You hear myriad explanations for why the American political process—particularly Washington and, most specifically, Congress—has become barely functional, if that.
The loss of community caused by lawmakers’ effectively adopting a three-day work week is one reason. Unlike the old days, when most congressional families lived in the Washington area for most of the year—usually spending the school year here—members and spouses no longer get to know each other socially. Members used to see each other regularly at PTA meetings, soccer matches, and backyard barbecues, providing opportunities for those of different parties and ideologies to mingle in noncombative settings.
In the old days, many members frequently traveled abroad on congressional delegation trips to see U.S. military installations and meet with foreign officials. These trips not only expanded their knowledge and horizons but also offered chances for members to get to know one another better. Back when House members were reimbursed for only a few trips back to their districts, some members—including two young House members from Illinois, Bob Michel and Danny Rostenkowski—would carpool with another member or two back and forth. Michel, a Republican, would become the House minority leader; Rosty, a Democrat, would later chair the Ways and Means Committee.
The increasingly bitter nature of today’s political campaigns, with often vicious negative ads, causes newly elected or reelected members to hate not just their election opponent, but also anyone wearing the same colored jersey: guilt by association. Opposition research, which was limited to searching through the stacks of public libraries 40 years ago, has now effectively given way to private investigators. For example, a pair of retired FBI agents recently was detailed to visit one state capital to dig up dirt on a potential Senate candidate.
The heightened partisan and ideological environment certainly affects the political system’s ability to function as intended.
But maybe we all have changed. Think about the Americans, candidates, and elected officials whose life experiences and outlook were shaped during the Great Depression and World War II. The country went through a shared experience of roughly 15 years of hardship and often deprivation. Then came the war; virtually every American family was called to sacrifice, many through military service, with most families contributing fathers or sons, sometimes wives and daughters. Others helped the war effort through their work in factories; even children collected tin cans and rubber tires for recycling. It was a time when all were asked to do their part for the war effort. Families were issued ration books for meat, gasoline, and tires. This was not socialistic or communistic, but rather a collective and unifying action, a shared sacrifice, with each doing his or her part for the common good. Tom Brokaw dubbed these Americans the “Greatest Generation,” and few quibble with that characterization. Everyone learned to work together and forge compromises, because that’s what was necessary in those times.
Then came my generation, the baby boomers, followed by Generations X and Y (it is too soon to blame the millennial generation for anything yet), and the focus shifted from the collective good to the individual benefit. For my own and subsequent generations, “It’s all about me” became an accurate descriptor, along with “Do your own thing,” “Go your own way,” and “If it feels good, do it.”
Every kid gets a trophy, and instead of eight or 10 radio stations with all teenagers listening to the same Top 40 rock station, everyone has his or her own playlist. If you are a liberal, you watch, listen, or read certain cable networks, websites, and magazines. If you are conservative, you have a different set of media sources, with talk radio added for good measure. When our nation has to go to war, few are asked to sacrifice. Many don’t even know we still have troops in harm’s way, because they don’t know anyone who is serving or has served in the military.
A visit to the World War II and Vietnam War memorials demonstrates the differences between the Greatest Generation and those that followed. The former focuses on the battles that our soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought, the latter on the individuals who gave up their lives—one emphasizes the collective, the other the individual. Even though it seems that the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have been treated much better than those returning from Korea and Vietnam—who were often either ignored or spat upon—the collective sentiment of the phrase, “All gave some, but some gave all” doesn’t really seem to resonate anymore.
Sept. 11, 2001, was initially an incredibly unifying event, but soon the controversy over whether to attack Iraq redrew the old ideological boundary lines. A dozen years later, many of today’s voters and elected officials—in both parties and at both ends of the ideological spectrum—seem to have lost that sense of unity, sacrifice, and, yes, compromise. This loss clearly shows in our politics. “It’s all about me” is the mantra, even if my actions hurt the common good. Maybe the current chaotic, and sometimes almost anarchic, behavior of our leaders is partially a result of the life experiences of the past several generations. The mentality of post-Greatest Generation Americans flows from the way they (my generation included) have been raised. And America is the lesser for it.
The venerable Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, who served in the Army during World War II, is the last remaining Greatest Generation member serving in Congress. Dingell is someone from the old school if there ever was one, and hearing him talk about the change in congressional politics is a grim reminder of how things have deteriorated.
This article appears in the December 17, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Generation Gap.