Whatever this national election’s outcome, one thing seems clear: it marks the end of the boomers’ presidential reign. As if applying a devastating coda to this era’s highly leveraged lifestyle, our current financial crisis indicates that we have reached the end of that political generation’s dysfunctional hyper-partisanship and lack of fiscal discipline.
Nothing displays our collective desire to move beyond the boomers more than the fact that the two most exciting national candidates fielded in this election are — in effect –post-boomers: Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. Even the Republicans’ turn toward John McCain represents an implicit rebuke of the boomers’ political generation in that he promises a pre-boomer return to adult supervision in Washington.
The dullard of the four? That would be the quintessential boomer Joe Biden.
Just look at this campaign and you see how much each side wants to avoid the perceived boomer lineage, with McCain promising not to rerun the mistakes of Vietnam and the GOP desperately trying to tar Obama with Sixties radical William Ayers. Talk about a time warp!
Run these scenarios in your head and see if they don’t make sense.
First, if Obama wins, the combination of a cleansing recession early in his first administration and his ability to mobilize fervent political support among the young suggests that he would be poised to achieve a second term come 2012, much like Ronald Reagan did in 1984. Add eight years to every prominent boomer politician’s current age and you’ve got a geriatric cast clearly past its ruling prime — McCain’s inescapable image handicap.
But say the 72-year-old McCain wins and then can’t go the distance. Once you slip Sarah Palin into the Oval Office, does anyone think that wouldn’t represent the same generational watershed within the Republican Party that Obama’s elevation signals for the Dems?
And if McCain were to go that distance? Then we’re talking about another eight years of a Republican president at odds with a Democratic-dominated Congress, and judging by the almost complete legislative logjam of the past two years, that will likely only hasten the boomer generation’s political demise.
Will we miss the boomers?
In my opinion, the boomer generation represents one of the weakest cohorts of politicians America has ever produced. Like most revolutionary generations frustrated by the lack of political change they affected in their youth, the bulk of the boomers’ talent and ambition thereupon went into the private sector.
This dynamic is common to demographic change agents throughout history: denied on the political front, they turn to far less restricted domains of business and technology in an attempt to change their world from another angle. The result is typically a huge burst of creativity and entrepreneurship.
We saw this in Europe after the failed revolutions of 1848, in the United States following the Civil War, and in today’s China after Tiananmen Square. The serious talent simply skips a political process they consider "low" and "demeaning" and instead chooses the real "business" of social and economic progress, believing that "what’s good for my company is good for my nation!"
If I were to compare the boomers as a political generation to one from America’s past, it would be the last quarter of the 19th century, or roughly from 1875 to 1890. The reason why that comparison will strike so many of you as obscure is that most Americans can’t name any presidents or prominent politicians from that age, but know well the industrial and financial titans such as Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller.
Decades from now our children will remember giants like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Rupert Murdoch, while virtually all boomer politicians will slip into well-deserved obscurity.
After 46 years of living in the boomers’ shadow, care to guess how eager I am to see them gone?
Hint: I voted last week!
Thomas P.M. Barnett (tom(at)thomaspmbarnett.com) is a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center.