The Brood: Our Baby Boomer and Gen X parents told us that America always found a way. Today, we have come of age into the world they built — and we are furious. What do we replace it with?
If you were a white man, and born in 1960, at the tail end of the baby boom, the view of history you had was this: America had won World War II. Your neighbors, teachers, maybe even your father, had returned home as successful warriors of peace and democracy. Your household only had one worker, your father, who provided enough for all of you through a union job at a corporation that provided subsidized benefits like healthcare, and pensions. It was by no means perfect or morally self-consistent; segregation was the law of the land. But in lived experience and in tone, community was a reality, not a concept.
If you were born in 1992, as I was, the view of history was this: America had won the Cold War. Somehow, someway, this “evil empire” called the Soviet Union had come crashing down just before you were born. No specific warriors brought it down, and so all there was was to thank was the idea of America. My household had two working parents, and so did almost everyone else’s. Some of my friends lived in single parent households. Many were children of divorce, including my mother. Wages came from private companies. I didn’t know my neighbors. Community was a concept, not a reality.
By the time 1968 rolled around, you were dimly aware of race riots happening outside your schoolhouse. Perhaps, like my father in 1964, you even hid under your desk as it happened outside. Though your contemporary, a black child on the other side of town, was surely experiencing them more viscerally.
By the time I was 8 years old, in 2000, I was dimly aware of the Election of 2000. I remember I voted for Al Gore in my elementary school’s mock election. The vote count was lopsided, something like 80% for Gore. But in Florida, the Supreme Court mandated the end of voting, essentially choosing the president. My mother cursed at the TV screen, and said Republicans were criminals. The 21st century opened with a stolen election.
By the time you were 9 years old, in 1969, a new President, Richard Nixon, said that it was time for “law and order“. Perhaps, depending on the views of your parents, somewhere in your relatively innocent mind, you could hold these two ideas together: Black people deserve equality, MLK was a great man and I should never have to hide under my desk again. Somehow it did not click to certain white voters that “law and order” would be directed at certain kinds of people more than others. To those who understood the dog whistle, they were all too comfortable with these tactics in a post-segregation world.
By the time I was 9 years old, in 2001, my classmates and I were let out of school early. Parents rushed in with a swarm of 90s Volvos and Honda Odysseys. I walked across the street to my house, where I saw my mother sobbing and watching 9/11 on the TV screen. A ploom of fire out of the cloudless New York sky. We were scared. But I noticed everyone had stopped fighting. Instead, they cried. They told me, in this moment of tragic lucidity, that what made America special was its transcendence above tribe.
By the time you were 14, in 1974, Vietnam was winding down. Perhaps you had known people who had died in the war, or had come back disfigured or traumatized. Perhaps your parents supported it, telling you it was a hard fight for democracy and security. Or they opposed it, and it was an ill-conceived vanity project of LBJ’s which turned a profit for weapons manufacturers. You were still not old enough to grasp these things concretely, but it left a bad taste in your mouth: government could lie, and hurt.
By the time I was 14, in 2006, people had started fighting again. My country had invaded two countries, destroying each. Some people were for the war, telling me it was a hard fight for democracy and security. My parents opposed it, as an ill-conceived vanity project of George Bush’s, designed to turn a profit for his friends who made weapons and sold oil. I watched a local boy’s eyes as his father, who had run into an IED, was lowered into a nearby cemetery while John Kerry (yes, that one) stood by his side. I was not truly old enough to grasp these things concretely, but it left a bad taste in my mouth: Republicans lied, and they could hurt.
Also in 1974, the man who told you you would never have to hide under your desk again, Richard Nixon, was thrust out of office. Because he was a crook. Suddenly government could not only lie and hurt but it did so all the time. Whether you could tell or not.
Not soon after, in 2007, the economy tanked. My parents, thankfully, held onto their incomes well enough to weather the Great Recession, but they told me horror stories of friends, colleagues, cousins, etc. At 15 years old, I didn’t understand what happened, but I could sense there was something deeply, deeply wrong. Responsible adults in power had been wrong: housing markets could implode. More than that, Banks could make money off of recessions. Propped up by Ronald Reagan’s deregulation of the financial sector, they were crooks and they knew it the whole time.
By the time you were 16, in 1976, there was a new President, Jimmy Carter. A Democrat. He promised to bring back political normalcy, decency, and clean up Washington. He seemed like a nice man. But as high inflation and the second oil shock of 1979 kicked into gear, he seemed increasingly feckless and ineffectual. Worse than that, he talked of a national “malaise”he talked of a national “malaise” that made him seem defeatist. He seemed downright un-American.
In 2008, when I was 16, there was a new President, Barack Obama. He was the first Black President. It was inspiring. By 2009, or 2010, he had staved off the second Great Depression. He promised a new politics: unity across difference. Across race, ideology, and class. He passed financial reform. He changed the healthcare system. He talked about the innate goodness of Americans, and how the road forward was ours for the taking. There was no malaise. Yet I watched, utterly confused, as many Republicans decried the President. The Republicans in office said his policies were power-grabs. Their constituents were more forward: He looked downright un-American.
In 1980, you were 20 years old. Ronald Reagan just became President. He was charming. Handsome. An optimist. Incredibly good with words. While he convinced America that the path forward was bright, he whipped up white backlash, slashed regulations protecting unions, deregulated industries, and encouraged speculation. Government was the problem, after all. Sure enough, the economy got better. The stock market soared. Technology leaped in bounds. New jobs appeared, and you took them. Old jobs began to disappear — but they were your father’s jobs. Not your problem. You had read Ayn Rand and discovered greed was good. You looked out for yourself. What was good for you was good for us.
In 2012, when I was 20 years old, Mitt Romney ran against Obama. Romney claimed that “47% of Americans were takers“, leaching off of government assistance programs for such exorbitant entitlements such as “food”. Government was still the problem. Taxes were too high. Obama protested. He pointed to his healthcare plan: hadn’t he got millions of people healthcare out of a resistant private market? Hadn’t he saved the country from depression through government spending? Government was the solution. I had seen Steven Colbert and discovered that, in fact, greed was bad, even cartoonishly evil, like his character. My contemporaries and I began to discover that what was good for all of us was good for me.
In 1984, when you were 24 years old, chances are you had just voted for Ronald Reagan again. He was sworn in at 73, the oldest president ever. He had signs of mental illness, Alzheimer’s, and yet, he was your guy. He would look after you. He would make America great again, like he said he would just 4 years earlier. Never mind that his jokes nearly caused nuclear brinksmanship with the USSR. He was standing for law and order, so you would not have to hide under the desk again from those people. Your taxes would not be raised. He was standing up against government meddling.
When I was 24 years old, in 2016, chances are you had just voted for Donald Trump. He was sworn in at 70, one of the oldest presidents ever. He had signs of mental illness, and yet, he was your guy. He would look after you. He would make America great again. Never mind that he has gone on to play nuclear brinksmanship with North Korea. He was standing up for law and order, so your jobs would not be taken from those people. Your police forces would not be impugned by those people. Your taxes would not be raised. He was standing up against government meddling.
By this time, I had come to learn your history. I had been able to piece together your generation’s collective sense of entitlement. Entitlement to high incomes. Entitlement to low taxes. Entitlement to separation from the needy. Privilege to turn your backs on your neighbors, even when you had faint memories of post-war neighborhoods and jobs that were built off the principle of community.
My Bush era antipathy for republicans as a whole has dissipated. So let me be clear: I’m not talking about Republicans. I’m not talking about Democrats. I’m talking about all of you. You, who when you were 28 years old, older than I am now, decided that George Bush (the first) would carry on Reagan’s policy of codified avarice. You, who, in 1992, when I was born, voted him out of office because he had dared speak to you as adults. Because he told you that to fix the deficit, something you claim to despise, he had to raise taxes, especially on luxury goods.
I’m talking to you — the Democrats, and the independent-leaning Republicans, who voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. Bill Clinton, who decided to sign off on the reunion of commercial and investment banking, which led to the kinds of wild, greedy speculation that sparked the Great Recession. Bill Clinton, who helped to build the world’s most massive prison state in his 1994 crime bill, on the justification of law and order. All because you were afraid of them. They, who needed the most help, were now under your boot.
I’m talking to you — the Democrats who voted for and supported the Iraq War. Those of you who traded liberty for security as George Bush (the second!) left civil liberties in tatters in the name of law and order. Guantanamo Bay. The Patriot Act. Those of you who thought the No Child Left Behind Act would somehow make your children — me! — more educated by reducing the complexity of the human mind down to quantifiable numbers. If only you could quantify my learning — then you could know how much money you could afford to cut from my public education, so that you could invest it back in things like your 401Ks and your real estate.
Millennials have inherited a world guided by the self. Human desire and greed run amok, parading around like some kind of victory over the “tyranny” of self-government. What’s needed now, and what the work of a generation will be, is creating a world for our children that is guided by us. By we. By community. By shared bonds. By common obligations.
You spent a generation trying to build nations abroad while destroying your state at home. We will have to spend a generation re-building our own.