Keeping up with the Joneses

Posted: Nov 02, 2006 12:01 AM
Keeping up with the Joneses

It's not easy to wear a label. Too many issues crisscross the lines between liberal and conservative. As in most big families, we're squabbling with each other and challenging Papa Bush and fighting with Mommy Pelosi. Their advisers and consultants are fuming about how to "turn out the base," but it's not clear anymore just what "the base" means.

Peggy Noonan, the scribe for the Reagan Revolution, questions the meaning of the term everyone is talking about. "Nobody sees himself as the base," she observes in The Wall Street Journal. "They see themselves as individuals. And they're not dumb. . . . They know when you're trying to manipulate them."

Camille Paglia, the maverick of arts and letters who describes herself as a Democrat but not a Bush hater, pinpoints the flaw in what the pollsters call her "cohort." She blames the culture of dumbness wrought by liberal professors on campus and encouraged in real life.

"My generation of baby-boom Democrats hasn't done much thinking about international issues except in terms of postmodernist fragmentation or fuzzy, smiley-face multiculturalism," she tells Salon magazine. "We desperately need better candidates." She's particularly hard on baby boomer Bill Clinton, "a compulsive blabbermouth who is compromising his own dignity as a former president. . . . Why is Clinton undermining the authority of the president when national security is so sensitive?" It's too late for Hillary to dump him, but if she were to become president we'd really be in trouble, saddled with a dangerous co-presidency.

If the boomers don't understand the rules of the world where they live, the generation of voters in college today knows even less. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute recently tested 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges with 60 questions on American history, government, market economies and U.S. foreign policy. The average "civic literacy" score for seniors was 53.2 percent, for freshman 54.7 percent. Failing grades all.

The longer a student attends class, the dumber he gets. Students at the elite schools fared worse than students at some church and land-grant schools. The Ivy League school whose students ranked highest were those at Princeton, at No. 18. Harvard's students were 25th. The lowest scores were posted at such bastions of higher learning as Cornell, University of California at Berkeley and Johns Hopkins. Go figure, as some unhappy parents will no doubt do.

But there's a voting cohort between Generation Xers and boomers that bears watching. They're the not-so-young Generation Jones. If they're not "the lost generation," they're invisible to most of our culture commentators. The Joneses, who were born between 1954 and 1965, are usually included in the boomer cohort, but Jonathan Pontell, a pop culture consultant who coined the name, says that's a mistake. He thinks the Jonesers may be crucial in next week's congressional elections.

"Coming of age politically in the late 1970s and early 1980s," he says, "Jonesers were the much discussed 'ReaganYouth,' and are the most conservative U.S. generation by a considerable margin." He credits Jonesers, particularly the women, with tipping the election for George W. in the swing states two years ago when they comprised approximately a quarter of the electorate.

They are disproportionately represented among theme voters, such as NASCAR enthusiasts, Office Park Dads and Soccer-Security-Mortgage Moms. They cluster around issues of "moral values," and were polled as pulling away from conservative candidates after the Foley scandal. Now the latest polls show that they have conspicuously returned to the Republican base (apologies to Peggy Noonan).

What makes them different from the boomers is that during their formative years, while their older brothers and sisters were indulging the hedonistic pleasures of Woodstock, they were at home watching the Brady Bunch and supping on mashed potatoes with both parents at the dinner table. They were not traumatized by the Kennedy assassination, but terrified by Jimmy Carter's Iranian hostage crisis. They weren't interested in kicking Richard Nixon around, but were grateful to Ronald Reagan for restoring America's strength in the world.

All labels, generational or otherwise, are handy for pollsters but ultimately misleading. We're more likely to identify with those who share the nostalgia for our youth, especially the connections of music, whether Frank Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, Jim Morrison or Madonna. Pop icons don't always tell you much about voter preferences, but Bob Dylan famously observed that "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." Next week we're likely to learn which candidates kept up with the Joneses.