11 November 2011

The Obama Base: optimistic young technocrats?

In the Nov. 14 issue of Time, Michael Crowley argues that "What divides Americans most isn't race, gender, geography or ideology [but] the year we were born." He cites an expert opinion that the Obama years have seen the emergence of "the largest generation gap in voting since 1972" -- the year a youth movement seized the Democratic presidential nomination for George McGovern, only to suffer a general-election loss of historic proportions for a Democratic candidate. Again in 2011, youth stands with the Democrats. Crowley isolates the "Millennials" -- those born after 1980 -- as President Obama's strongest supporters when the nation is divided into age groups, the others being "Generation X," "Baby Boomers," the "Silent Generation" (a term coined by Time in 1951 for people too young to have fought in World War II, who are now aged 66-83) and the dwindling ranks of the "Greatest Generation." The generation gap is most stark among whites, white millennials being the least likely to disapprove of the President's performance, while "silents" are most likely. What else distinguishes the Millennials? According to Crowley, they're the age group most likely to believe (though not quite a majority does so) that "life in the U.S. has improved since the 1960s, in part thanks to the technology revolution."

In the November issue of Harper's, Thomas Frank notes that the District of Columbia is "the only place in America that scored a positive number in [a Gallup study of national expectations], meaning that a majority of the people there believed things were getting better." He also notes that in terms of median family income, the "D.C. metro area ... is the richest in the nation." Exceptional prosperity and optimism in the environs of the nation's capital, Frank suggests, "might also help to explain the long reign of the centrist, tech-minded wing of the Democratic party, despite its failure to deliver the most basic political goods -- i.e., to win elections" -- the successes of 2006 and 2008 notwithstanding. Frank draws no conclusions about generations, but his characterization of "New Democrats" as those who "assure themselves that they are on the right side of history -- shoulder-to-shoulder with the knowledge workers, free agents and enlightened professionals of the 'ideopolis'" -- doesn't exactly evoke the image of a cranky senior citizen, or an underemployed inner-city person.

The common thread connecting these stories is the identification of Obama supporters with a sort of techno-vanguard of entrepreneurs and consumers. Obama's election, Frank writes, "was thought to be the ultimate triumph of the creative class, which supposedly shared many of his centrist positions." I'm not sure why he adds "supposedly" unless he wants to locate the center somewhere else. If Frank means to suggest in this sentence that the creative class doesn't share Obama's supposed centrism, he does seem to think that this self-styled creative class and the Obama-era Washington political class share "an adamantine political smugness -- and maybe even optimism."

The reason so many Washingtonians don't really care about unemployment is -- to put it crudely -- that they themselves aren't unemployed, and they think that's because they've got this post-industrial thing all figured out. Trade deals are never designed to ruin people like them, only to make manufactured items cheaper so that professionals can buy more of them.

If Frank's implication is that these people don't actually support Obama, Crowley's is that many people like them, those who identify the proliferation of techno consumer goods with progress, actually do support the President, if only because they don't perceive any decline for which to blame him. If such people are concentrated in D.C., aren't they most likely to have Obama's ear? If they're prospering, aren't they most likely to donate to him? Other groups may support the President with greater unanimity -- union members, blacks, gays -- but with whom, do you suppose, does Obama himself identify most? You may not want to believe the worst, but wouldn't you rather be more certain that the people who believe, and on their own terms know, that things are getting tougher, but don't believe that the solution is less government for the private sector, had reliable representatives in power? Do the people who think that things are getting better, even if only for them, really represent the rest of us? Will we find people to represent us in the Obama-era Democratic party, or should we find a way to represent ourselves as we should have all along?

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