Gen X Goes to Washington

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  November 23, 2010

And why not? They grew up in the glow of Vietnam and Watergate, followed by the stagflation misery of the Jimmy Carter presidency. The first politician they looked upon favorably, Ronald Reagan (whose picture hung over Keaton's bed), delivered the memorable message that government is the problem, not the solution.

So, like characters in Sixteen Candles or Say Anything, they tried to do the right thing and live up to expectations in a world they sensed was stacked against them by clueless, self-absorbed authority figures.

They got educated, worked hard, started families, bought homes — and then found their jobs gone, their homes' value plummeting but their payments rising, and their country's future mortgaged to pay for the Boomers' trillion-dollar misadventures in the Middle East and the derivatives markets.

"Now they're waking up at 40 and 45 years old and feeling let down by government, industry, and the whole system," says John Della Volpe, a fellow Gen-Xer, who studies generational politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

A bit ironically, the faults of their elders opened a rare opportunity for members of this sandwiched generation to advance, squeezing in before the inevitable hand-off of power from the Boomers to the Millennials. By destroying Wall Street, Main Street, and everywhere in between, Boomers and Silent Generation members brought on the wave that swept out older Republican officeholders in 2006 and '08, and the counterwave that Gen-X Republicans rode atop this year.

The slacker niche
The timing was perfect for the go-getting Keaton-esque Republicans — political career-builders like Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, who graduated with honors from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, went to law school on a full scholarship, and served in the state legislature; or Robert Hurt of Virginia, who got a law degree, graduated from Sorenson Institute's Political Leaders Program, and served 10 years in the state assembly.

They are among the 41 new Gen-X Republican congressmen. But so are Stephen Fincher, political neophyte who left the family farm to run for an open Tennessee seat; Kristi Noem of South Dakota, another family farmer, with no college degree; James Lankford, operator of a large Christian camp in Oklahoma; and Michael Grimm, former FBI agent and US Marine, who ran a first-time, Tea Party–backed campaign in Staten Island.

Many more ran unsuccessfully — most prominent among them Joe Miller, who toppled incumbent US Senator Lisa Murkowski in the Alaska primary but lost in the general to her write-in campaign. And far more first-time Gen-X candidates, newly awakened to politics, were successful in state-level elections.

The Keaton Republicans will probably continue to thrive, although their impact will be limited; they will always be outnumbered, first by the Boomers, and then by the Millennials now beginning their swarm into public office.

The others — those angry, nihilistic Gen-X conservatives —likely won't get far in elected office. It doesn't fit their temperament. In political office, you have some responsibility for outcomes. That means you need to learn and follow the protocols; compromise and negotiate with those who disagree with you; learn and study issues rather than assume you're right; and work toward positive, but often incremental change.

That kind of thing is exactly what the slacker generation can't be bothered with.

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