Project Fortress: A Generational Transition of Leadership
“Baby Boomers have been running the country for nearly three decades,” longtime presidential advisor David Gergen recently wrote. “It’s time to pass the baton to younger generations—Millennials and Gen Z.” Gergen is half-right: Baby Boomers have been running the country for nearly three decades—Bill Clinton took the oath of office in 1993—and their time to pass the baton is quickly approaching. But Gergen is wrong about which generation is next in line—and best prepared—to take the baton of national leadership.
X Marks the Spot
Some 71 million at its height, the Baby Boomer Generation is comprised of Americans born between 1946 and 1964. The Millennials—83 million strong—were born between 1981 and the late 1990s. Millennials used to be known as “Generation Y” because that’s what follows Generation X—the 65 million Americans born between 1965 and 1980. Generation Z is comprised of people born between the late 1990s and 2012, which means the very oldest members of Generation Z are still in their early 20s, which means Generation Z is many years away from taking the baton of national leadership.
Generation X, on the other hand, is entering the prime years of leadership. In fact, most of the likely contenders for national leadership on both sides of the aisle—and many other politicians making headlines—are Generation Xers: Ben Sasse, Beto O’Rourke, Chris Sununu, Cory Booker, Gavin Newsom, Gina Raimondo, Gretchen Whitmer, Joni Ernst, Kristi Noem, Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, Ron Desantis, Stacey Abrams, Todd Young, Tom Cotton. (Born in 1964, Vice President Kamala Harris is a Baby Boomer.) This passing of the baton to what Americans call Generation X is already underway in other nations: Zelensky in Ukraine, Macron in France, Trudeau in Canada, Duda in Poland, Andersson in Sweden, Kallas in Estonia, Simonyte in Lithuania and Bennett (now former PM of Israel) are all members of the generation overlooked by Gergen.
Labeled “slackers” by the Boomers, the very term “Generation X” is a kind of backhanded reference to blankness and uncertainty. But even if it’s unnoticed by Gergen, Generation X may be uniquely suited to lead at this moment in history.
A key reason: This moment in history looks and feels strikingly similar to the time into which Generation X was born. The generation that Gergen and too many others have airbrushed out of tomorrow grew up and came of age during the Cold War, which means Generation X remembers firsthand the tensions and trials of that “long twilight struggle.” And yet, Generation X entered adulthood as the Berlin Wall collapsed, the Soviet Empire imploded and the Cold War ended—with the Free World triumphant—which means Generation X remembers firsthand those heady days when freedom and the Free World were on the march.
In other words, Generation X understands both a world of concrete walls and Iron Curtains, armed blocs and barbed-wire borders—and “a world transformed,” a world of interdependence and globalization, a world of open markets, open networks and open horizons. This may be helpful as we drift ever deeper into Cold War II, which will follow the broad contours of Cold War I—but with different characteristics and weapons: There will be a need for flexibility and adaptivity as well as firmness and strength; threats from cyberspace and space as well as land, sea and air; atomic dangers as well as genetic; networks connecting some of us as well as walls—figurative and literal—separating some us.
But like Cold War I, Cold War II at its core will be a continuation of the age-old struggle between freedom and tyranny. Now, as during Cold War I, what we in Generation X were raised to call “the Free World” is under assault from a bloc of tyrant regimes. Now, as during Cold War I, Moscow and Beijing lead that bloc. Now, as during Cold War I, these tyrant regimes want to usher in a new international order.
Perhaps “different” is a better adjective, given that there’s really nothing new about what Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are doing. Since the days of Pharoah, the enemies of freedom and humanity have always done the sorts of things Putin and Xi are doing.
Too many Americans forget or simply don’t realize that Putin—although he’s more of an imperialist than a communist—was molded in the dark shadows of the Soviet empire and trained in the dark arts of Soviet brutality. Thus, at home, he imprisons and kills political opponents; muzzles independent media; eschews the rule of law for the law of one-man rule. Abroad, he brandishes nuclear weapons; wages wars of aggression against peaceful neighbors; commits crimes against humanity; forcibly separates children from their families; disappears innocents; props up regimes that gas and starve their own people; unleashes threats against free peoples in Europe and America.
At home, Xi has erected an Orwellian surveillance state; engaged in genocide; imprisoned bishops and Nobel Peace Prize laureates; bulldozed churches; and turned entire cities into quarantine camps in a hopeless, heartless effort to control a virus via government coercion. Abroad, Xi has erased Hong Kong’s independence; attacked democratic India; threatened war against democratic Taiwan; illegally claimed a vast swath of the South China Sea; built militarized islands to back up those claims; and expanded his nuclear arsenal.
Raised to understand the inherent evil of communism—the gulags, the manmade terror famines of Stalin and Mao, the attempted starvation of West Berlin, the bludgeoning of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the killing fields of Cambodia, the unprovoked invasions of South Korea and Afghanistan, the rule by falsehood and torture and disappearance—Generation X is saddened but not surprised by Xi’s crimes. And raised before postmodernism’s plague of moral emptiness had taken its terrible toll—when Americans didn’t blame themselves for the actions of tyrant regimes, when Americans grasped the “profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest”—Generation X recognizes that Putin, Xi, Khamenei and Kim are to blame for their actions, that America’s imperfections don’t disqualify America from condemning those actions, indeed that America’s imperfections don’t prevent it from daily building a “more perfect union.”
Many—though certainly not all—Millennials seem unable or unwilling to make such distinctions. Polling tells us, for example, that Millennials are less proud of America than older generational cohorts, significantly less likely to embrace the concept of American exceptionalism than their parents and grandparents, and more likely than older generations to view the American flag as a symbol of “imperialism,” “greed” and “intolerance,” rather than a symbol of “freedom.”
This is not to suggest that Americans should be uncritical about our history. In fact, one of the characteristics that makes America exceptional—and indeed strengthens America—is our capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism, which leads to self-correction. However, it appears that many Millennials are engaging not in healthy self-criticism that leads to necessary course corrections, but rather in a kind of moral relativism that results in a belief that America is no better than—and perhaps worse than—other countries. That sort of thinking could lead to troubling outcomes abroad.
Related, some views held by Millennials could lead to troubling outcomes at home. Millennials, for instance, are far more open to and supportive of socialism than their parents and grandparents. Even more troubling, only 55 percent of Millennials think “communism was and still is a problem.”
Not long ago, there was a stigma in America attached to those words. Socialism and communism were viewed, rightly, as alien and indeed hostile to the American way of life. But today, large percentages of Millennials (and Generation Z) don’t grasp that the system of free enterprise and free markets, though imperfect, has fueled the world’s progress for centuries. To put it in very specific terms, the technologies that make our lives easier, working hours more efficient and leisure time more enjoyable—the technologies to which the Millennial Generation is so connected—are the byproduct not of socialism, but of free enterprise.
Characterized by high levels of individual liberty, private ownership of property, limited government intervention in the economy and freedom of choice, the free enterprise system has proven more effective than any of the alternatives humanity has tried. Socialism—which is characterized by high levels of state control, government intervention and wealth redistribution—is one of those alternatives. Indeed, it was the main alternative to free enterprise for much of the 20th century, until its chief proponent—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—utterly and completely failed. Importantly, Generation X watched as Eastern Europe and then Russia itself broke free from the prisonyard of communism—while the Greatest Generation presided over the end of Lenin’s ghastly experiment with mankind.
For a time, the Soviet system’s collapse served as proof of the futility of socialism and the superiority of free enterprise—especially among Americans. But with Millennials and Gen Z lacking the firsthand memory and historical understanding of the myriad problems associated with socialism—and these generations representing a growing share of the electorate—America’s default distaste for Marx’s theories is evaporating.
In short, before Gergen hands the baton to the Millennials, it would be helpful for more of them to learn socialism’s intrinsic shortcomings and communism’s terrifying excesses. A good place to start is the Soviet Union. The Soviet state controlled every aspect of the economy, turned the individual into a cog of the state and adopted the most extreme form of socialism. Yet it failed to meet the basic needs of its people. But don’t take my word for it. Mikhail Gorbachev recalls how, as the Soviet Union collapsed around him, “I was ashamed for my country—perhaps the country with the richest resources on earth, and we couldn’t provide toothpaste for our people.” Or consider the Koreas. Communist North Korea’s GDP is $19 billion, per-capita GDP $1,300 and average life expectancy 70 years. South Korea—embracing economic and political freedom—has a GDP of $1.64 trillion, per-capita GDP of $31,400 and average life expectancy of 82.
As to the excesses spawned by Marx’s theories, communism was responsible for more than 100 million murders in the 20th century. And as long as Marxists remain in power in China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba, communism’s ghastly death toll will continue to grow.
Work to Do
Generations are not monoliths. They are made up of individuals. As K.C. Reid, a former Pentagon official who specializes in understanding generational differences, puts it, “Every kind of person exists within every generation: go-getters and slackers, altruists and self-serving egoists, artists and analysts, optimists and cynics.” That means there are millions of Millennials who love liberty, believe in the Free World and deeply appreciate what it means to be an American. Just look at the ranks of our military, where Millennials comprise about half of the active-duty force.
Even so, there’s a reason generations are distinguishable one from another: Because of common experiences and common culture, their members generally have common characteristics. Each generation is the product of a time and era—and the attitudes and mores of that time and era. The Millennial Generation didn’t create the culture into which they were born—a culture of broken households and broken institutions, a culture of rapid technological advance and rapid moral collapse, a culture clinging to rights but contemptuous of responsibility, a culture that taught them half-truths about the Free World or perhaps taught them nothing at all. Our parenting, our politics, our public policies, our technologies, our pathologies—this is what created the Millennials.
Indeed, older generations tend to forget that their world and their culture is what shapes the generations behind them. Up-and-coming generations tend to believe that what they’re facing is new (it never is) and that they cannot learn anything from their elders (they always can learn something). In short, all generations tend to forget that they are connected.
All of this should serve as an impetus for older—hopefully wiser—generations to get to work preparing and equipping Millennials, because there will indeed be a time for Millennials to lead. That time has not yet come. In the decade or two between now and then, our charge is to make sure the Millennials who take the baton are ready to lead the Free World—and to make sure that there’s a Free World for them to lead.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose and writes the Project Fortress blog. A shorter version of this appeared in Providence.