Obama's Generation X Factor

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) listens to a question from a voter after he delivered a policy address on education at Manchester Central High School November 20, 2007 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Obama is spending the day traveling across the state by bus.
This column was written by Lakshmi Chaudhry.

"Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what's needed to be done. Today we are called once more -- and it is time for our generation to answer that call," declared Barack Obama, uttering the word "generation" no fewer than thirteen times in his speech announcing his intention to run for president. There is no mistaking his campaign theme: it's time for the old to move over and make way for the new.

Obama's book The Audacity of Hope makes it clear just whom he's calling old: "In the back-and-forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation -- a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago -- played out on the national stage," writes Obama. It's a theme he's returned to with increasing frequency lately. "There's no doubt that we represent the kind of change Senator Clinton can't deliver on. And part of it's generational," Obama told Fox News in early November. "Senator Clinton and others have been fighting some of the same fights since the '60s. It makes it very difficult for them to bring the country together to get things done."

For Obama, who is 46, and his followers, boomer politics clearly have to go. What is less obvious is whom Obama represents. He often speaks to the Millennials, recently telling cheering college kids in South Carolina, "It's your generation's turn." But rarely mentioned is Obama's own generation, i.e., Generation X, the Lost Generation, whose name has been virtually erased from the national conversation.

"We hear plenty about people in their teens and twenties, and even more about people in their fifties, but the stodgy old species known as the thirtysomething has been shuttled off, like Molly Ringwald herself, to some sort of Camp Limbo for demographic lepers," fumes Details editor at large Jeff Gordinier in his upcoming book, X Saves the World. A recent Chicago Tribune article on Obama's message of generational change focuses exclusively on 18- to 30-year-olds, discussing every other living generation in passing but with nary a mention of his own peers.

The irony is that X-ers -- a sociocultural label typically used to describe those born between 1961 and 1976 -- have become invisible at a time when they are changing the face of politics. As Jerome Armstrong, founder of MyDD.com and best known as the Blogfather of the progressive netroots, says, "It's people drawn from Generation X -- the people who have gotten involved in politics this decade -- who have brought about the whole new movement of progressive Democrats."

A 1990 Time magazine cover story described the then-twentysomething generation variously as "lazy," "passive" and possessing "only a hazy sense of their own identity." As the decade rolled along, the same kids would soon be dubbed "conservative." But many of the X-ers were less lost than lost in translation, their rejection of politics-as-usual mistaken for apathy, their questioning of liberal credo interpreted as "backlash" politics, their anxiety about economic security condemned as materialism and their reluctance to be identified either by labels or with larger institutions dismissed as a lack of commitment.

The conservative image was largely a creation of what we now call the right-wing noise machine, which took aim at programs like Social Security and Medicare in the name of generational "fairness." For much of the '90s headlines were saturated with stories fed by Gen X organizations -- the vast majority funded by right-wing and corporate sponsors -- eager to pillory their greedy, spendthrift (read, liberal) elders. That the polling data revealed no such generational divide in support for these programs, merely greater doubts about their future among the young, hardly mattered. The X-er economic philosophy was better described by Ted Halstead in The Atlantic Monthly as "balanced-budget populism," combining fiscal responsibility with a concern for income inequality.

In its voting patterns, moreover, Gen X defies its rightward-leaning rap. The generation that John Judis and Ruy Teixeira recently referred to in The American Prospect as a "bulwark of the Republican vote" has in fact voted Democratic in every presidential election, with the exception of 2004. And that includes 1992, when Gen X came out in large numbers and voted for that GOP favorite, Bill Clinton. There hasn't been much difference between our generation's voting record and that of our boomer elders.

Indeed, many of the political and cultural orientations of Gen X have been recast as the "new progressive" politics. The scalding contempt for the mainstream press expressed by bloggers was ingrained in the Gen X point of view long before the Iraq War. The failures of Judith Miller and the New York Times could hardly surprise the likes of Mark Saltveit, who offered this eerily prescient media critique in 1994:

Today's press corps is largely worthless -- a pack of shallow conformists so easily manipulated that it's a joke.... Maybe the [boomer] Pepsi Generation is doomed to shallow group thought and trend-mongering through years of training by MCA, CBS, and Time. New technology for cable TV, desktop publishing, and cheap recording studios arrived just in time for slackers.
When not ranting bitterly against real or perceived injustices, X-ers have relied on their other favorite mode of social critique: political satire. In his book, Gordinier points to a generational legacy of a distinctive brand of political humor that blends angry idealism with a studied disdain for ideology and partisanship -- exactly the kind that's gone mainstream with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Where Gen X comedians have remained above the partisan fray, many of their peers have become die-hard Democrats over the past seven years due mainly to their outrage at the George W. Bush presidency. Generation Y may hold the numerical key to a Democratic victory in future elections, but it's those pesky thirty- and fortysomethings who seek to shape the future of the party and redefine the word "progressive."