Andrew Ferguson, one of America’s great working writers, asks of the 2020 presidential field: “Why have national Democrats and not national Republicans fallen under the tyranny of the 70-somethings?” But the main answer he offers—vanity and self-indulgence—seems like a small part of the problem and does not explain the difference between the parties.
The contradictions are heightened by polls showing that, all else being equal, Democrats would not prefer a nominee 70 years or older. Indeed, as Dan McLaughlin notes, “Democrats have not elected a non-incumbent president aged 60 or older since James Buchanan in 1856, and have nominated only two non-incumbent candidates older than 60 since 1876: John F. Kerry & Hillary Clinton.” Yet the party’s 2020 field is led by Joe Biden (76), followed by Bernie Sanders (77) and the currently resurgent Elizabeth Warren (69).
Ferguson correctly notes “[t]here is a huge gap between where the energy and creativity of the party lie, with a group of dynamic activists and House members in their 30s and even their 20s (thank you, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), and the ruling class of 70-somethings layered far above like a crumbling porte cochere” and “[i]n the farm system that trains and seasons the leaders of tomorrow—assuming tomorrow ever comes—that gap signifies a lost generation.” To find the answers to how this generational gap opened, we should look beyond the narcissism of politicians, especially Boomer politicians.
Consider the Obama era. Over the course of Barack Obama’s tenure as president, the Democrats lost more than 1,030 seats in state legislatures, governor’s mansions, and Congress.
As Lisa Lerer wrote for the Associated Press after the 2016 election: “The defeats have all but wiped out a generation of young Democrats, leaving the party with limited power in statehouses and a thin bench to challenge an ascendant GOP majority eager to undo many of the president’s policies. To be sure, the president’s party almost always loses seats in midterm elections. But, say experts, Obama’s tenure has marked the greatest number of losses under any president in decades.”
Whether you read the analysis from Real Clear Politics or the Daily Kos, the GOP became as strong as it had been since 1928. Democratic losses were worst in state legislatures. During Obama’s presidency, his party lost 968 state legislative seats—the largest number of any two-term president since World War II. (The average seat loss was 450 seats.)
Obama bears his share of the responsibility for the losses among an entire generation of Democratic politicians. He ran as a candidate who promised to fundamentally transform the United States of America; his mere nomination was to mark the moment the rise of the oceans began to slow. Disappointment among his coalition was inevitable, whether on the far left or among the disaffected who turned to Donald Trump in 2016.
Obama chose to respond to that disappointment by shedding semi-moderate trappings that were largely rhetorical from the outset. He went from citing his faith to oppose same-sex marriage to supporting it. He persecuted the Little Sisters of the Poor over their refusal to pay for abortifacients under Obamacare. He praised gun confiscation. He aligned himself with the Black Lives Matter movement. The one-time deporter-in-chief used his “pen and phone” in unconstitutional power grabs on immigration, even after acknowledging he lacked the authority to do what he did.
Obama’s response, however, demonstrates that he was as much a symptom as a cause of Democrats’ current predicament. The party’s leftward lurch—so-called “Great Awokening” driven by white progressives but growing among younger Democrats—can be seen across a range of issues during Obama’s second term and are by no means a product of one man.
Zack Goldberg, a Georgia State University PhD candidate studying the phenomenon, recently wrote for Tablet magazine: “There is no simple or single explanation for how this process got started. It appears to be driven by an interplay of factors: preexisting tendencies among white liberals; a series of polarizing events like the police shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent riots in Ferguson, and the migrant crisis; the rise of millenials as a political force, and the explosion of social media and ‘woke’ clickbait journalism.”
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, taking a more explicitly generational perspective, point to parenting and education as well. A cohort coming into political age during the financial crisis and the ensuing great recession inclined more progressives to extreme movements, beginning with Occupy Wall Street, where intersectionality gained an early toehold in political discourse.
All of these factors—and doubtless others—fermented in an environment where the conventional wisdom among Democrats was the theory of an Emerging Democratic Majority or a Rising American Electorate comprised of younger, less white voters. But the required demographic change is not happening fast enough for the theory.
Indeed, working-class whites remain as large a bloc among Democrats as any other, despite the efforts of progressive elites and young activists to push them out (which has its own consequences). The American electorate is growing older, not younger. Even if Ferguson is right that 70-somethings should be leaving the political stage, he is not suggesting they decrease the surplus population.
The Democrats’ problem is not that 70-somethings are still lingering in leadership. Their problem is that its younger activist class and its non-representative woke elite are trying to fill the vacuum they created when their extremism decimated a generation of more mainstream Democratic politicians (but not the voters they represented).
These younger Democrats are echoing the New Left of the late Sixties and early Seventies. In 1972, George McGovern lost in a landslide to the seemingly divisive and unlikable Richard Nixon by running on a far-left hippie platform of “abortion, amnesty, and acid.”
The 2020 Democratic nominee is unlikely to lose in a landslide, given our increasing polarization and demographic change. But it is the younger Democrats, not the older ones, who are reducing their odds of political victory.