Yesterday, Senator Frank Lautenberg died. While I doubt there was anything politically speaking we agreed on, I still respected the man’s commitment to our home state (New Jersey) and country. When I posted those thoughts on Facebook, I was blasted by a sizable number of my friends for memorializing a liberal Democrat. The commentators disparaged him for everything from “spitting on his oath of office” and “attempting to overturn the Constitution” to being an “outright fraud” or “typically corrupt NJ politician.”
Those last two made me stop and think for a moment. Had Lautenberg ever been associated with any sort of corruption or abuse of of his office? The answer is no, and that is saying something for a New Jersey politician. The only association with scandal in his 30+ years of public service is that he replaced a Senator who was convicted for his role in Abscam. Was he a classic liberal? Yes. Corrupt. No.
But why the vilification of a man whose biography is the epitome of the classic American success story? Within the answer to that question lies the answer to much of what ails our political system today. And the answer is not a matter of liberal or conservative principles, but rather what defines those principles in the 2010’s. Undergirding those definitions is not racism (though it is always an undercurrent) or sexism, but ageism.
A little relevant history is probably in order here. I was born in 1965. This makes me either an old Gen X’er or young Baby Boomer, according to demographers. Frank Lautenberg was born in 1924, making him a member of the “Greatest Generation.” Now stop to consider what those demographic distinctions mean, politically speaking. Senator Lautenberg would have been in kindergarten at the start of the Great Depression. By the time he was entering his junior year in high school, Germany was invading Poland and World War II was underway. After a youth of watching New Deal programs like the WPA and CCC save his hometown from disappearing from the map, his young adulthood would be spent fighting the Nazi’s. He would spend the rest of his twenties attending college under the GI Bill. In his 30’s, government programs helped him found ADP – and government contracts helped him grow ADP into the world’s largest payroll processing company.
In contrast, my youth was dominated by the debacle of the Vietnam War and shame of Watergate. The economic stagflation of the Carter years ended with the ignominy of the Iranian Embassy. After my time in the Marines, there wasn’t a GI Bill – it had been replaced by the Veteran’s Education Assistance Program (VEAP), which paid for one semester of college. My first business wasn’t assisted by the government; rather I spent more time than I really had ensuring I wasn’t running afoul of some obscure regulation or another (something that still plagues entrepreneurs to this day.
In short, Frank Lautenberg witnessed an activist government that worked to improve lives, that won the most critical war of the pre-nuclear age and that literally saved the world. As Robert Samuelson points out in this op-ed, I grew up witnessing an activist government with rampant corruption, rife with incompetence, incapable of managing even a comparatively small crisis. Lautenberg’s political views were largely shaped by watching a government managed economy, that while imperfect, at least managed to make poverty tolerable. Mine are the result of watching a government managed economy that has eroded the earning and savings power of it’s citizens and thrown millions into poverty (see chart below).
This clash on the views of the efficacy of Big Government is at the heart of the the turmoil within the Republican party. Baby Boomers, such as John McCain, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner share the view that Big Government isn’t inherently bad – just that our current government is poorly managed. The Gen X’ers (Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, etc) simply believe that government has grown too large and unwieldy – or as Samuelson put it, government has “bitten off more than it can chew.” Democrats have largely staved off this demographic upheaval because (a) the vast majority of their Congressional Leadership is comprised of people over 70 and (b) the current President is also an unabashed liberal. The clash of identities that marked the Clinton presidency (Clinton, while more liberal than his Republican counterparts, certainly isn’t as far to the left as the current president).
So how does this story end? It can only end one way, and that’s also a result of demographics. The old standard bearers will eventually die off, leaving the Gen X (and eventually, Millenials) in charge of the Republican brand. Although my friends on the left probably do not want to hear this, eventually the liberal wing of the Democrat party will also die off (liberals are a declining percentage of the population, as recently as last year’s elections only 24% of the electorate declared themselves as “liberal” or “progressive”). That will leave the more conservative DLC wing in command. Future arguments will focus entirely on what role is appropriate for the federal government in our republic, not the size or machinations of said government.
And that is a good thing.