I think it’s becoming clearer and clearer that we are in a
period when political power is being transferred to and
taken up by new generations in American politics.
Some might want to characterize this generation transfer
as “better” or “worse” than the previous one, to a more
“liberal” or more “conservative” group of men and women,
but I see it, at this stage, as only an inevitable and timeless
process with consequences yet unknown.
In due course, we will be able to describe it in contrast to
the past, but such descriptions will always be subjective,
and mostly determined by the long-held views of observers
and commentators about those who are having power
transferred from them or the new views of those receiving
Some of the most bitterly contested issues in the recent past,
however, are not likely to arouse the passions of those
inheriting power in each national political party or even of
new generations of voters. I suspect that a growing secular
character in young Americans will diminish the size of
partisanship on many, but not necessarily all, social issues.
Instead, facing seemingly bleaker economic prospects than
did their parents and grandparents, younger Americans,
already immersed in the new digital technologies which have
so recently come to dominate daily life in U.S. society, will
turn their greatest attention to issues, although previously
raised, that they perceive are more immediate to their
The demographic shifts on the American geo-political
landscape are part of this transfer, as are the so-called
“diversity” issues raised by recent immigration. Hispanic,
southeast Asian, east African and other “minority” group
new settlements and concentrations, especially in urban
centers across the country, are changing grass roots
priorities and attitudes.
At the same time, there is intensification of old conflicts
brought about by new circumstances. While younger
generations are inheriting more and more power, there is
the significant reality that notably longer life expectancy
in the nation is producing a larger and larger group of
so-called senior citizens, most of whom not only hold onto
their long-held views on social and political issues, but who
also intensely defend and assert themselves on what they
consider their economic interests, including social security,
pensions, healthcare and entitlements. I have already noted
a growing “secular” character in the life of younger
Americans, but that should not ignore a notable revival of
religious life among many in the population. This is likely
to keep certain social issues on a political front burner, but
possibly with a certain shift in emphases, especially again,
among younger Americans.
These transfers of generational power are as old as our
republic, and they usually take place with the frequency of
several decades. I think the present chapter of this transfer
saw a certain marker in 2008 when, partly in reaction to the
post-9/11 global and domestic events, the electorate chose
a young black presidential candidate. The next presidential
election in 2016 will likely be in part a judgment on that
choice, and the values it brought with it, as well as, lacking
an incumbent, a fresh expression of new voter expectations
about the future.
I sense a certain dissonance between the most
often mentioned presidential candidates in both parties
and the transfer-of-power phenomenon I have been
describing. We might be now underestimating the appeal of
younger and newer candidates in each party when the
nomination process actually begins about 18 months from
now. The often-expressed distaste of “political dynasties,”
for example, should not be dismissed out of hand.
The election of 2016 could resemble 1960 in this generational
sense. Two young post-World War II candidates won their
party nominations from older figures who had been, only a
few years earlier, considered perhaps more likely nominees.
Of course, there are significant differences between 1960 and
2016, but 1960 did turn out, in then-new President Kennedy’s
words, a torch-passing to “a new generation of Americans.”
I am writing this because I sense a certain “it’s business as
usual” attitude that is widespread today across the ideological
board. If there is concern about innovation, it is currently
mostly about the new technologies of voter ID, GOTV and
polling. As the 2012 presidential contest demonstrated, those
are important, but as former Speaker Newt Gingrich and
others have been signaling us, there are other, and more
profound, “break-outs” taking place in American life.
The question to be answered, as I see it, is whether the
national elections of 2016 will reflect these transformations
of American society, or whether the consequences of
change will be postponed politically until 2020 or later.
Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.