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Filling in the Generation Gaps

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Thanksgiving is the holiday that pulls families together, squeezing them around a table for a feast of turkey, tradition and togetherness. We encourage conversations meant to be personally relevant, but sometimes they turn into a horizontal Babel, with each generation speaking in a different tongue. It's a stretch to identify an entire generation by its tastes in fashion and music, but such tastes offer strong clues.

You can separate boomers from Generation Xers and millenials by who prefers the Beatles, Michael Jackson or Lady Gaga. Seniors who came of age during World War II still groove on Glenn Miller and Tony Bennett. There's lots of dividers between generations.

The most fortunate among us during this holiday share in the joy of children and grandchildren, trying hard to ignore current fashions. Otherwise we'd lose our appetites over contemporary hairstyles, such as the retro Brylcreem flat-and-greasy of "Mad Men," Justin's Beiber bangs, spikey manes more suitable for a horse or the ignominious combed-over bald spot. But if music and hairstyle draw only superficial judgments, divisive political attitudes run deeper.

The Pew Research Center, which studies such things, reminds us that generations, like people, have different collective personalities and political opinions, forged by differences in culture and history. The newest Pew survey looks at differences in political persuasion and patriotism. Some of the results are what we might have expected. Others are not.

The most dismaying discovery is the overall decline in pride of country, a diminished confidence in "American exceptionalism," a declining appreciation of what's special about our brand of democracy. Exceptionalism is what Ronald Reagan meant when he said he believed that "God put this land between two great oceans to be found by special people from every corner of the world." Like John F. Kennedy before him, he saw Americans as bearing a "torch of liberty" in a unique experiment of democracy that others would find inspiring and want to imitate.

Exceptionalism is often misinterpreted as inflated nationalism, but what it really refers to are those superior qualities that our Founding Fathers drew on to give birth to our government. These are the exceptional values that inspired Alexis de Tocqueville, which he hoped would take root in his native France. (They didn't.)

Unfortunately, the Pew survey finds that our own pride of process and place is appreciated by only 49 percent of Americans today, down from 60 percent in 2002 and 55 percent in 2007. The divide between youth and age is dramatic. Only 37 percent of Americans under 30 are likely to see us as exceptional, compared to 60 percent of those older than 50.

This decline in pride coincides with steep distrust of government in the different generations across the board. Only one in five of all Americans say they trust Washington to do the right thing, and these numbers are at the lowest levels in half a century. It's not hard to see what contributes to this disillusionment -- high unemployment, home foreclosures, an astronomical budget deficit, persistent partisan rancor, the craven failure of the debt panel and the overwhelming ineffectiveness of elected officials.

The Pew survey uses conventional labels for the generations that are not as descriptive as they ought to be, but which are familiar enough. Seniors born before 1946 make up "The Silent Generation," a name that sounds wrong when you consider how loud their voices have become in protecting their entitlements. Baby boomers include all those rebels born between 1946 and 1980, who have grown increasingly conservative as they find more things they want to conserve. If once they didn't trust anyone over 30, they're less likely to trust those under 30 now. Generation Xers born between 1965 and 1980 enjoyed the boom times of the '90s, but are caught now in the undertow of recession, many having bought their houses at the top of the market. Like the boomers, they've grown more conservative as they grow older and begin to worry about retirement.

Pew found that the millenial generation, the youngest voters, born between 1981 and 2000, enthusiastically supported Barack Obama. While the younger Democratic-leaning voters continue to support Obama, the president's job rating has fallen as steeply among this group as in others. More worrisome for the president as he embarks on his re-election campaign, the youngest voters are considerably less engaged in politics than they were four years ago.

It's tempting to search this survey for clues to who will win in 2012, but we'll have to wait, as usual, until the fat lady sings. The most famous singing fat lady in the memory of some of us was Kate Smith. Her voice and her song, "God Bless America," helped get us through a Depression and a war. That's something still to be thankful for.

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