistic of the Millennials. Conservative, practical, Ayn Rand reading Gen Xers will lead us to the promise land by breaking the shackles of old ideologies. What will it take? Pragmatic reforms to social welfare programs are needed, like raising the minimum age for retirement. Privatizing schools and universities to make education more flexible, innovative, and realistic (remember the “We need more welders and less philosophers” statement?). Old policies and ideologies—mostly Democratic—are to blame for stagnating wages, the student loans crisis, and dead soldiers, and what Rubio promises is a chance for his generation of Americans, Generation X, “to rise up to the calling of our heritage” while recovering “a great nation in decline.” Yes, America is a diverse nation of immigrants, but damn Barack Obama for visiting a mosque and agitating sectarian animosity.
What’s ironic about all this is that for all their disdain for tradition, authority, and institutions, conservative Xers are advocating for the status quo, albeit one indelibly marked by their influence. Their ability to meld old and new conservatism into a coherent and effective message is becoming more apparent, especially when one considers the popularity of Cruz and Rubio (not to mention political iconoclast Donald Trump).
The reason these candidates are proving to be so popular has a lot to do with their ability to reach a demographic that feels it’s been left behind economically and harbor a lifelong distrust for establishment politics: white male Xers. When one considers what these Xers are experiencing, it’s not hard to understand why Republican campaigns are so angry, and why “America in decline” is such a fruitful narrative.
White middle-aged males are experiencing a rapidly increasing death rate. They, not the Millenials or the Boomers, are the first generation to experience the full brunt of deindustrialization—lower wages, devaluation of high school diplomas, rising debt. The older half of Generation X is also old enough to have experienced a pre-Reaganomics world, which might ironically account for their nostalgia for that brand of conservatism. The younger half graduate high school and college just in time to face the recession the early 1990s and the Dot Com Bubble, which probably accounts for their nostalgia for Reagan and cynicism about neoliberal economics.
Despite our focus on the Boomers and Millennials, Generation X is defining much of our current policy discussion. As a result, they have turned their angst and anger toward the political establishment. Their choice of candidates includes Ted Cruz for the viscerally angry, Ted Cruz for the bookishly angsty, and Bernie Sanders for the leftistly angry. It’s time to take Generation X seriously.