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Generations: Played Out

The party platform is 35,000 words long, addressing just about every aspect of government and how it desperately needs an overhaul. It opens with a strong statement of purpose:

America is adrift. Our country moves agonizingly, aimlessly, almost helplessly into one of the most dangerous and disorderly periods in history. At home, our economy careens, whiplashed from one extreme to another. Earlier this year, inflation skyrocketed to its highest levels in more than a century; weeks later, the economy plummeted, suffering its steepest slide on record.

Sounds like a party that you’d like to hear more about? Relax. It’s the Republican Party Platform from 1980, the year that Reaganauts took control of Washington and the horror of a trillion dollars in debt. We’ve already been there, done … well, some of it at least. We managed to cut taxes and deregulate a whole lot of things mentioned in this long document, but somehow never got around to balancing the budget or return power to states.

What can’t be denied, however, is that the Regan Revolution was real. It changed how our Federal government operated and was immensely popular. This was not because it did just what was promised but because America was entering an era where people’s relationship with nearly every institution was changing rapidly. The generations that grew up after this time, the Gen-Xers and Millenials, will comprise up to 45% of the voting population. Their attitudes towards institutions and management were shaped by this era, with many used to collaborative models that are more flexible than top-down management.

While this new flexibility in our relationships to institutions certainly helped to make Reagan more popular, the ultimate result of his policies has finally played itself out. We are concluding the largest socialist takeover of an industry in US history, a condition that could have been prevented by proper regulation. Some people may argue that this is not true, but I put it to you that if the government is the insurer of last resort, the least they can do is to write a policy for these industries with appropriate Terms and Conditions; regulation is simply the price of the insurance.

But this was not true in the 1980 Republican Platform. It outlines the need for increased personal saving for retirement, the first mention of something like the 401(k) retirement account. Millions of Baby Boomers were counting on this system to allow them to retire soon, and they will not be able to. Market forces are powerful on the way up as well as on the way down; if you want to retire at the wrong time, you’re just outta luck. That wasn’t anticipated in 1980.

Now there is a new generation that grew up in the era of Reagan that is about to be a majority of all voters. One generation ago, the course of our economy was set and it moved year by year to what we have today. It’s a terrible mess, and we have to ask if people that grew up in the period that created the problem can be expected to have the right skills.

The answer is yes, but only because people are different from institutions. The collaborative models work because people expect casual relationships with the institutions that are all around them, picking and choosing where they go based on what they need. The attitudes that people have developed during this period are necessarily more social and practical than the momentum that an institution develops.

The problem that we have is that our politics is analyzed and discussed based on old postwar concepts of “left” and “right” that are largely based on which type of institution you favor. If it’s a union you’re on one side, a church on another. The politics of our day is based on how people relate to institutions, not which ones they belong to. We are dividing into those who favor institutions like churches, large companies, or government and those who are more casual and collaborative. This distinction is critical because it will certainly be at the center of how we tackle the Five Crises, especially health care for freelancers.

Back in 1980, we were indeed at a crisis. A generation ago a series of ideas were put into practice in a way that shaped our politics and our government. Those have been played out with the catastrophic crises that we face now. A new generation is becoming a majority of voters at the same time. Just as it did 28 years ago, this is when our politics changes forever. What is more important, however, is that we are likely to change the way we talk about politics this time.

For the rest of the Generations Series:
Generations: Institutionalized
Generations: Do the Right Thing
Generations: Empire
Generations: Re-Invention

9 thoughts on “Generations: Played Out

  1. You’re right, Erik, it all started with Reagan. I hope it ends here, it’s been a disaster all the way.

  2. As a member of GenX, I sure hope we change the we way talk about politics. My fear is that Dems are still playing into the language of the right though. Take the phrase “tax relief” (and credit some of this argument to George Lakoff). Even Obama and Biden are talking about tax relief as though taxes are inherently a burden rather than supposing a fair tax system to be a reasonable way to pay for government and for the infrastructure we all enjoy. I think it may take a while to change the way we speak and think, because there are powerful mythologies that influence our dialogues. However, I do think Obama/Biden know how to talk about family and “family values” in a way that the right has claimed for decades now and I think that is working in their favor.

    Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful posts!

  3. This isn’t the end of history, it’s just the great wheel of it turning around one more time. What’s funny to me is that while one era is clearly spent, the shadows of it will define the next era. The Reagan movement captured something but also channeled it into a product that was useful for some people. ; now it’s time to use it a different way that is appropriate to the people that grew up in that world.

    It’s an exciting time, really. We have to look at it that way!

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