The Defining Generation
Defining the Future of Politics
All Politics is...Hereditary?
Comedian Jeff Foxworthy has built a career with his humorous definition of a subculture: "You might be a Redneck if…." Decades ago an early comedian became known and loved for his humorous definition of politics. Regarding our two-party political system he once noted, "The more you read and observe about this Politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other. The one that's OUT always looks the best." Imagine then, what we might have had could we have combined Jeff Foxworthy with Will Rogers:
You might be a Republican if:
"You have a business card in your wallet…have a gun in your
closet…have the image of a fish on your car's bumper…hire an illegal
immigrant to clean your house…live in
Ø You might be a Democrat if: "You have a Union Card in your wallet…have pot growing in your closet…have dents in your car's bumper…are related to an illegal immigrant…live in Massachusetts.
attempts to generalize and encapsulate the demographics of our system's
two major political parties however, is doomed to result in false
conclusions, divisive attitudes, and utter failure. The bottom line is,
PEOPLE are DIFFERENT! Not just two-political-leanings
different but different on many levels. Some Democrats own guns and love
to hunt, some Republicans smoke weed. Not all ethnic minorities are
Democrats and not all Republicans go to church.
are few better examples of the value of differences combining for the
common good than that of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, our 2nd and 3d
Presidents, respectively. Vastly different in many ways and nearly always
on a collision course, each with the other, they may well have been the
models for Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau in the 1993 movie "Grumpy
Old Men." The affection of their competition in the move was a woman,
played by Ann Margaret. The object of affection that often pitted Adams
and Jefferson against each other but that ultimately always returned them
to a common grudging need each for the other was a new nation, the
in history have two men different, accomplished so much together. John
Adams was a Harvard-educated
Jefferson, an attorney who became wealthy when he inherited a large
Congress reconvened on
that were all there was to the story of Adams and Jefferson, it would be
enough to illustrate the importance of opposing forces uniting for a
common good. But there was to be more, for the two men comfortable times
and times when they were at odds. Following the American Revolution while
the Presidency of George Washington, John Adams served as Vice President
and Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State. Their differences of opinion
may have made getting the two men to work together one of President
Washington's greatest tasks. When he declined to run for a third term the
election of 1796 primarily pitted Adams and Jefferson against each other.
context of today's electoral process such an administration is hard to
envision…imagine what it would have been like had George H.W. Bush been
Bill Clinton's Vice President, or picture Al Gore serving as George W.
Bush's veep. The situation certainly did little to ease the animosity
between Adams and Jefferson for the four years until 1800. Relationships
were further strained by John Adams' penchant for pomp and circumstance,
two terms as President a tired and aging Thomas Jefferson returned home to
discord, dialog and compromise have long been the key to the political
Someone once noted, "If I'm too strict and my wife is too lenient, between the two of us our children have ONE good parent." It is an approach that speaks to balance--opposites leaning towards each other. Today we identify political affiliations in terms of left vs. right. If these two pull away from each other, both fall. But if they lean towards each other they meet in the middle and prop each other up. Neither has changed the direction they lean in terms of right or left, but both have leaned their separate ways to meet together for the common good.
Democratic Party, often identified as the Party
of Big Government, evolved ironically out of the early anti-Federalist
party. It became formally established with the inauguration of Andrew
Jackson in 1829 and adopted the donkey as its symbol after
The Whig Party broke with Jeffersonian Democracy primarily on the issue of executive versus legislative powers, preferring legislative supremacy. Pro-business, Whigs looked beyond the people as individuals to promote the growth of business and economic gain. At odds with Democrats in their opposition to slavery, Whigs saw the successful election of two of their party members as President (William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor) in their brief three decades as a major political party.
In 1854 the Whigs metamorphosis into the Republican Party when they merged forces with Northern Democrats and Free-Soilers, primarily in opposition to slavery. In addition to actively speaking against slavery, the new party was progressive in seeking to expanding and modernizing higher education, as well as promoting individual business venture. When Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, was elected President in 1860, the two-party political system we know today was born and began its evolution.
course it must be noted that there have always been others, perhaps most
notably Former President Theodore Roosevelt's Bull
Moose Party (Progressive Party) in
1912 and Ross Perot's nameless independent bid for the Presidency in 1992
that led to the Reform Party being established in 1995. There are also
Libertarians, Populists, Socialists, Greens, and any number of additional
political parties. These have never, with the exceptions of Roosevelt and
Perot, ever mounted a serious challenge to White House power, but do serve
an important function of speaking to the differences of segments of
Because the political process is constantly changing and evolving--Jackson certainly wouldn't recognized his Democratic Party of today and Lincoln would find much in the current Republican Party with which to take issue, the impact of the Defining Generation may have been too subtle to be much more than a blip on the radar. In fact during those turbulent '60s the American political process underwent some major areas of change, not the least of which was a more overt freedom of expression and dissent as discussed in the last section.
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Thomas "Tip"
O'Neill once said, "All politics is local." His point was to
illustrate how issues and problems back home impacted the actions of the
Representatives and Senators at home. It is a long-standing principle that
did not change during our generation, it was simply re-defined. In early
than anything else in history however, when television became available to
nearly every family in
Even more important however were the images we were able to witness either as they happened or shortly thereafter on the nightly news. Images of fire trucks unleashing water hoses on a crowd of Southern Black demonstrators, women unfurling a banner at the Miss America pageant decrying gender bias and exploitation, and body bags being carried off the battlefields in Vietnam gave the Defining Generation a first-hand grasp of world problems. The issues that needed to be addressed in the political arena moved from the "hear-say" of old to the "look and see for yourself" of a more modern time.
impact of television news was further enhanced by increased opportunities
for higher education, the dream of every member of the Greatest Generation
for their Baby Boom off spring. A better-educated American populace,
especially among the young, coupled with poignant and vivid images of
problems in American society struck a visceral cord in a new generation.
Even as they outwardly chanted "Tune in, turn on, drop out" they
were inexorably pushed to an unavoidable activism. Massive demonstrations,
most of them either on behalf of Civil Rights or in opposition to the war
Prior to those years of sweeping change a political leader might well have altered Tip O'Neill's famous quote to note: "All politics is hereditary." Until the days of television it would most likely not be inaccurate to assume that children grew up to mirror the political beliefs of their parents. If dad was an iron worker, chances are he was a Union member and also a Democrat whose sons would follow him into both. If dad owned a large business chances were he was also a Republican whose sons would inherit both dad's business and his political leanings. If dad was a poor Black man living in the South, chances were he didn't claim either party because the system at the time did everything it could to deny his voting rights--and the same would be true for his sons.
If it appears that the previous is too gender biased, it is. Generally, until women began to find their own sense of freedom and liberty in the 1960s, mom was expected to vote the way dad told her to vote. (One has to wonder however, how many women in the secrecy of the voting booth, may have purposely voted exactly opposite what they were told as the one act of personal liberty they could get away with.)
Inundated with unprecedented education and information, young people of the Defining Generation began to ask serious questions:
Ø "How can mom and dad want laws against Playboy magazine? After all, the pictures look no more improper than the picture of the lady I saw painted on the fuselage of the bomber dad flew in World War II."
Ø "How can mom and dad expect me to do my duty and join the Army when all I see is dead young soldiers coming home in body bags?"
Ø "How can my church preach about brotherly love when I see Black Americans being beaten by police and killed by the KKK?"
Ø "How can Congress spend billions of dollars on missiles and warheads when children in our own country go to bed hungry at night?
ultimate question many began to ask of themselves was, "How can I fix
all these problems I am watching on television?" The young began to
find their own answers, and
As a final observation on politics, it could also be said that "All politics is subject to change." This is especially true as events in our lives change. First Lady Nancy Reagan broke with her own party's stand on stem cell research when her husband was afflicted with Alzheimers. Vice President Dick Cheney was silent on gay rights in a party that generally opposed the same when it too, became a family matter.
Someone once put this tendency towards situational politics by pointing out, "A Conservative is a Liberal who has just been robbed, while a Liberal is a Conservative who has just been arrested." Indeed, all politics is subject to change and change it did when the Defining Generation came of age.
* Until the 12th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1804, the President and Vice President were elected separately, the one with the most votes becoming President and the 2d place finisher named to the Vice Presidency.
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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