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Rahim Mohamed: What the Gen Xers are doing to U.S. politics
What explains how Generation MTV became Generation GOP?
By: Rahim Mohamed
It was the campaign launch that launched a thousand memes.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the 44-year-old “anti-woke” crusader viewed as Donald Trump’s most dangerous rival heading into next year’s Republican presidential primaries, recently took to Twitter Spaces to make his long-awaited campaign announcement. DeSantis was joined at the virtual event by Elon Musk, Twitter’s 51-year-old owner.
While, on its face, an effective way to herald DeSantis as the forward-thinking, tech-savvy alternative to the geriatric Trump, the Twitter-hosted campaign launch was ultimately derailed by a series of embarrassing technical glitches, with the space crashing on multiple occasions. (Moderator David Sacks congratulated DeSantis on “breaking the internet” at one point.) A cavalcade of mocking memes predictably followed; the next morning’s go-to headline, “A failure to launch,” practically wrote itself.
The cringe-inducing spectacle was also perfectly emblematic of Gen X — the troubled middle-child generation that encompasses both DeSantis and Musk. The 65 million or so Americans born between 1965 and 1980 have never quite found their niche in society, sandwiched between the analog baby boomers and the digital-native millennials (both much larger cohorts). It’s a generation that birthed our digital world yet has never been fully comfortable inhabiting it; a generation that gave us the underachieving “slacker” trope and freeloading “boomerang” kids; and a generation that, while now well into middle age, has never quite been able to get its shit together.
And, despite coming of age during a time of rapid social progress, Gen Xers are, just as rapidly, becoming the beating heart of the modern Republican Party. In fact, polling has found white Americans born in the mid-to-late 1960s to be the most Republican-leaning of any voting demographic. Those born in the 1970s are also moving to the right at an accelerated pace (versus Baby Boomers back when they were the same age).
DeSantis himself has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the reddening of Generation X. In his re-election campaign last year, he won the support of six-in-10 Floridians in their 40s (versus just 41 per cent of voters aged 25 to 29). Thousands of Floridians in this age range were undoubtedly swayed by DeSantis’ highly publicized crusade against “woke” K-12 education. (One of the signature pieces of legislation of DeSantis’ first term was the Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees — or Stop WOKE — Act.) Nationwide, Republicans won a majority among parents with children under the age of 18 living at home.
So what explains how Generation MTV became Generation GOP? Well, coming of age in the shadows of the post-Second World War “Golden Age” of mass prosperity — at a time of the weakening of homogenizing cultural institutions (e.g.: organized religion, the military) — imbued jaded Gen Xers with a well-documented contrarian impulse to “Stick it to The Man.” This countercultural ethos permeates almost the entirety of Gen-X popular culture — from generation-defining films like Reality Bites to the anti-commercial Grunge movement epitomized by Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
Gen Xers may have gotten older, but their knee-jerk contrarianism has stayed the exact same age. The only difference between today’s Gen-X counterculture and the one of yesteryear is that, whereas “The Man” was once a suit-clad Yuppie holding a brick phone, today, he’s more likely to be a progressive urban software developer who rides his bike to work.
Accordingly, Governor Ron DeSantis’ so-called “anti-woke” agenda is, in actuality, a quintessentially Gen X full-court press against a progressive “establishment” that comprises Hollywood, academia and activist corporations. This is evident in the contrarian rhetoric he’s used to push several of his hallmark policies. Take, for instance, DeSantis’ controversial anti-LGBT+ measures. In sharp contrast to the anti-gay crusades of the past, this campaign is not cloaked in religiosity, or even morality. To the contrary, DeSantis merely purports to be fighting back against an elite-driven Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) agenda that’s being pushed on the exasperated masses.
What you do in your bedroom is your business; just don’t force us to wear your pride jerseys.
Case in point, DeSantis targeted “rogue elements of the medical establishment” when introducing a new law prohibiting sex-change operations for minors last month. DeSantis’ long-running feud with Disney has also been framed as a crusade against the entertainment giant’s politically motivated “queering” of content geared to children. (A media firestorm erupted last year over the depiction of a same-sex kiss in Disney/Pixar’s Lightyear.)
This sentiment is by no means limited to the United States. Canadians can find the same anti-establishment contrarianism in the politics of Conservative party leader Pierre Poilievre and just-re-elected Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, both born in the 1970s. Poilievre and Smith have each come to prominence by casting themselves as populist crusaders against an overbearing political and medical establishment that pushed “draconian” lockdowns and “discriminatory” vaccine mandates in the wake of COVID-19. For his part, Poilievre appears to be gaining traction among both his fellow Gen Xers and millennials.
Ron DeSantis’ Twitter campaign launch may have been a bust, but his emergence as a national figure still signals an important generational shift in American conservatism. As Gen Xers continue their rightward migration, they will undoubtedly remake the Republican Party in their own disaffected image. The “anti-woke” contrarianism of Governor DeSantis is just the beginning.
Rahim Mohamed is a master’s student at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. His writing has appeared in The Hub, and the National Post, and CBC News Calgary.
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