Gen X Goes to Washington

It's the first major slacker-generation wave of congressmen — but are they Alex P. Keatons, or nihilistic cranks?
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  November 23, 2010


Alex P. Keaton, the self-centered, clean-cut, overachieving young sharpie played by Michael J. Fox on Family Ties is — figuratively speaking — going to Washington.

If Keaton were real, he would be 45, which makes him a classic member of Generation X, that cohort born between 1964 and 1980. Alternately known as "slackers," this crowd — my crowd, for I was born in 1967 and fully identify with the Gen-X label — has been slow to make its mark in politics.

A mere 58 of us currently serve in the US House of Representatives; fewer than 20 years ago, when Baby Boomers were the same age, they had more than double that number of seats.

The first real wave of Gen-Xers will wash into the Capitol in January of next year, when the 112th Congress convenes — 43 newly elected in the House, raising the total to 90, and three in the Senate.

All but two of the newcomers are Republicans, and Gen-Xers will comprise a full quarter of the GOP caucus.

That makes sense. Like the Republican Party, Gen-Xers are cynical, distrustful of power, and disdain the idea that social activism can make the world a better place.

Indeed, many of the few Gen-X Democrats to reach Congress — just 26 next year — are urbanites and minorities, who grew up very differently from the white, suburban-angst world of John Hughes films and grunge records.

Nor are most of the new Republican congressmen former Spicolis and Silent Bobs. Those former authority-bucking stoners are punching code and toiling in middle-management (if they still have jobs), at least judging by the ones I grew up with.

No, most of these newcomers are Alex P. Keaton types — longtime, dedicated Republican activists, attaining the next stage of their political careers. Frank Guinta of New Hampshire, for instance, was born in 1970, graduated from Assumption College and the Franklin Pierce Law Center, got elected state representative and alderman, served as senior policy advisor to Congressman Jeb Bradley, and became mayor of the largest city in New Hampshire — all by the time he was 35.

Others, however, are newly politicized, anti-government cranks, whose Gen-X anti-authoritarian nihilism has mixed with middle-aged resentment, to create a new anti-activist activism. Their leader is a privileged libertarian, ophthalmologist-turned-senator Rand Paul (born 1963), and like him they are going to Washington to stop Washington. Their patron saint is Sarah Palin ('64).

This group's political ideologies and programmatic policies might not stand up much to scrutiny. But think of them as the middle finger of a generation — my generation — flipped at the Baby Boomers who selfishly ruined the world, just like we always said they would.

Why bother?
There is relatively little research on the political activity of Gen-Xers. By contrast, a not-small industry has developed around dissecting and reporting on the so-called Millennial Generation, the birth boomlet beginning in the early 1980s. And Boomers, of course, have had their every thought and action chronicled and analyzed — not least by themselves.

What researchers do say about Gen-Xers is that they are more conservative and Republican-leaning than the generations before and after — a viewpoint borne of a general cynicism toward government.

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Related: Divide and be conquered, The Road to 2012: The New New Hampshire, Mapping out the New Year's political landscape, More more >
  Topics: Talking Politics , Republicans, Michael J. Fox, GOP,  More more >
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