The Roots of Generation X’s Political Cynicism

Written by Corey McLaughlin for Common Culture and The Big Slice.


I can’t speak for others, but my generation isn’t exactly the most trusting bunch of voters out there. If you have ever wondered about the origins of Generation X’s undying political cynicism, then this column is for you.

Generation X first appeared on the political stage as young voters in the 1980’s, but we were already soaked with 1970’s skepticism by that time. In the ‘70’s, the people’s faith in their nation and its government had begun to falter. This loss of faith started with the growing disappointment in President Johnson’s stewardship of the nation’s affairs.

To be fair, Johnson had pretty big shoes to fill after President Kennedy’s assassination. Things got off to a good enough start for him, but quickly went sour. On the Right, they were furious over Johnson’s Civil Rights agenda; on the Left they were incensed over the travesties of the Vietnam War. The rising discontent set the stage for ardent Cold Warrior Richard Nixon’s ascension to the Oval Office.

The nation hit the reset button again as Nixon took office, just as they had with Johnson – granting the office their full faith as the reins of power were transferred between stewards. But as history would show, Nixon failed to live up to the faith placed in him in his handling of the Vietnam War and again during the Watergate scandal.

As Nixon left the White House and President Ford took over, the nation wondered about the federal government in a new light. President Ford’s pardon of Nixon only served to deepen the distrust. Two consecutive men had just ascended to the presidency in nontraditional manners, and neither had fulfilled their duties quite like the public had expected. Both transitions were perfectly legitimate of course, but the U.S. had not yet returned to normalcy after the violence of the late 1960’s and the continued turbulence took its toll on the very credibility of government.

As it would happen, the 1970’s were also a time of economic contraction. America’s economy had just expanded for two full generations, but the boom was petering out by the middle of the decade. American business had thrived after WWII, when America was the only nation left with manufacturing capabilities. Domestic spending increased along with wages, and the future seemed bright indeed. But that expectation was unrealistic; eventually, the rest of the world would rebuild their manufacturing capabilities, and the great expansion would sputter to a trickle.

So American manufacturing began its long, steady decline. Unemployment rose. Wages stagnated and inflation skyrocketed, which created an ominous economic condition known as ‘stagflation.’ New President Jimmy Carter would be slow to act – only to clamp down with too much force when he finally did notice the economic peril at hand. Carter’s economic ineptitude obscured his foreign policy prowess, and the nation declined to give him another opportunity in office. In retrospect, Carter may have received more grief for his failures than he truly deserved, as America’s faith in government had already endured many staggering obstacles by the time of his electoral loss in 1980.

And then there was Ronald Reagan.

Reagan ushered in an era of optimism to a great portion of the nation. A new conservative coalition was swept into power along with him, an alliance born from the blending of: Barry Goldwater-styled Cold Warriors, Libertarians both social and fiscal, the newly-minted ‘Religious Right’, and a group of hawkish defectors from the Democratic camp known as ‘Neo-Cons’. This marked a new age in American democracy, an era that conservatives hoped would “starve the beast” of big government and end the entitlement programs believed to irresponsibly placate racial minorities or to flagrantly ‘buy’ the votes of the impoverished. It also marked the beginning of a new age of bitterness and absolute cynicism among my fellow Gen X-er’s.

Reagan’s administration was mired in a genuine scandal during his second term. After a decade that had only exacerbated the plight of the poor and the elderly, President George H.W. Bush did little to soothe our conviction that government was more a hindrance than a blessing, but President Clinton reminded my generation of JFK’s ideals. Liberalism was newly inspired; it has a reinvigorated ideological center, but lacked an overarching agenda.

Political players had changed since the Reagan days as well. Many politicians now had precious little experience in legislating and the business of government, and their ignorance only served to diminish the federal government’s reputation. By Clinton’s second term, it became clear that the Republican Party was not going to demonstrate traditional civic decorum. Speaker Newt Gingrich’s federal shutdown, together with the Republican’s asinine attempt to impeach our president over tawdry and irrelevant charges, cemented their reputation in much of my generation, making permanent the endless cycle of partisanship that dominates the discourse among Gen X-er’s today.

Nothing has improved much since Speaker Newt Gingrich launched that assault on democracy. It was an inevitable escalation of the conservative coalition’s “starve the beast” strategy, and until we can drive that mentality out of every state and federal office, the partisanship is doomed to continue.

Government cannot function if half the members of the legislature are intent to destroy our inheritance, and that is exactly what the Tea Party and their ilk aim to do to this great nation.

If we can defeat that ideology of absolute cynicism, then we can return this nation to its proper course, where ‘liberty and justice for all’ means something beyond ‘survival of the fittest’ or ‘might makes right,’ as they would have it.

Maybe then we can get on with the agenda Americans really want and need – jobs, growth, peace, and renewal.


Written by Corey McLaughlin for Common Culture and The Big Slice.


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Author: The Blue Route

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