The Ones We've Been Waiting For: How a New Generation of Leaders Will Transform America

The Ones We've Been Waiting For: How a New Generation of Leaders Will Transform America

by Charlotte Alter

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Overview

An optimistic look at the future of American leadership by a brilliant young reporter

A new generation is stepping up. There are now twenty-six millennials in Congress—a fivefold increase gained in the 2018 midterms alone. They are governing Midwestern cities and college towns, running for city councils, and serving in state legislatures. They are acting urgently on climate change (because they are going to live it); they care deeply about student debt (because they have it); they are utilizing big tech but still want to regulate it (because they understand how it works). In The Ones We've Been Waiting For, TIME correspondent Charlotte Alter defines the class of young leaders who are remaking the nation—how grappling with 9/11 as teens, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, occupying Wall Street and protesting with Black Lives Matter, and shouldering their way into a financially rigged political system has shaped the people who will govern the future.

Through the experiences of millennial leaders—from progressive firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg to Republican up-and-comer Elise Stefanik—Charlotte Alter gives the big-picture look at how this generation governs differently than their elders, and how they may drag us out of our current political despair. Millennials have already revolutionized technology, commerce, and media and have powered the major social movements of our time. Now government is ripe for disruption. The Ones We've Been Waiting For is a hopeful glimpse into a bright new generation of political leaders, and what America might look like when they are in charge.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525561507
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/18/2020
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 29,962
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Charlotte Alter is a national correspondent for TIME, covering the 2016, 2018, and 2020 campaigns, youth social movements, and women in politics. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Read an Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Love ’em or hate ’em, this much is true: one day soon, millennials will rule America. This is neither wish nor warning but a fact, rooted in the physics of time and the biology of human cells. Millennials—born between 1981 and 1996—are already the largest living generation, the majority of the workforce, and will soon eclipse their parents as the biggest bloc of eligible voters. But even as America gets younger and more diverse, our national leadership is overwhelmingly dominated by white men in their seventies carrying baggage from the previous century. I offer this book as a reminder of the only real truth, in politics and in life: this, too, shall pass.

Millennial attitudes already define most other aspects of American society: their startups have revolutionized the economy, their tastes have shifted the culture, and their enormous appetite for social media has transformed human interaction. Politics is just the latest arena ripe for disruption. This book is about those disrupters, the stepper-uppers, the young leaders attempting to drag our government into the twenty-first century. Others have written well about the millennial social identity in general, their unique economic peril, and the young activists and organizers who spurred the enormous social movements of the last twenty years. This is not that book.

Instead, this is about the “electeds”—the young mayors and city councilmembers and state legislators and members of Congress who ran for office and won, the first in their generation to gain political power. While a septuagenarian president strutted and fretted in the Oval Office, I spent the last three years crisscrossing the country meeting the young politicians trying to build a new America from the ground up. The thirty-two-year-old mayor who renovated downtown Ithaca, the twenty-nine-year-old bartender who proposed a Green New Deal days after she arrived in Congress, the thirty-five-year-old congresswoman trying to attract more women to the GOP, the thirty-eight-year-old gay veteran running for president of the United States: these young leaders are the vanguard of millennial political power, and they’re only the first of their cohort to step up to the plate.

I don’t pretend to know what will happen to any of their individual po- litical careers. I’m not trying to predict who will be president in 2020, or in the Senate in 2030, or Speaker of the House in 2040. But no matter what happens to them individually, studying their lives—the experiences that de- fine their attitudes, the attitudes that define their politics—can give us a preview of what America might look like when their generation is in charge. I am not arguing that millennials will save America: they will surely bring their own flawed assumptions and misguided ideas into the political realm, just as their parents did. But a country run by millennials will look different than the boomer-built America, and this book attempts to figure out what those differences might look like.
Like all younger generations, millennials get a bad rap: boomers and Gen Xers think they’re entitled, overly sensitive, obsessed with social media, and naive about the ways of the world. Each of those stereotypes has a grain of truth—just ask anyone who’s ever hired an annoying millennial. But when taken collectively, the qualities that seem grating on an individual level actually hint at a broader political disposition. Individually, millennials are stereotyped as entitled; collectively, they demand broad government investment in a twenty-first-century social safety net. Individually, they’re caricatured as oversensitive to “microaggressions”; collectively, they’re pushing toward a more comprehensive vision of social justice. Individually, they seem glued to their phones; collectively, their intuitive use of social networks has given them a fresh understanding of how individuals work within systems. Individually, they come off as naive or demanding; collectively, that looks a lot like idealism.

Politics is supposed to be about the future, even if the last four years have apparently been aimed at making America “great again.” This may be an era defined by smartphones, but the Speaker of the House, the Senate Majority Leader, and three of the top Democratic presidential candidates were all born in the 1940s, well before the invention of the color television, the polio vaccine, and the bikini. President Donald Trump was the oldest first-term president ever, elected mostly by white voters over sixty-five and enabled by one of the oldest Congresses in history. He is one of only four American presidents (alongside William Henry Harrison, James Buchanan, and Ronald Reagan) who were older than sixty-five when they were first inaugurated.

The graying of US politics feels especially claustrophobic given that America’s most visionary leaders have typically been young. Alexander Hamilton was just thirty-two when he became the first secretary of the Treasury, Thomas Jefferson was thirty-three when he wrote the Declaration of Inde- pendence, Martin Luther King Jr. was thirty-four when he led the March on Washington, and John F. Kennedy was forty-four when he promised to send a man to the moon. Even the middle-aged presidents have historically been much younger than our current leadership: Abraham Lincoln was in his early fifties when he preserved the Union in the Civil War, roughly the same age Franklin Delano Roosevelt was at the time of the New Deal. The powdered wigs and black-and-white photographs make American history look like a succession of old men, but actually, some of the most momentous shifts have resulted from younger generations replacing older ones.

Of course, age itself does not determine political relevance—just look at Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (b. 1933), an improbable cult figure among young women, or the late Republican senator John McCain (b. 1936), a war hero and maverick who was eighty when he saved millions of American health care plans with a single vote, or Bernie Sanders (b. 1941), a seventy-eight-year-old socialist whose popularity with young voters has buoyed two presidential campaigns.

But as Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the early decades of the American experiment, “Among democratic nations, each generation is a new people.” And those generations are defined not by age or by family relationships, but by the major historical and social events of their lifetimes, or what generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe called the study of “people moving through time.” Building off the work of German sociologist Karl Mannheim, Strauss and Howe concluded that each generation develops some shared general attitudes based on their formative experiences: the gen- eration that fought World War II, they suggest, gravitated toward civic engagement (the so-called Greatest Generation), while their children—the baby boomers—tended to be more individualistic. Although their theory is surely overgeneralized, there are glimmers of truth within the stereotypes. In what now reads like an eerie premonition, Strauss and Howe picked a young New York businessman as the archetypal boomer in their 1991 opus Generations: “Like Donald Trump,” they wrote, “a prototype Boomer sees himself capable of becoming a titan of whatever world he chooses fully to inhabit—providing cover for personal disappointments or (as a Boomer might put it) ‘deferred ambitions.’”

Since each of us is a product of historical experiences as well as personal ones, age is a useful proxy for understanding the forces that shape political attitudes. Social scientists have found that, along with typical indicators such as race, religion, and family, the historical events experienced in early adult- hood significantly shape lifelong political leanings. In the same way that the first few years of education determine the way children learn, the first few years of political awareness determine the way adults vote and lead. Therefore, what leaders experienced—or didn’t experience—when they were young can affect their priorities when they’re older. Trump, for example, learned to read before Brown v. Board of Education, graduated from college during the protests against the Vietnam War, and was well into middle age by the time scientists started to realize the seriousness of human impact on climate change. Joe Biden (b. 1942) was a young adult when JFK was elected, a grown man during the civil rights movement, and already a grieving dad in the US Senate during the 1970s push for women’s liberation. Age can also determine how quickly leaders adapt to new technology and ideas: when Facebook was created in 2004, Mitch McConnell (b. 1942) was eligible for Social Security.

Age, then, is not just a number; it can help measure whether our leaders are closer to the past than they are to the future. Many of the assumptions of the twentieth century seem hopelessly outdated in the twenty-first, and where boomers see icons, many millennials see relics. Former vice president Joe Biden inadvertently highlighted the generational tension in June 2019 when he saw the clock ticking down on one of his answers in the first Democratic presidential primary debate. “My time’s up,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

When I started writing this book in 2017, there were shockingly few millennials in elected office: just five in Congress, even though if representation were proportional to population there should have been about ninety-seven. But millennials were already making changes on the state and local level. When I first met Mayor Pete Buttigieg for coffee in 2017, he mentioned a Jon Stewart graduation speech that he had recently found on YouTube. “He said, ‘Here’s the thing about the real world: we broke it, sorry’—I think he meant grown-ups,” Pete told me, shouting over the noise in a coffee shop in Midtown Manhattan. “He said, ‘We broke it, but the thing is, if you figure out how to fix it, you get to be the next Greatest Generation.’” Back then, Pete was just the ambitious mayor of a small American city, but clearly angling for something bigger: he was already working with top Democratic strategists and hobnobbing with national reporters in preparation for his next move.

New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t have much in common with Pete Buttigieg politically, but on this they agree: “The America we grew up in is nothing like the America our parents or our grand- parents grew up in,” she told me in her office on Capitol Hill. “A lot of what we have to deal with are issues and decisions that were made by people in generations before us.”

Over the last three years, the quiet rumblings of generational change have become a deafening roar. You can hear it in the din of the crowds at campaign rallies, in the youthful voices singing at global climate marches, in the staticky silence after Mark Zuckerberg has to explain to retirement-age senators how Facebook makes money. You can sense it in the urgency around tackling police violence, the demands to address the student debt crisis, and the drumbeat of youth-led activism around reforming America’s gun laws. You can see it in the young mayors implementing progressive policies on the local level, in the first-time women candidates who seized congressional seats in the 2018 midterms, and in the surprise momentum behind the presidential aspirations of a thirty-eight-year-old Indiana mayor.

Still, millennials will have to significantly increase their voter turnout in order to turn their social power into political power. They’re already stirring: while young voters still don’t turn out to vote anywhere near the rate of their grandparents, millennial turnout doubled in the 2018 midterms, sug- gesting that their phase of political apathy may be coming to an end. It’s also worth noting that young voters don’t necessarily favor young candidates: just look at the youth movement sustaining seventy-eight-year-old Bernie Sanders’s political ambitions. The first wave of the millennial vanguard came after the 2008 election, when a handful of young people—many of them young black men—heeded Obama’s call to be “the change that we seek” and stepped up to run for state and local offices around the country. From Stockton, California, to Ithaca, New York, millennials took their first steps toward civic leadership by revitalizing American cities for the twenty-first century.

Then, in 2016, Hillary Clinton tried to become the first woman president, and Donald Trump was elected instead. That election shifted the calculus for many young people, as Obama’s rosy vision of American progress was suddenly cast in shadow. One of the most racially diverse generations in history saw a president defend white nationalists while denigrating immigrants and nonwhite Americans. The generation that would inherit a dying planet saw a seventy-one-year-old withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. The most openly LGBTQ generation in history saw him ban transgender people from the military. The generation raised on third-wave feminism saw a man who bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy” beat the first woman to have a serious chance at the presidency.

Some despaired, but others mobilized. And as young black men had stepped up to emulate Obama after 2008, young women stepped up to confront Trump after 2016. In the wake of his election, a historic wave of young first-time women candidates ran for offices as big as Congress and as small as town council. Because of women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Haley Stevens of Michigan, and Lauren Underwood of Illinois, there were more women in Congress in 2019 than ever before, and millennial representation had jumped fivefold in one cycle.

This book is not a forty-under-forty list of Washington, DC, power players, nor is it a comprehensive account of the most powerful millennials in the country (which would include generational outliers such as Trump advisors Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner, who are not elected, and not exactly representative of their generation). It’s also not an up-to-the-minute news account of the inner workings of Washington, DC: I finished reporting this book in the fall of 2019, before Trump faced impeachment. And while I include Republicans such as Dan Crenshaw and Elise Stefanik, the majority of young leaders in this book are Democrats. That’s a reflection of the political identity of this generation, which leans to the left by almost every available metric. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 60 percent of millennials say they’re “consistently” or “mostly” liberal, while only 12 percent say they’re “consistently” or “mostly” conservative.

I selected characters whose lives were marked by the major events of the first decades of the twenty-first century: 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession, the election of Barack Obama and then Donald Trump. These events shaped their personal experiences—they fought overseas, or experienced the economic collapse firsthand, or worked in the Obama White House—but also informed the broader attitudes of their peers. Millennials are more financially precarious, less likely to support war overseas, and significantly more progressive than their parents on most issues. They’ve largely abandoned the sexual politics of the Christian right and feel significantly more urgency around addressing climate change. They grew up in an America that is more diverse and more socially progressive than any time in history, and their lives reflect both the increased opportunities for women and people of color, and the work still left to do. Their lifetimes have been punctuated by school shootings and extreme weather events, and their reality has been defined by the failure of old structures and the rise of new systems. By learning where they’ve been, we can get a sense of where we’re going.

Every couple of decades, American politics experiences a generational turnover. The Greatest Generation, the ones who fought WWII, led the civic revival of the 1950s and ’60s, building everything from the national highway system to world class research universities to the rockets that took men to the moon. The Silent Generation came into office in the 1970s as “Watergate babies” determined to reform Washington after Nixon’s scandal. The boomers began their takeover in the 1980s and ’90s with an emphasis on individualism that led them toward privatization, tax cuts, and an emphasis on “personal responsibility.” Generation X (born in the late 1960s and ’70s) is on the ascent, with leaders like Stacey Abrams and Ted Cruz looking to make their mark.

Millennials are next to seize the torch. This book is about what they believe and why they believe it, and what America might look like when they’re in charge.

Table of Contents

Introduction xi

Author's Note xix

The Ones xxi

Part 1

Chapter 1 One Sunny Tuesday 3

Chapter 2 Harry Potter and the Spawn of the Boomers 28

Chapter 3 Getting into College, Getting Out of Debt 44

Chapter 4 The Last Dinosaurs 54

Chapter 5 This Is the War That Never Ends 63

Part 2

Chapter 6 The Rocket Ship 81

Chapter 7 The Crash 92

Chapter 8 Fix the System 101

Chapter 9 Fuck the System 113

Chapter 10 The Locals 130

Chapter 11 The Young Grand Old Party 148

Part 3

Chapter 12 House of Glass, 2016 165

Chapter 13 The Pilgrimage of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez 181

Chapter 14 "Senator, We Run Ads" 194

Chapter 15 Millennial Red 213

Chapter 16 The Pink Wave 226

Chapter 17 Defend, Distance, Defect, or Defeat 248

Chapter 18 Ladies of the House 265

Chapter 19 The Double Helix 282

Epilogue 293

Acknowledgments 295

Note on Sources 299

Notes 301

Index 333

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