Their position has a certain appeal. Not even baby boomers think baby boomers have governed well. That pass-the-baton message does seem to resonate with older voters — as evidenced by Buttigieg’s greater support among this group — who hold out some hope that maybe politics will improve by turning power over to those less tainted by unpopular wars, the irresponsible accumulation of debt and political tribalism.
The notion that we can wipe the political slate clean is historically a popular theme for Democrats: John F. Kennedy (“The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”); Bill Clinton (“A bridge to the 21st century”); and Barack Obama (“Hope and change”). And it is comforting to think that a new generation won’t repeat all the mistakes of the past and will be unshackled from past grievances, hatreds and biases. In the case of millennials, we do find a generation that is more values-driven, more diverse, more well-read and more comfortable with new technology and a globalized economy.
But, of course, it matters a great deal which politicians in the new generation we are talking about. I am confident that 42-year-old Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) would be seen by Democrats as a step backward from the current crop of Washington power brokers.
What does make sense — both because it is good politics (given that the largest generation, millennials, and even younger generations have surpassed baby boomers in the electorate) and because it is profoundly true — is Buttigieg’s formulation. “Change is coming, ready or not,” Buttigieg told the crowd at his kickoff rally. “There is a myth being sold to industrial and rural communities: the myth that we can stop the clock and turn it back." He likewise reminds crowds that “there is no honest politics that revolves around the word ‘again.’ ”
In short, the idea of passing the baton to the next generation is not necessarily because they possess inherent goodness or wisdom. Rather, it is that President Trump’s politics of nostalgia — directed at older, white and mostly male voters — is both ineffective and toxic. We cannot create the economy or the society of the 1950s even if we wanted to (and the vast majority of women and nonwhite people wouldn’t want to); such thinking leads to inane policies (e.g., bringing back coal, tariffs) and restoration of racism and misogyny. Battling over a return to an era in which white males dominated merely serves to instill frustration, resentment, anger and polarization.
The message that nostalgia politics is abhorrent might very well be carried by a millennial candidate who has no memory of the bygone era and has grown up in a society in the post-civil rights era. However, the messenger might well be older, as was Ronald Reagan when he offered a vision of a revived, patriotic, robust America.
The current crop of Democratic candidates to declare that things need not remain as they have always been includes 69-year-old Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). She is finding success in putting policy meat on the bones of an agenda that, as she puts it, looks for big, fundamental change to alleviate racial, class and gender inequality. She takes a back seat to no one when it comes to anti-Trump rhetoric, but she doesn’t draw her energy from nor does she seek to revive a golden age in America (in part, because the past was worse for women and minorities). Judging from her polling, her messages hits a sweet spot: part dissatisfaction with the status quo, part optimism (We can do this!) and part innovation (her flood of new policies).
In sum, the “new generation” theme is appealing and works well for younger candidates trying to make youth and inexperience a virtue. However, the more intellectually honest and effective message may be: Forget nostalgia (and the old president obsessed with it). Come along and we’ll do it all differently. That’s been a key to success for most post-World War II Democratic presidents. The current crop of presidential aspirants might think about those forward-looking metaphors but, more important, think about an agenda that rejects nostalgia and the policy contortions required to recreate an idyllic past. Embrace reality (e.g., climate change, globalization) and forge ahead with solutions appropriate to our time and our challenges.