The generational change in politics

I had a minor mid-life crisis in class a few weeks ago. We were talking about the criteria for removal from office of a chief executive, and the example of Bill Clinton’s impeachment came up. One student then said something to the effect of “I heard that “¦..” I have forgotten precisely what he said he heard ““ the important point wasn’t the substance of the remark, but the fact that he had no first-hand knowledge of the event. He  had simply “heard” about it.

I suppose I should not have been surprised. Every time I teach my intro course on American politics, I ask students to relate the first political experience of their lives ““ the event or experience that first made them aware of politics. When I started teaching here fifteen years ago, students still had conscious memories of the Reagan presidency, and their first political experience usually was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Over the years, of course, that label has been pushed forward in time. In more recent years I was relieved to see that students’ first political experience was no longer Monica Lewinsky, and all that implied. It was replaced by the Florida recount, then 9-11.

I knew intellectually that Clinton’s impeachment was fading in memory. But this was the first time that fact had been presented to me so clearly. “I heard that” ““ the same way I had heard about urban riots or the Tet Offensive.

That got me thinking about my own perspective on political history. I remember watching Nixon’s resignation when I was in sixth grade. For my first-year students this year, that event occurred twenty-one years before they were born. Now, when I was a freshman in college (we still called it “freshman” then), a similar time gap would focus on events occurring in 1942 ““ FDR and World War II.

So, the political events of my youth are to my current students what FDR and World War II were to me when I was their age ““ the stuff of John Wayne movies. And that means that I am to my current students what those professors of mine back at Georgetown were to me.

They seemed so OLD ““ especially when I realize that a similar time gap for my professors when THEY were undergraduates goes back to William McKinley. And for one of my grad school professors, born in 1904, we’re talking Chester Arthur!

All of a sudden, time seems to be telescoped. Did you know that I am the intellectual great-grandson of Woodrow Wilson? It’s true. One of his preceptors at Princeton was Charles McIlwain, who taught Emmette Redford at Harvard, who taught me in graduate school. I could go on in similar fashion about my connection to the Crockett of Alamo fame, but that’s another story.

All of which brings me to my observation about political and cultural memory. In one of my courses we discuss Aristotle’s observation that acts of sexual violence by rulers can lead to political disorder. At one time I could count on my students jumping immediately to the “Braveheart” example, but not anymore. Now, sometimes entire classes have not seen “Braveheart” (how is that possible?). Similarly, when talking about how Hollywood depictions of the presidency raise unrealistic expectations about presidential power and influence, I could make references to “Dave” and “The American President” and count on students understanding my point. Now I have to recommend Netflix. The worst example of this was when I went into my typical riff connecting Plato’s degeneration of the soul to various races in Star Trek ““ which means nothing if students don’t know what Vulcans, Klingons and the Borg are. For crying out loud, they don’t even know who Leonard Nimoy is!

I know, I should watch “Veep,” but I don’t get HBO. But clearly, I need to update my pop culture references.

In about two years, our new first-year students will have no conscious memory of 9-11. Will that attack fade from influence in American politics? Trajectory-altering events like the Civil War and the Great Depression (and its aftermath, World War II) were cataclysmic enough to shape politics for generations. I dislike “end of history” arguments, so I don’t think we are at the point where trajectory-changing politics is impossible. But it’s not clear to me that 9-11 or its aftermath provided either party with the political capital necessary to effect such change.

And it seems rather odd that the youngest cohort of voters, facing the likely presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton in 2016, will have no real connection to the then-youthful Bill Clinton’s administration. He’s ancient history. I don’t know if that works for or against her.

I have no grand conclusion to these ruminations. Chalk it up to the sudden realization that I am a full generation away from my students ““ thus my minor mid-life crisis. And for my colleagues who remember where they were when Kennedy was shot ““ my apologies.