Why Politics Matters

Letter to the Milennials 4

I have discussed with you before how the heart of my generation got broken in politics. The pain of the assasinations of Martin Luther King, John and Robert Kennedy does not really lessen after fifty years. Their vision and dreams of a world free of racial and class strife may seem distant and naive, but we cling to them still. Bobby Kennedy said, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” Can you imagine any politician in 2015 saying such a thing? I suppose in talking to you I realize that you distrust idealism — deeply. Look at the picture above of Kennedy campaigning in Watts in 1968, a couple of weeks before he was killed. Look at the hope and joy in the eyes of the kids. That’s what you and I are missing. How do we ever get that back?

I guess we have to start with the question, “why did idealism die?” For my generation — the Boomers — it died from multiple gunshot wounds to the leaders we had invested with our hopes. It’s really that simple. After Bobby Kennedy was killed we retreated into art, drugs, work. Nixon became President at the height of the counter-culture. How much more cynical could you get? The corruption of Nixon was followed by the embrace of Neoliberalism by Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush. The adaption of deregulation, privatization, austerity, free trade and deep reductions in government spending were embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike. Even though Obama’s election campaign of 2008 in the midst of the Great Recession seemed to reignite some of our 1960's idealism, we didn’t understand that neoliberal orthodoxy was so ensconced in the establishment that Obama could only tinker at the margins. The appontment of Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton at the outset of his administration demonstrated that the young Obama was really a captive to the Establishment. And so our idealism ebbed away.

But what about your generation? How did you get so cynical? This is a tough one. I’m not sure you really have ever had any political heroes and it’s clear from a recent Harvard Institute of Politics survey of Millennials, that you have lost trust in government.

More than half of respondents in the survey, released Tuesday morning by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, said they think elected officials don’t share their priorities, and almost two-thirds said elected officials seem motivated by selfish reasons.

So here is the first difference between boomers and millennials. In 1967, this level of discontent with elected officials drove my generation into the streets in an intense embrace of political participation. But your discontent seems to do just the opposite as 75% of participating 18–29 year olds (in the Harvard survey) didn’t describe themselves as being “politically active”.

Here may be why the Trump campaign seems so important to our understanding of you mood of distanced irony. One of my students wrote to me describing the whole Trump campaign as a continuation of Donald’s reality show career. All of the drama and outrage is just as faked and Fox News plays their part obediently. Only the other Republican candidates seemed confused as to what their part in the show is. As Tod VanDerWerff recently wrote about Trump’s reality TV skills in Vox:

On television, never look for the person who’s playing the game best. Look for the person who’s realized the rules are only a suggestion. That’s the person the audience wants to watch — and that’s the person who just might win.

Trump himself acknowledged the power of “The Show”, saying in a 1990 Playboy Magazine interview that his plane and other luxury accouterments were merely “props for the show,” and that “The show is Trump and it has sold out performances everywhere.” But the show also contributes to your generation’s cynicism about politics. Certainly one cannot watch a show like House of Cards and come away thinking that politicians are selfless public servants. And even movie blockbusters like The Hunger Games reinforce our collective belief that politicians rule for the 1% and the rest of us fight for the scraps.

As the critic Tom Hawking has written there is a certain double irony at the heart of the Hunger Game films. The games are an entertainment reality show inside a movie show.

The idea of entertainment as oppression isn’t exactly new, of course. It’s responsible for the Romans’ circus, and informed any number of public executions over the millennia: you both appeal to the public’s bloodlust and scare them into submission, providing them with a spectacle that titillates their baser instincts and also reminds them that if they step out of line, they might be the one who’s getting fed to the lions next time.

But on some level, The Hunger Games is a rather radical film in that it suggests that the only solution is the overthrow of the Oligarchs in The Capitol. And yet we watch it as if it had no more connection to the reality of our lives than Spider Man 6 — another fantasy super hero movie that fades from our consciousness soon after we leave the theater. The heroes are not real, so how could we connect them to the idea of political heroes?

Which leads me to the notion that maybe the press is really responsible for your political cynicism. If the Kennedy brothers were the last true political heroes of my generation, it was only because the press gave them a zone of privacy which has been missing since Bill Clinton ran for President in 1992. We know now that John Kennedy had affairs while he was in the White House, and that many in the working press were aware of this fact. But they considered it a private matter and thus not suitable for publication. The notion that any politician could preserve that zone of privacy today is laughable. And yet, are we better off? I’m not sure how many wise men or women have declined to run for office simply because they are not interested in having their whole lives picked apart by the press.

So why do I think that politics are important? You are all about to become taxpayers (if you are not already). Politics determines how your taxes will be spent. The Congress has control over what is called discretionary spending — everything other than Social Security, Medicare and interest payments on the debt. Here is how we spent our money this year.

Now ask yourself, should we really be spending 62% of our discretionary budget on the military? We spend more on the military than the next ten countries combined. So as long as 75% of your generation are “not politically active”, this will continue. As Ian Bremmer writes in his new book Superpower;Three Choices for America’s Role In the World, “Imagine what might become possible, if we redirected the attention, energy, and resources that we now squander on a failed superhero foreign policy toward building the America we imagine, one that empowers all its people to realize their human potential.” But this potential will never be realized without the active political participation of your generation.

But if you did get politically active, your generation and mine could control the U.S. political system. Look at the numbers.

Of the total US population, Millennials make up 23.5% and Boomers make up 26.2%. Of the voting population of course, those percentages are even higher.

Now I’m not saying that Boomers represent a consistent political philosophy, anymore than Millennials do. Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren are both Boomers. But if we are the dominant demographic force in our society, we need to figure out how to cooperate for change.

Nathaniel Koluc, the founder of Rework has made the argument that Boomers and Millennials make great teams in business. And at the core of both generations is a search for meaning and a deep sense of tolerance for diversity. These qualities could be our strength and the key to overcoming the cynicism that infects our politics. Given our willingness to commit to voting, then we would also have to understand that there was one more idea that arose in the 1980's that has made it very hard to cooperate for change: Identity Politics. We will not be able to fight the forces of money power as long as we are divided by race, gender, sexuality or even class. If all you care about is the environment, how are we ever going to build a mass progressive movement. If you get your nose out of joint when a politician says “all lives matter”, then we are going to be divided and conquered by the One Percent.

I can only recall Bobby Kennedy’s words written quickly as he was going on stage in Indianapolis, having just been told that Martin Luther King was dead.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — yeah, it’s true — but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we — and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Thank you very much.

Just remember that the 400 families that are financing almost all of the candidates for President want you to be cynical, disengaged and not voting. An oligarchy only works if the majority of people think they have no power in the system and don’t participate. The voter turnout rate for the last Presidential election was 54%, a depressingly low figure for a democracy. Even more depressing is that only 41% of Millennials voted.

Just imagine how freaked out the oligarchs would get if an additional 30 million Millennials registered to vote in the next six months.

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