Of all the eager climbers who populate Michele Mitchell's new book, Maine native Lynn Marquis best exemplifies the mismatch between the existing political landscape and the aspirations of today's politically minded young adults.
When we meet her, Marquis is working in Washington as an aide to Bill Brewster, a Democratic congressman from Oklahoma, but she has designs on national office herself. It won't be easy. A social liberal and a deficit hawk, Marquis doesn't fit easily into either major party, but she figures she has to join one of them to raise campaign money. Worse, Marquis doesn't even know where she should run. "The general political assumption was that one ran in her home district," Mitchell writes. "But precious few 18-35s were going to fit that standard, when they were the most transient age group of all. In Lynn's case, she lived in Virginia, although she was a native of New England, and to top it off, after her year with Brewster, she spoke with an Oklahoma accent, especially when she talked about crime." Mitchell, a 27-year-old political writer who is also a former congressional staffer, uses her friend's dilemma to illustrate the false choices forced upon young people by an oafish system.
But consider another interpretation: that there are political consequences to living in what novelist Douglas Coupland has called an "accelerated culture." After all, Americans born between 1961 and 1980 -- Mitchell dubs us simply the "18-35s" -- are a deracinated bunch. Statistics in Mitchell's book and elsewhere suggest that we are deferring such traditional commitments as marriage and home ownership. The better-educated among us have fewer ties to labor unions, churches and other social institutions, and we are more inclined than our parents were to leave our hometowns for jobs in distant cities. An unprecedented number of us are children of divorce. Rootlessness has its advantages. It complies with the demands of a fluid labor market, and it liberates us to live as yuppies, gay intellectuals, fashion plates, bar trash or whatever else we might decide to be. Yet there's a flip side, not least in the political sphere. Our mobile individualism runs counter to the first principles of American political life, which, from local school boards on up to the halls of Congress, still honor history and family ties and longtime residence in a single town. In this older context, Marquis' earnest party- and district-shopping starts to look like narcissism, and the discrepancy between the values of the 18-35s and the political establishment becomes a ripe topic for a fascinating book.
Unfortunately, "A New Kind of Party Animal" is not that book. Mitchell's intentions are noble enough. She aims to dispel the notion, cultivated earlier in the 1990s by writers like Coupland and movies like "Reality Bites," that the 18-35s are neurotic and apathetic -- perhaps too much so to make substantial contributions to public life. As if setting up a straw man, Mitchell probably exaggerates how important, entrenched or current the stereotype is, but at any rate she introduces a series of up-and-comers to debunk it: California good-government activist Kim Alexander realized that the Internet could give voters easy access to public officials' campaign finance reports, so she developed an online voter guide that registered 200,000 hits; Chicago resident Jerry Morrison ran an insurgent campaign for a local Democratic committee seat; and in Washington, D.C., Georgetown University students staged a voter-registration drive and secured spots on a neighborhood advisory commission. If other 18-35s were as energetic and virtuous, we would be a generation of saints. Citing no evidence, Mitchell insists that we are. These "are not isolated examples, scattershot across the country," she declares. "They embody the majority of 18-35s."
Not surprisingly, Mitchell isn't a bit pessimistic about 18-35s' ability to exercise political power for the betterment of society, and she identifies several factors that, in her view, set our age group apart from our elders. Some of these are obvious assets. Since younger men are demonstrably more inclined to vote for female politicians than older men, women with bright ideas will have a better chance of implementing them. Since the 18-35s are generally more comfortable with computers and the Internet than baby boomers, we'll likely make better-informed decisions. But some of Mitchell's supposedly distinguishing factors are a little iffy. The 18-35s might well be skeptical of advertising and interested in local solutions to political problems, but so is everybody else. Meanwhile, our independence, political and otherwise, has another side that Mitchell doesn't even explore. Though you might be justified in thumbing your nose at the Democratic and Republican parties, you should at least wonder whether the withering away of partisanship will amplify the influence of money and empty spectacle. And when you migrate from one city to another, you should try to figure out why longtime residents don't welcome you with open arms.
Instead of engaging these issues, Mitchell demonizes the people whose mere existence dares to bring them up. Democratic congressional staffer and true believer Joe Morgan is just two years too old to fit into her target group, but in her Manichaean terms he is a partisan and, hence, the enemy. He was despondent when the Republicans won control of Congress, but mainly because the takeover "affected his flow of freebies," Mitchell says. And then there's Westy Byrd, a Georgetown resident who circulates a dishonest flyer intended to dissuade itinerant college students from registering to vote in Washington. For better or worse, Byrd yearns for a settled, predictable life and represents the antithesis of the mobile individualism so common among the 18-35s. But Mitchell, not content to describe Byrd's despicable tactics, sneers at her "pushed-out front teeth and pinched nose." Even a disagreeable "middle-aged Washington matron" deserves better than that. If you didn't look past Mitchell's dust-jacket mug shot, you could mock her as a smug-eyed self-promoter with a moussed-up hairdo straight out of "Friends," but there's more to her than that. You hope.
To be fair, it would take a roomful of sociologists and pollsters to connect Mitchell's new party animals to a broader political profile of 18-35s at large. But as a substitute, she ends up stitching several inspiring case studies into a narrative that far too often sinks into solipsism. In a relatively brief book, Mitchell devotes as much space to her own four-member Capitol Hill clique as she does to any of her other subjects. And like every character that John Hughes ever wrote for Molly Ringwald, Mitchell displays a gratingly indiscriminate sort of irritation at being ignored, mistreated and misunderstood. You learn, for instance, that ethically compromised older politicians and the oblivious baby-boomer media are no match for clever 18-35s. "Even as the politicians and the media decried me and my peers as cynical, apathetic and uninvolved, I knew the reason why," Mitchell says. "They hadn't figured out how to buy us yet, and this was driving them nuts." [Emphasis hers.] You also learn that ours is the only generation that questions the cheap campaign promises of presidential candidates. "No age group -- not the seniors, not the boomers -- called them on this. That is, until politicians went to the 18-35s." Check Mitchell's endnotes if you want, but you'll find nothing there to back these passages up.
Anyway, Mitchell's vehemence seems a little misplaced. Forgive the generalization, but few 18-35s actually care what baby boomers think of our generation's level of political involvement. And if young Americans are opting out of politics, it might even be a source of pride. Politics has no monopoly as an agent of social change. Yet mobile individualism doesn't just alter the role of young people in politics; it shrinks the role of politics in society as well. On some level, Mitchell realizes that something's changed. "Abbie Hoffman's peers talked about revolution," she declares. "Netscape founder Marc Andreessen is making it." And in fact, one of her new party animals isn't political at all. If the future of social activism lies in Durham, N.C., where a charismatic idealist named Quillie Coath Jr. runs a mentorship program for at-risk teens, it doesn't really matter whether Lynn Marquis runs for Congress as a Democrat from Maine or a Republican from Virginia. When Mitchell talks about 18-35s "tearing up the political landscape," the truth might be even more drastic than she thinks.