Fallout From the ‘Me Generation’ Fuels Crisis in Congress

“It’s all about me” is the mantra, and America — along with its politics — is the lesser for it.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 27: U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) participates in a news conference and rally to mark the 46th anniversary of the passage of Medicare in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center July 27, 2011 in Washington, DC. The longest currently-serving member of Congress, Dingell wielded the gavel during that historic session of the House of Representatives in 1965.
National Journal
Charlie Cook
Dec. 16, 2013, 4:09 p.m.

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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4627) }}

What We're Following See More »
Trade Bill Would Ban Imports Made with Slave Labor
23 minutes ago

“A bill headed for President Barack Obama this week includes a provision that would ban U.S. imports of fish caught by slaves in Southeast Asia, gold mined by children in Africa and garments sewn by abused women in Bangladesh, closing a loophole in an 85-year-old tariff law.” The Senate approved the bill, which would also ban Internet taxes and overhaul trade laws, by a vote of 75-20. It now goes to President Obama.

Sanders Closes to Within Seven Nationally in New Poll
36 minutes ago

Bernie Sanders has closed to within seven points of Hillary Clinton in a new Morning Consult survey. Clinton leads 46%-39%. Consistent with the New Hampshire voting results, Clinton does best with retirees, while Sanders leads by 20 percentage points among those under 30. On the Republican side, Donald Trump is far ahead with 44% support. Trailing by a huge margin are Ted Cruz (17%), Ben Carson (10%) and Marco Rubio (10%).

Sanders and Clinton Spar Over … President Obama
12 hours ago

President Obama became a surprise topic of contention toward the end of the Democratic debate, as Hillary Clinton reminded viewers that Sanders had challenged the progressive bona fides of President Obama in 2011 and suggested that someone might challenge him from the left. “The kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans, I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama,” she said. “Madame Secretary, that is a low blow,” replied Sanders, before getting in another dig during his closing statement: “One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.”

THE 1%
Sanders’s Appeals to Minorities Still Filtered Through Wall Street Talk
13 hours ago

It’s all about the 1% and Wall Street versus everyone else for Bernie Sanders—even when he’s talking about race relations. Like Hillary Clinton, he needs to appeal to African-American and Hispanic voters in coming states, but he insists on doing so through his lens of class warfare. When he got a question from the moderators about the plight of black America, he noted that during the great recession, African Americans “lost half their wealth,” and “instead of tax breaks for billionaires,” a Sanders presidency would deliver jobs for kids. On the very next question, he downplayed the role of race in inequality, saying, “It’s a racial issue, but it’s also a general economic issue.”

Clinton Already Pivoting Her Messaging
13 hours ago

It’s been said in just about every news story since New Hampshire: the primaries are headed to states where Hillary Clinton will do well among minority voters. Leaving nothing to chance, she underscored that point in her opening statement in the Milwaukee debate tonight, saying more needs to be done to help “African Americans who face discrimination in the job market” and immigrant families. She also made an explicit reference to “equal pay for women’s work.” Those boxes she’s checking are no coincidence: if she wins women, blacks and Hispanics, she wins the nomination.