'New Kind of Party Animal' -- political zoology

July 12, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun staff

"A New Kind of Party Animal: How the Young Are Tearing Up the American Political Landscape," by Michele Mitchell. Simon & Schuster. 224 pages. $22.

Today's young Americans are blazing paths through frontiers that didn't exist a generation ago. They're cutting deals in the emerging markets of the old Soviet empire. They're building an ever-expanding Internet. They're zeroing in on a cure for cancer.

One place they're not wasting much time or energy is politics.

Why should they? America at the end of the century is all about peace and prosperity and Radiohead on CD. Young people may be deeply involved in volunteer activities in their communities. But who wants to climb the barricades to fight for expanded individual retirement accounts?

For a few of the young and ambitious in this turned-off political age, however, Washington is still a magnet. One who made her way there in the early '90s, Michele Mitchell, has written an angry memoir about the political scene.

Her oddly titled, but clever, book argues that the boomer pundits and elderly politicos don't get it. They're missing the emergence of the most powerful new force in American politics.

Don't call them Gen-Xers, "that damn alphabet letter." They're -- the 18-35 crowd.

These techno-savvy 18-35s transcend the old, cynical politics. They care deeply about issues and don't belong to either political party. Most important, they make up the largest potential voting bloc of all.

One could easily quibble with her thesis. In a piece of generational one-upsmanship - or gen-envy - Mitchell has single-handedly manufactured this biggest of all blocs. She sliced off the youngest batch of boomers and added them to her age group, on the grounds that those born in the early 1960s have little in common with their older brothers and sisters.

Her claim that "the young are tearing up the American political landscape" remains, at best, an untested theory. For one thing, young people don't vote. In the recent primary in California, home to the nation's most wired electorate, an anemic 8 percent of voters were in the 18-29 age bracket.

There's nothing new or unusual in this. Voter participation increases with age. And today's younger voters aren't "party animals" at all. Exit polls confirm that their ties to established political parties are extremely weak, as Mitchell herself points out.

Again, nothing revolutionary here. It's a trend that began many years ago.

This book debunks stereotypes about twenty- and thirty-somethings, then proceeds to reinforce many of them. What comes through, along with a fair amount of shallow thinking and misinformation, is an overly simplistic self-portrait of a diverse group of people as seen through the eyes of an old-fashioned striver bent on generational warfare.

Young people are free of the old prejudices about gender, in her view. They are "inherently media savvy." They cut their teeth watching TV, unlike "the bulk of social conservatives (whose childhood) culture consisted of radio and comics." They reject the self-absorbed moralism of their boomer elders. They will use the Internet to transform politics.

Not trusting anyone over 35, Mitchell sounds very much like the dreamy Sixties radicals she bitterly condemns. The phoniness of the last presidential campaign, she observes, was the last straw. "Nothing offered by the establishment was real anymore." Strawberry fields forever.

Paul West is The Sun's Washington bureau chief and ha worked as a reporter in the capital for almost 20 years. He helped cover this summer's Senate hearing on financing of the 1996 presidential campaign.

! Pub Date: 7/12/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.