Monday, November 10, 2008

I'm a Winner! Bobos, Millennials, and Obama: Why Conservatism is So Un-Cool

This past election put two different personalities and two different generations on a stage for all to see. On the one hand was the old-school John McCain, the grumpy maverick who seemed glaringly inflexible and at times repetitive. On the other was the "coolest" politician since JFK, someone who appealed to young voters and monopolize the issue of change. Barrack Obama epitomizes, and personifies, so many of the values that have come to define almost two generations: flexibility, open-minded, post-racial, post-partisan, maybe even post-American. Scores of Americans are over the past, over history, or at least over a sense of history. Since American history is mostly negative, they might say, it's time to move on to bigger and brighter things. In that regard, McCain never had a chance. Even though he has been a rare individual among the groupthink in D.C., he was a product of a bygone generation that most young Americans would prefer stay that way: gone.

In the media age, image matters, maybe even more so than policies or governmental philosophy. (At least for now. A return to history could change all of that, and that return could be hurried along by an aggressive Russia or Iran, or a seriously damaged economy.) Obama had a glow, and that image was especially attractive to two groups in particular: Bobos and Millennials. Bobos are the Bourgeois Bohemians so appropriately detailed by David Brooks in Bobos in Paradise. Millennials are the Gen Y-ers, the grandchildren of the boomers, gifted with multi-tasking, love of community, and a profound sense of entitlement. Both of these groups, in ways both positive and negative, seek a break with the past.

The Bobos retreated from the elitism of the 1950s, the Donna Reed image where status was king. They desired a society where achievement dominated and trumped past values that championed last names, connections, and diplomas. What they created was a society built on several paradoxes: their achievement mindset led them to overcome the elites, but never be able to rest, lest they lose their prominent positions. They became a generation of reconcilers, who brought together two groups that had historically been at war, bohemians and the bourgeois. They sacrificed the virtues of the past, lest they interfere with the present, and they created a “nice” and “decent” society that stood for very little. They regarded wholesomeness as a newfound value, particular evident in a love affair of nature and all things organic, but rarely created time to actually enjoy such wholesomeness. Obama projects niceness, decentness, wholesomeness, and achievement. Like Bobos, he has earned the future.
The Millennials are the Bobos’ kids, but it doesn’t seem that they’re quite as much into achievement. (I found this 60 Minutes video worth watching.) They are rebelling against the achievement doctrine; after all, they never spent time with mom and dad because mom and dad were busy at the office. Moreover, achievement doesn't mean much to a generation who never grew up losing at anything, from T-ball on up to grade grades in college in part due to calls from helicopter parents. Millennials value friendships, openness and themselves above all other things, and bring a stark sense of entitlement into the workplace and relationships. They will sacrifice achievement for quality of life, and they seem to take the Bobos lack of respect for the past to a whole new level: Millennials are the future and they know it. For a generation used to being coddled, told "You can do it!" and who sincerely believes the future is also theirs (not because they've earned it, but because, well, it just is), the "Yes we can" message must have been familiar and encouraging, even if ridiculously empty.

Lost in all of this is a deeper discussion of principle. “As a matter of practical politics, contemporary liberalism amounts to a coalitional ideology, while conservatism remains an ideological coalition,” writes Jonah Goldberg. If conservatism is about principle, and if it is an ideological coalition, what chance does it have among a majority of Bobos and Millennials? Not much. These are two groups that are among the most narcissistic and self-assured generations in American history, who have never been challenged or rallied to a national cause. Indeed, they were probably laughing at McCain’s motto: “Country first.” I wonder how many Millennials were mortified at such an idea. Country First? Yeah, right after me, my dog, Facebook, and my iPhone.
Maybe I’m being too hard on these generations. Millennials certainly have their gifts, and in many ways they’re a breath of fresh air compared to grungy Gen X. From a religious point-of-view, I hope they will reject the Bobo’s “Flexidoxy” and come to embrace truth as found in the historical Church. But from a political point-of-view, as a conservative, I wonder if this isn’t a lost generation. Peggy Noonan points out that “many of the indices for the GOP are dreadful, especially that they lost the vote of two-thirds of those aged 18 to 29. They lost a generation! If that continues in coming years, it will be a rolling wave of doom.” Time will tell. For now, I’m already quite sure Obama will have serious challenges, and we’ll see how long the Millennial naiveté lasts.
Also, I know making generalizations about generations is a dangerous task. For a differing point-of-view, check this post out. There are great points here. But the voting numbers don’t lie. And it strikes me that there is something about conservatism this generation can’t tolerate. At least, not a majority of them.

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