Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics
by Mike Connery, Tue Apr 15, 2008 at 02:07:48 PM EDT
Cross posted at Future Majority.
Since I've been traveling so much, I've taken the opportunity afforded by long plane flights to revitalize my reading habits. So far I've read and reviewed Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody, and David Kinnaman's UnChristian. I've been enjoying this chance to read again. It's a good habit that unfortunately dropped well below previous levels as I worked on my book and struggled to juggle a full-time job and blogging. I've been able to do a new book every 12 - 15 days, and hope to keep that up through the spring and summer (no promises once the Fall gets here and the campaign really kicks into high-gear).
Most recently, I finished Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics by Morely Winograd and Michael Hais. Winograd is a former policy advisor to Al Gore, and Hais is a retired executive for communications research firm Frank N. Magid Associates. Together, they've pooled their expertise and produced a compelling look at the historical, demographic, and technological trends that have shaped American political history, and how those cyclical trends might play out as the Millennial Generation comes into it's own as a force in American politics.
Millennial Makeover owes a large debt to the work of generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe, upon whose theory of generational "cycles" much of their work is based. In a nutshell, that theory, applied to politics, boils down to this:
Every 40 years or so American politics goes through a "realignment," or a period during which the balance of power changes radically, as do the kinds of politics that are practiced. These realignments come in two types - idealistic and civic - each matching the characteristics of the generation which drives them. Idealistic realignments tend to focus on moral and personal politics and are typically characterized by gridlock and inaction in Washington. Political participation tends to ebb during idealist eras, and more voters identify as "independents." Civic realignments are characterized by a greater pragmatism and public participation rates, and greater partisan identification in the electorate. These eras tend to be times in which the government and how it functions are made anew. In both instances, the weaker of the two parties at the time of the realignment tends to come into power, not insignificantly through the help of new communications technologies.
The 20th Century saw two such realignments. First through the GI Generation, a civic generation which remade American government and business institutions in the pre- and post-WWII period through a radical expansion of the role of government in the lives of Americans via programs such as the GI Bill and the New Deal. Technological assistance for Democrats and the GI Generation in that realignment was the advent of radio, exemplified by FDR's Fireside Chats. This was a high time for the Democratic Party. Approximately 40 years later, it was the Baby Boomers who realigned the country, this time as an idealist generation with the help of their savvy use of the television. The Baby Boomer period, which we are now leaving, was marked by declining rates of participation, a focus on personal and moral issues (the culture wars), and the ascendancy of the Republican Party, which attempted to minimize the (social and economic) role of government and undo the reforms of the New Deal.
This cyclical realignment has occurred 5 times in our history, and Winograd and Hais argue that the 6th realignment is upon us. With the help of social software (blogs, wikis, youtube, facebook, etc.), Millennials, who are already showing higher and higher rates of participation in the political process and a greater identification with the Democratic Party, will once again remake American politics, from the issues on which the government takes action, all the way down to the means by which it interacts with its citizens.
When it comes to examining the historical trends and contextualizing the data that on the beliefs and habits of today's youngest generation, Millennial Makeover is a font of information, both old and new. Equally impressive is their handling of technology. Winograd and Hais do a good job outlining how social technologies are short-circuiting and rewiring the political process (notable examples include George Allen's "Macaca Moment" on YouTube and the way that blogs have altered the money equation in campaigns and elections), and how the Millennials' penchant for information sharing and cultural production will move those technologies even further into the heart of our political process. For those looking to delve into either of these topics, Millennial Makeover is a top-notch reference.
That said, considering that their main thesis is that Millennials will reshape American politics, there are very few actual Millennials in Hais and Winograd's book. And their writing credits generational shifts and overall technology trends for the changes we are seeing in the voting electorate above and beyond the efforts of the emerging progressive youth movement we cover here at Future Majority, a position exemplified by this quote:
Many different groups and causes will try to claim responsibility for this reversal in civic life, but generational cycles should be given most of the credit.
I admit that I am particularly biased here in that my own book is dedicated almost exclusively to covering the role of new youth institutions in mobilizing the Millennial Generation at the polls. It's not that I disagree with Hais and Winograd that technology and generational cycles shouldn't get credit, but I believe them to be two of a confluence of factors that also includes new youth-built and youth-driven institutions within the Democratic Party and progressive movement. Millennial Makeover makes no mention of the role that organizations like the Bus Project, Young Democrats, The League, or many others played in turning out young voters in '04 and '06, either to refute or affirm their role.
Young people and new youth institutions are agents of change in this reshaping just as much as generational trends and shifting technologies (indeed, many of these new groups take advantage of both trends). The work of these groups since 2004, and their success in turning out Millennials, particularly due to their on-the-ground, peer-to-peer field work, is well-documented. Yet the book treats these organizations as if they did not exist, and that strikes me as a rather glaring omission.
There is precious little serious political analysis as to how the Millennial Generation has, and will continue, to shape our politics. To my knowledge, there are only three such resources available to date, Millennial Makeover, my own Youth to Power, and Keli Goff's Party Crashing. Having read two of them at this point, I think we're fortunate in that the first two books seem to be quite complementary. Millennial Makeover excels in its analysis of generations in American politics, the shifting technological landscape, and the contours of the Millennial Generation, but gives short shrift to the emerging progressive youth movement. My own book's strength lies in its chronicling of the rise and role of Millennial institutions in our current political realignment. While it touches on much of what is in Winograd and Hais's book, its coverage of generational cycles, history, and technology does not approach the depth with which they are explored by Winograd and Hais. Goff's Party Crashing is next on my list, and looks to be just as unique in its focus and coverage as the previous two books. Together, they might be an invaluable trilogy for anyone looking to understand the political impact of the Millennial generation.