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Generations Defining -- and Redefining -- American History

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Americans naturally tend to think of their presidents in terms of generations, like they do with their families. This may have started with the news that former Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, half a century to the day the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence they jointly drafted.

The Founding Generation (birth years 1732-1767) held the presidency for nearly half a century, from 1789 to 1837. Five were adults during the American Revolution. Two had childhood memories of it: John Quincy Adams of watching the gunfire smoke from Bunker Hill at age 7, Andrew Jackson of being slashed by a British officer's sword at age 14.

Within a month after Jackson left office, 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln gave his Springfield Lyceum speech, venerating the founders and warning of mob rule. He was part of the antebellum generation (birth years 1773-1809), which held office from 1837-69, grappled with the fissiparous issue of slavery expansion and, after a bloody civil war, abolished the "peculiar institution."

The Civil War generation (birth years 1821-1843) all fought in that war, except Grover Cleveland paid $300 not to do so. Regarded by historians as undistinguished, these presidents presided over amazing technological innovation and tumultuous economic growth in the years 1869-1901. They were followed by the post-Civil War generation (birth years 1856-74), all college graduates, who led America's emergence as a world power in 1901-33.

Each generation held the presidency for 30-some years, as did the three presidents (birth years 1882-90) who served as subordinates in the First World War and commanders in the Second World War, holding office from 1933 to 1961.

There was more turnover for the seven presidents of the G.I. generation (birth years 1908-24), who served from 1961 to 1993, each with World War II military experience. One was murdered; one resigned; and two were defeated for reelection. But after floundering in the late 1960s and 1970s, in the 1980s, they presided over revived, broad-based economic growth and nearly bloodless victory in the Cold War.

How have their successors, the baby-boom generation (birth years 1946-1964), done? They started off when some thought we'd reached "the end of history," with democratic capitalism not seriously challenged. Its first three presidents each served eight years -- the first such trio since the political allies Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe -- and followed elite consensus policies on immigration and trade.

But some consensus policies imploded. Subsidizing minority homebuying produced the 2008 financial collapse and lingering slow growth afterward. The non-enforcement of immigration restrictions produced at least marginal downward pressure on low-skill wages and widening economic inequality.

The trade opening to China produced cheap consumer goods but didn't move China toward rule-based conduct or anything like democracy. And it facilitated the spread of coronaviruses, at first with minimal impact but this year with the devastating COVID-19 killing thousands and shutting down much of the economies of Europe and North America.

The arguable failures of consensus trade and immigration policies fueled the oddball candidacy of Donald Trump in 2016. So did dynastic politics: Trump used Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton as foils in the primaries and general election.

Baby-boomer self-righteousness played a role, too -- Trump's stubborn refusal to admit error or avoid trivia; Barack Obama's and Clinton's apparent attempts to delegitimize Trump, in contrast with their predecessors' choices not to delegitimize the close presidential winners in 1960 and in 2000.

Now, after nearly 30 years, the boomers won't go away. Donald Trump, the third president born in 1946, is running again. Joe Biden, born December 1942, is just a month away from boomer status (defined by William Strauss and Neal Howe's prescient 1991 book, "Generations," as starting in birth year 1943). While 37% of 2016 Republican voters backed post-boomer candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, only 4% of Democratic primary and caucus voters backed Gen Xers Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang this year.

That doesn't mean that younger generations have no influence. The G.I. generation maintained its hold on the White House after 1960s and 1970s ghetto riots and campus rebellions. But it ceded control of the culture to boomer rebels, as Ronald Reagan lamented in his 1989 farewell address.

Similarly, as boomers keep hold of the presidency, many politicians and corporate execs seem ready to cede control of the culture to the Black Lives Matter movement and campus radicals. They're apparently cool with statue smashing -- unbothered by the resemblance to the Taliban's smashing of the Bamiyan Buddhas -- and with trashing American history, as in The New York Times' 1619 Project.

Happy Fourth of July.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.


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See Other Commentaries by Michael Barone.

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