Move Over, Boomers

Jessica Clark

In his inter­view with two 30-some­thing envi­ron­men­tal­ists who have chal­lenged the movement’s sta­tus quo, Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor Adam Wer­bach asks if the baby boomers are to blame for the sad state of affairs. What should these lead­ers do now?” he asks. Die?”

"The old era of political party identification is giving way to a disaggregated thunderdome of cause-based politics, distributed democracy, MoveOn house parties and do-it-yourself politics."

No blood need be shed, but many boomers are reluc­tant­ly being forced to make way for younger activists with a crop of new ideas. Prag­mat­ic, vision­ary and entre­pre­neur­ial, these prac­tivists,” mold­ed by the social and polit­i­cal trends of the last 15 years, are reshap­ing pro­gres­sive politics.

Raised dur­ing the hey­day of eco­log­i­cal activism and the rise of a post-indus­tri­al net­worked soci­ety, prac­tivists are steeped in sys­tems think­ing. Hav­ing come of age dur­ing the fall of the Berlin Wall, they are sus­pi­cious of nation­al­ism and arti­fi­cial dual­i­ties, a mis­trust fur­ther informed by aca­d­e­m­ic and polit­i­cal train­ing in decon­struct­ing absolute iden­ti­ty cat­e­gories like race or gen­der. Prac­tivists pre­fer to empha­size sim­i­lar­i­ties rather than dwell in the silos” of var­i­ous isms.”

Like oth­er, less-politi­cized mem­bers of their cohort, prac­tivists are also savvy con­sumers and media crit­ics. They see pol­i­tics as a flu­id field of choice rather than a hard-and-fast test of their own rad­i­cal iden­ti­ties, and under­stand both the val­ue and the arti­fi­cial­i­ty of brand­ing, siz­zle and inter­ac­tiv­i­ty. Their polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al mobil­i­ty allows them to imag­ine alliances that con­found old­er activists trained in iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics or issue-based organizing. 

The old era of polit­i­cal par­ty iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is giv­ing way to a dis­ag­gre­gat­ed thun­der­dome of cause-based pol­i­tics, dis­trib­uted democ­ra­cy, MoveOn house par­ties and do-it-your­self pol­i­tics,” writes Dan Car­ol in Alternet’s new book, Start Mak­ing Sense. Peer-to-peer pol­i­tics … is replac­ing the par­ty as the place where new stuff happens.”

Democ­rats, unions, and pro­gres­sive mem­ber­ship orga­ni­za­tions are all scram­bling to attract the prac­tivists, whose tech­ni­cal skills and yen for actu­al­ly earn­ing a liv­ing make them both valu­able and hard to retain.

The class inter­ests of the prac­tivists may be their weak­est link. Taught that iden­ti­fy­ing with or roman­ti­ciz­ing the oppressed is akin to col­o­niz­ing them, many of these blog­gers, cul­ture jam­mers and rad­i­cal con­sul­tants oper­ate from a place of priv­i­lege not root­ed in work­ing Amer­i­ca. Howard Dean’s call for small-donor sup­port of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty, for exam­ple, applies more to mid­dle-class vot­ers with cable modems and time for meet-ups than to work­ers strug­gling to raise chil­dren and nav­i­gate the mine­fields of eco­nom­ic insta­bil­i­ty and mass culture.

In their enthu­si­asm for new projects, prac­tivists run the risk of repli­cat­ing the boomers’ mis­take of turn­ing their backs on the expe­ri­ences of their pre­de­ces­sors. Crit­ics may also find the prac­tivists’ calls for a kinder, more coop­er­a­tive pol­i­tics insuf­fi­cient­ly tough – of a piece with George Lakoff’s descrip­tion of pro­gres­sives as fol­low­ing a nur­tu­rant par­ent” mod­el. While this com­par­i­son has its appeal, it’s uncom­fort­ably sim­i­lar to smears of the left as effete, wishy-washy, and weak – or, as Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger puts it, girly.”

This brings us to one of the not-so-dirty secrets of the prac­tivists: Many are women, as edu­cat­ed, tech­ni­cal­ly skilled and ambi­tious as their male coun­ter­parts, but less inter­est­ed in inter-orga­ni­za­tion­al com­pe­ti­tion and high-pro­file ide­o­log­i­cal spar­ring. Trained and inspired by fem­i­nism, they have explored the lim­i­ta­tions of that move­ment and seek wider hori­zons. Some bide their time – as the gray­er heads of their respec­tive move­ments grand­stand – by cre­at­ing valu­able infra­struc­ture with­in and between their orga­ni­za­tions. Oth­ers have start­ed their own strate­gic and inter­con­nect­ed projects. 

Either way, prac­tivists have had enough of wait­ing for their elders to real­ize that their skills are exact­ly what’s need­ed to forge the emerg­ing pro­gres­sive coali­tions many now seek.

Jes­si­ca Clark is a writer, edi­tor and researcher, with more than 15 years of expe­ri­ence span­ning com­mer­cial, edu­ca­tion­al, inde­pen­dent and pub­lic media pro­duc­tion. Cur­rent­ly she is the Research Direc­tor for Amer­i­can University’s Cen­ter for Social Media. She also writes a month­ly col­umn for PBS’ Medi­aShift on new direc­tions in pub­lic media. She is the author, with Tra­cy Van Slyke, of Beyond the Echo Cham­ber: Reshap­ing Pol­i­tics Through Net­worked Pro­gres­sive Media (2010, New Press).
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