I’m beginning to dread weekends. Not because I hate sleeping in, going to yoga class, and hanging out with the people I love, but because idle hours tempt me to check Facebook. You see, we’ve got a little primary coming up here in New York, and all my friends are posting opinions and circulating articles. When I venture outside into my Brooklyn neighborhood, evidence of Bernie-mania is everywhere: signs, t-shirts, buttons. If Hillary Clinton is running for office this spring, Park Slope doesn’t know about it. Yet, many of my friends, people my own age, plan to vote for her even though as a candidate she leaves much to be desired (to put it lightly). My friends are even willing to admit as much, but it doesn't change their decision on the matter.
That’s not to say that the Sanders supporters have no presence in my social media world. I’m a member of multiple Bernie-for-president groups. But when I engage with the senator’s passionate supporters online, I get the feeling that they are older than I am (references to the 1960s and the Grateful Dead abound) or they’re younger than I am (in their photos I see full heads of hair, none of it gray). "Where is Gen X?" I wonder. And I think I know: Bernie Sanders is promising a future to believe in, but my generation doesn’t feel comfortable believing anything—especially promises from politicians.
I know what the statistics say: The older you are, the more likely you are to support Clinton. It’s somewhere around age 45 that you see Democratic voters drifting into the Clinton camp. At 47, I feel the tectonic plates of this generational shift happening right underneath my feet. The older women in my neighborhood sporting Bernie buttons are aberrations, I suppose. But what strikes me about these Baby Boomers is that they’re proud of their politics and they want to persuade others. They’re optimistic that a slogan on a t-shirt can spark a conversatio. They're confident that minds can be changed.
Perhaps its because theirs is a generation that changed the world: Boomers were part of the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the gay rights movement; they ended the war in Vietnam. Perhaps there are a good number of well-heeled members of that group who are voting for Clinton because they don’t want their retirement investments disturbed by the guy who has promised to shake up Wall Street. But from what I see, hippies who kept the faith want to continue to engage politically. They haven’t given up.
Millennials aren’t giving up either. They’re the first generation in a long time to place their faith in protests and demonstrations. And it’s working: They ousted a university president, and have many more such people fearing for their jobs. Black Lives Matter has turned into a movement of real consequence.
This is different from my generation’s experience. I realized this about a decade ago when I heard Congressman John Conyers speak as part of a panel on the possibility of impeaching George W. Bush. I had already futilely protested Bush twice: first, when the Supreme Court handed him the presidency, and again when he became intent on starting a pointless war in Iraq. My friends and I protested and protested and it seemed to change nothing. It felt as if the will of the people didn’t matter, and as if demonstrations didn’t work. It had been the same thing in the 1980s: College students built shantytowns, but universities continued to invest in South Africa's Apartheid regime. The American president of our youth, Ronald Reagan, had defied Berkeley student protesters as well as Cesar Chavez and his supporters. As Governor of California, Reagan imposed fees on college students to put them in their place, and he munched on grapes in open mockery of a United Farm Workers boycott. My friends and I wanted to combat evil, but evil just kept prevailing. This jerk went from being governor to becoming president -- and many of us had parents who voted for him.
When we helped to elect a Democrat in 1992, we thought that the era of Reagan had, at last, come to an end. Instead, Bill Clinton carried Reagan’s legacy forward with harsh welfare “reform” and a celebrated trade deal that eviscerated the working class. He enraged liberals with his triangulation, and he took African-American voters for granted during his Sister Souljah moment. All the while, he bragged that he and his wife were two peas in a pod, a package deal. She did nothing to contradict this impression.
What Conyers said as a panelist that night made me re-think all my beliefs about political activism. He said that he had lived through the civil rights movement and he knew that ordinary people could change the world. How odd: I had never thought that I or anyone like me could change the world. At that moment I realized that I had just had the bad luck to come of age during a fallow period. That didn’t mean that the political ferment of the 1960s couldn’t happen again. In fact, it became clear to me that night that, if anything, it was more likely than not to happen again. That’s how history works: It's cyclical.
When I read articles like this one or this one, I appreciate the sense of resignation and frustration, but I think that Gen Xers may have some trouble seeing the big picture. I’ve experienced plenty of petty sexism in my life, and I wish Clinton’s critics would stop mocking her hair, her clothes, and her voice, and start examining her record on, say, Syria or Libya or Honduras. It’s not sexist to criticize her deeply troubling foreign-policy record, after all.
Bernie Sanders took a lot of heat recently for saying she wasn’t “qualified” to be president. What I think he meant to say—and should have said—is that her vote on Iraq “disqualified" her. Because it has, at least for me. During the run-up to the war in Iraq, it was widely understood among ordinary New Yorkers that the case for going to war was complete bullshit. If I knew that Bush was lying, why wasn’t my senator smart enough to realize it? In fact, she was smart enough and she did realize it; she just didn’t want a “no” vote to come back to haunt her as she sought the presidency.
(What a delicious irony that her calculation was so off-base and has been so damaging to her credibility.)
You may say that this is all ancient history and that it feels very abstract. But it’s very current and very real if you live in, say, Baghdad rather than Brooklyn. Those of us living in relative safety here in the U.S. would do well to remember that.
A lot of women my age don’t see things the way I do. I feel as if they’ve all forgotten how much British feminists despaired over Margaret Thatcher, another female leader who used militarism to demonstrate that she was tougher than most men, to somehow prove that she deserved to be in charge. It’s been a long time since Hillary wanted to embrace the feminist ideals of peace and equality; I think decades ago she decided that doing so would make her seem weak. Still, to my mind, Elizabeth Warren is an exemplary tough-as-nails female leader. Take on the banks and the entrenched power in this country and see what happens! It’s a much more authentic way of being brave and formidable than Hillary’s hawkishness, which after all relies mostly on the courage of others.
We could have Bernie now and Warren or another Democratic woman in 4 or 8 years, but a lot of my friends have thrown up their hands and decided to settle for Hillary in 2016 because they think this is the only time we’ll ever have a chance to vote for a female president. We’re only at mid-life and yet we’ve given up on seeing another female candidate with Hillary’s level of name recognition.
Throwing in the towel prematurely — that feels very Gen X to me.
Thirty years ago, we raged against CIA-backed coups in Latin America, but now we feel resigned to imperialism when Secretary of State Clinton is in charge. We’ve apparently decided that’s just what governments do.
The fact, is our protests back then did matter. We may think that our generation’s anti-Apartheid protests had little effect because South Africans threw off their own shackles. But even if they were the ones making sacrifices and courting danger, it did matter that they knew that the world was with them. I remember hearing an interview with Desmond Tutu years ago in which he said that he always felt confident that Apartheid would be defeated because he knew people in places as far away as California were praying for it to end.
I may have to avoid Facebook for a while. The truth is, back in the 1980s I was the cynic among idealists. I don’t think I ever attended marches. At age 18, they seemed futile to me. People protested throughout the 1960s and 1970s. I took their many successes for granted and focused on the one big failure: the rise of Reagan.
Bernie lived through the 1960s, got himself arrested at an anti-segregation protest, and eventually found himself by some miracle in the U.S. Congress I’m not cynical about his message because it is as Conyers said: Boomers know that peaceful revolution can happen in this country, even if it doesn’t generally happen overnight and without some struggle.
This country desperately needs change and I’m not ready to give up and retreat back into my reflexive generational cynicism. We skeptical Gen Xers know better than any American generation that the emperor has no clothes. The question remains: What are we going to do about it?