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Bright Ideas April 18, 2008

Posted by Tim in Observations, Politics.

Recently I read in The Economist that my generation, those Americans who came of age between 2000 and 2005, are the most heavily Democratic-leaning age group in decades. The explicit statistic surprised me; the substance did not. I live in the heart of the Red South, yet most of my peers are liberal, depending on how you draw the line. While many of us continue to cling to the values handed down from our religions, on less moralistic issues – taxes, education, welfare, the Iraq war, gender and racial equality, immigration – when we swing, we swing left. Since my freshman year in college I have happily labeled myself “socialist” (in fact, on a whim I started what became the largest socialist Facebook group). Most of my friends are independents or, as the primary season for both parties has trundled on, follow the Dems with much more personal interest. We knock Huckabee and accept McCain; we debate Clinton and Obama. Even my most conservative friend has softened on social issues. This is the case even though most, if not all, of us, were dyed-in-the-wool Republican sheep in high school. And so now we are still pro-life, but few of us will make that a first-tier issue come November.

Why the dramatic liberal conversion? Go ahead, youth pastors of the evangelical movement, blame secular professors. No, really. You wouldn’t be all wrong: I credit my personal “conversion” to socialism largely to a self-proclaimed Marxist who taught me more in three months about how the world operates than anyone before or since. Still, his socialist seeds needed receptive ground, and they got it – I can remember flirting with socialism way back in high school.

All this still does not strike at the root of this, the causes of the blue generation. Why us? Why now? Why so blue?

I could not answer that question, not directly, until today. This morning, getting ready for work, I read through an article in The Economist wagging the finger and John McCain’s populism. Another free moment this morning I glanced over another article in a long series about the pitfalls of regulating financial markets. Then, over lunch, I read through The Wall Street Journal‘s op-eds. Two particularly brilliant pieces discussed, with charts and statistics and careful argument, the intellectual bankruptcy of Barak Obama’s plan to jack up the capital gains tax on the one hand and on the other the deliberate and repeated massaging of climate data to produce more worrisome numbers than originally apparent.

I have sought out other sources of political and economic commentary, but The Economist (and WSJ) are simply the best in terms of intellectual engagement. It may not surprise you, then, that over the last year I have noticed a falter in my socialist lockstep. I’m attracted to McCain’s policies over Obama’s, frustrated by the government’s intrusion in the mortgage muddle, and receptive to the statistic that conservatives are significantly happier than liberals. Why the trip up?

Well, because fight makes right.

Let me explain. What age group (or, as demographers colorfully term it, ‘cohort’) is so radically Democratic? The one that came of age, got the vote, started caring and paying attention and thinking exactly when George W. Bush claimed office and the Congress turned a deeper crimson. The 9/11 Generation, as we were once (and only once) called, whose coming of age coincided with the highest approval rating any president has ever enjoyed, promptly joined the other side. Wha? And now, at least for myself, there is an intellectual faltering, a love-loss with the left, just as the throng of people lurch toward the Democratic Party, a new JFK arrives on the scene, and commercials begin running with Al Franken and Pat Robertson urging action on climate change. Huh?

Call it a thing for the underdog, which to a small degree I’m sure plays a role. But more to the point, call it a love of honest and informed discourse.

Over the last decade, the conservatives had all the eggs in their basket. Congress was theirs, the White House was theirs. All a Republican senator had to do was sneeze and their pet project was law. People wanted security and trusted the Republican plans for it, glossing over botched fiscal policies and repulsive human rights abuses. What was a liberal to do?

One word: reason. And reason they did, piece by piece, point by point. The global climate was in trouble, they said. But winning votes to force action was a matter of convincing argument. The treatment of detainees at Gitmo was a violation of the Geneva Conventions, they claimed. But pressuring a hell-bent administration took careful, broad-based legal and popular pressure.

So, for my friends and I, soaking up this brave new political existence, conservatives had nothing but shallow, fear-mongered arguments for war and deficits. The outcast liberals meanwhile taught us to reject dogma and moved a generation with thoughtful consideration.

I did not see it until the tables turned. The public is fiercely against the war in Iraq, in love with Kosovo and Tibet, and (in theory) ready to consent to tax increases to fix the budget and the environment. The most dramatic shifts concern the war on terror and climate change. Indeed, global warming is so dominant a belief, despite a lack of meaningful scientific debate, that it has leaped over politics to become the Civil Rights Movement of our generation – an undeniable moral imperative. Yet the net result is that climate data is not discussed, not really. The long-term consequences of the bail-out of Bear Stearns is a non-issue. Liberal argument has become vapid, even more so than its of-late conservative cousin, because Democrats as yet do not have the presidency, and without it their bloated populist rhetoric is mercifully guarded from proving itself in the ultimate testing ground: the real world.

This is a call. A call to liberals to reason again, carefully and candidly. The free-market capitalists of The Economist (and Murdoch’s WSJ) are outthinking you ten-to-one. You taught us how to reject dogma. So stop the empty rhetoric over gun control or abortion or healthcare and pull out studies, statistics, historical cases. You earned the allegiance of my cohort. But if you don’t keep reasoning with us, you’ll find yourselves needing to earn us back, all over again.


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