Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Generation Gap

Yesterday's New Hampshire primary results remind me of a conversation I had with a someone in the fall of 2008. We were trying to figure out why younger voters were so excited about Barack Obama and were so eager to vote for him in the Democratic primary, rather than for a candidate with more experience, more of a track-record of public service, and presumptively more likely tactually to accomplish more as president if eelcted. That same conversation could, I suppose, be repeated this year. Of course, Bernie Sanders is not a freshman Senator as Obama was in 2008. He has actually been around a long time and has held political office for decades. Still, the situation is analogous in so many ways.

It appears that in New HampshireSenator Sanders won a majority of all voters under 65 - and over 80% of the under-30 vote. (Only in my over-65 age group did he win less 50% - some 44% to be precise.) For now at least, it is evident that expressive politics is driving the primaries in both parties this year, and expressive politics has often been especially appealing to younger voters. In my generation, the McCarthy candidacy in 1968 and the McGovern candidacy in 1972 were both instances of largely expressive politics, with little practical chance of electoral success. McGovern did, of course, actually win the nomination, but then went down to disastrous defeat in the 1972 Nixon landslide. More to the point it essentially took 20 years - and the candidacy of Bill Clinton - to undo the effect of that defeat. (By comparison, the Republican foray into ultra-expressive politics - the Goldwater debacle of 1964 - did not do the same damage to Republicans' longer-term prospects.)

Unlike those other races, the latest generation gap in this year's Democratic primaries is really less about issues than about the seductive appeal (especially to the young, although to others as well) of the emotional satisfactions of expressive politics (as opposed to such mundane matters as selecting an electable candidate).

As the campaign now turns a corner and the campaigning moves into more demographically and culturally representative communities, a big question will be whether this generation gap persists - how widespread it will turn out to be and how long it will last. On that may depend not just the choice of nominee but the outcome fo the general election as well.

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