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Who would have thought that Pat Buchanan would become the spokesman for Generation X?
I put a lot of stock into generational history. I am a big fan of Howe and Strauss, a pair of historians whose works include Generations: The History of America’s Future, 13ers: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?, Millennials Rising, and, my favorite, The Fourth Turning.
As someone born in the 13th generation of Americans, more commonly called Generation X after the book by Douglas Coupland, I am overly captivated by that generation. My generation. The generation that was too young for Woodstock and too old by the time we turned twelve.
As a generation, Xers are iconoclastic, sarcastic, and just a bit nihilistic. (Our Boomer brothers and sisters grew up with bomb shelters to survive nuclear war. We just looked up.)
We rebelled against the Boomers’ excesses, but we still bummed pot off our older Boomer siblings. We were something of an Eddie Haskel generation–clean-cut, polite, and well dressed around the grown-ups, but we carried a flask in one pocket and a half bag in the other. We laughed at the Boomers who created so much tension by openly rebelling against the conformity of the post-war era. We rejected conformity, too, but we did it with more stealth. We didn’t get caught. And when we did get caught, we charmed our way out of the most serious consequences.
That’s just my opinion. You mileage may vary. But here’s how those masters of generational history describe the Xers.
The 13th Generation (Nomad, born 1961-1981) survived a hurried childhood of divorce, latchkeys, open classrooms, devil-child movies, and a shift from G to R ratings. They came of age curtailing the earlier rise in youth crime and fall in test scores—yet heard themselves denounced as so wild and stupid as to put The Nation at Risk. As young adults, maneuvering through a sexual battlescape of AIDS and blighted courtship rituals, they date and marry cautiously. In jobs, they embrace risk and prefer free agency over loyal corporatism. From grunge to hip-hop, their splintery culture reveals a hardened edge. Politically, they lean toward pragmatism and nonaffiliation and would rather volunteer than vote. Widely criticized as Xers or slackers, they inhabit a Reality Bites economy of declining young-adult living standards. (American: Tom Cruise, Jodie Foster, Michael Dell, Deion Sanders, Winona Ryder, Quentin Tarantino; Foreign: Princess Di, Alanis Morissette)
Howe, Neil; Strauss, William (2009-01-16). The Fourth Turning (Kindle Locations 2805-2812). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
That was written in 1997, by the way. I was thirty-three, Bill Clinton was president, and few people had heard of Osama bin Laden or Monica Lewinsky.
I realize Donald Trump’s support is strongest among Boomers and older (60+), and Sanders’s support comes from Millennials. But the reason these iconoclastic candidates are around at all is because the Gen X culture finally made it to politics in 2016.
Even though we dressed like Alex P. Keaton, our heroes were working class American rebels. Our music pissed off the Glenn Miller (WWII) and the Pat Boone (Silent Generation) crowds, of course. But grunge and hip-hop also pissed off the Boomers. We liked everything hard: Joan Jett, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Nirvana. The song I heard most in 1985 was a Dire Straits song about installing microwave ovens and custom kitchen deliveries while dreaming about being a star on MTV. Everybody was working for the weekend, and the girls just wanted to have fun, and I had one hand in my pocket and the other one’s smoking a cigarette.
Well, the Eddie Haskel generation, the generation that nobody watched, is now running stuff. The slackers are in charge. The principal’s name is McFly. We hung around with the establishment kids in college (because they had cool boats and good drugs), but we never were of them. We ran in circles with the elites, but, by mutual agreement, we never got too close. And didn’t touch the fine porcelain statues in the foyer. (But we did hook up with their sisters.)
And now that reckless, dangerous generation is in charge–of business, of political campaigns, and of the media. Yeah, there’s a lot of Boomers hanging around in the the C-Suite, but the Xers are, for a short time, calling the shots.
And the shots we’re calling are angry and risky, like a Van Halen song.
Tory Neumyer writes on Fortune.com about the end of the political establishment that’s held sway since V-J Day:
This cycle, dynasty hasn’t counted for much. In the debate two days earlier, Trump viciously attacked the elder Bush’s record, marking the first time anyone can remember a GOP poll leader lacerating the party’s most recent President. Trump earned boos for the performance, but the audience in attendance—South Carolina party faithfuls—was so distant from the Republican rank and file that the question “Why are people booing?” trended on Google during the debate. What’s more, the businessman’s soaring popularity statewide didn’t suffer. If Palmetto State Republicans didn’t punish that heresy against the last Republican commander in chief, it could spell the last gasp for Jeb, who finished 6th in Iowa and 4th in Iowa.
Punish heresy? Hell, no. Not in the Gen X election year of 2016. Heresy’s what we gave up Lent for.
I’m not saying all Gen Xers will vote for Trump. I am saying the Gen X attitude that formed in the 1980s and 1990s has finally pervaded the generations on all sides. Just as the Boomer attitude, hatched in the 60s and 70s, didn’t really seize full power until the Clinton administration. (George H.W. Bush belonged to the World War II Hero generation, as was every president before him, back to Kennedy.)
Nor am I saying the next president will be an Xer. That doesn’t matter. Just as Reagan embodied the spiritual awakening and suspicion of government that the Boomers launched, it’s very possible for someone of an earlier generation to animate the zeitgeist of Generation X. Boomer Trump is very much an Xer in attitude. So are Sanders, Cruz, and Rubio. Bush and Clinton typify the Boomer attitude which turns off Xers.
Maybe successful candidates need a bridge between Boomers Millennials–the two largest generations in American history. And that bridge is Gen X. While Xers are too small in number to dominate an election, we’re the conduit needed to win.
Pat Buchanan sees the problem for a political establishment that refused to listen to us since 1996:
But while difficult to see how Sanders captures the nomination and wins in November, the rebellion in the GOP is larger, stronger and deeper. In every national or state poll, anti-establishment candidates command a majority of Republican voters. Which presents a problem for the establishment.
The Beltway elites may succeed in blocking Trump or Ted Cruz. But the eventual nominee and the party will have to respect and to some degree accommodate the agendas of the rebellion on immigration, border security, trade and anti-intervention, or face a fatal split.
After Ed Martin decided to run for Attorney General to give Ann Wagner clear sailing to the US House of Representatives, I sat down with her for a few hours. Ann and I graduated from high school the same year, so we had a lot of shared memories of the time.
I asked her how she got into politics. “1996,” she said. “After Missouri voted for Buchanan in the caucuses, I had to do whatever it took to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”
I told her that I had a small business that sold bumperstickers and shirts. Our most popular item in 1993 and 1994 read “He’s Rested, He’s Ready, He’s Right! Buchanan ’96.”
Ann laughed when I told her. Maybe she thought I was kidding.
The Buchanan Brigades are running the show, now. While the establishment could still produce the next president, he or she will be unable to govern, I’m afraid. The divisions are too many, the chasms too wide, the trust too broken, the economy too leveraged.
We’ve been warning the establishment for decades that we’re not gonna take it. They didn’t listen.
But something tells me they’re listening now. They might even be listening to Pat.