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.
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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.


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