I didn’t watch the State of the Union. I didn’t have to. I watched it last year. I watched his non-state of the union in 2017. I cover politics for a living. I knew what the raving lunatic was going to say. Instead, I went to a hockey game and concentrated my frustrations on sports instead of the orange banshee haunting America. I am on the record as being extremely anti-State of the Union, no matter who delivers it. If it weren’t for my job, I’d never pay much attention to it.
It’s a dumb (new) tradition that makes us dumber. For most of our history, it was simply a letter delivered from one branch of the government to another outlining the legislation they planned to pass together that year. Since the advent of TV, the practice has become distorted, and no matter whether it’s Trump, Obama or LBJ giving the speech, it all comes across as some kind of North Korean-style propaganda where Dear Leader only highlights their (supposed) accomplishments and outlines plans for the future that around half the people in the room intend to block—all while standing up to applaud Dear Leader’s words with the frequency and predictability of a 1990s sitcom audience.
Blue POTUS says liberal thing, half the room stands up and claps. Red POTUS says a conservative thing, the other half of the room stands up and claps. If any POTUS praises the military, seniors or small business, everyone stands up and claps. Etc…etc…etc…These speeches are completely performative and any substance that they contain could be expressed in a far more productive arena than this made-for-TV event.
So I’m not here to talk about Trump or any of the predictable nonsense he spewed last night. I’m here to talk about the future of the only party with the capability to save America from the tailspin that all other empires have failed to pull out of, and how its new superstar visualized the stark generational divide in the Democratic Party for all to see last night.
The last forty years of Democratic policymaking have been defined by conceding ground before the fight has even begun, and prioritizing norms over policy outcomes (even if they are recently conceived norms that Boomers' grandparents wouldn't recognize, like the filibuster's doubly untouchable partner in crime—cloture). The story that every millennial child was told growing up about Bill Clinton's supposed political genius was that he yanked the Democrats out of the doldrums and to the right—espousing the longstanding Democratic policy of social equality while embracing conservative austerity economics. Almost a decade later, we all graduated from college in the wake of the largest economic collapse since the Great Depression.
In 2016, a supremely competent woman who doubled as the hand-picked successor to Bill Clinton's Democratic Party (and who it should be said, would have been a far better president than Bill) lost to a man who alternated between asking Russia to commit espionage against a former Secretary of State and telling everyone how hot his daughter was. This humiliation for the entirety of liberalism proved that the milquetoast centrism which defined the last forty years of Democratic politics—the milquetoast centrism that still exists to such an absurd degree as to have Democrats applauding anything in a State of the Union delivered by Donald freaking Trump—does not have a coalition large enough to win a presidential election. Period. End of story.
The future is here—serving in congress—and the future is pissed
People over the age of 50 are why President Donald J. Trump exists, and they are the only reason why a second term for him is a seriously realistic possibility. If it were up to the folks who have to live in the future created by the present, Trump would have absolutely no shot at winning a second term, all those people applauding Trump would instead be scowling like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Joe Manchin wouldn't even be in the room. There is a stark generational divide in American politics and that video is the best visualization you will find.
To give you an idea of the nature of the divide, what do you think the biggest generational disagreement in politics is? Healthcare? The Green New Deal?
According to Pew, Gen Z (+23 approve) and millennials (+26 approve) back Colin Kaepernick and his NFL allies, differing dramatically from Gen X (+9 disapprove), Boomers (+24 disapprove) and Silent (+39 disapprove) on whether NFL players’ protests are acceptable. There is no other polling Pew conducted with this kind of obvious generational split.
This disagreement is directly connected to AOC’s glare. Millennials are done playing nice for the sake of being nice. Yes, our military heroes should be honored (you don’t need to tell this grandson of a WWII vet this), but the fact that we define honoring as “not kneeling during the national anthem” more than “ensuring that veterans get the healthcare they need from the VA” is proof of how this debate is FAR more symbolic than substantive, and that’s not the only topic in politics where this dynamic takes root. It’s just a fact that the Democratic politics of the last forty years had less substance than the politics of post-2016, and that’s largely thanks to the influx of millennials into politics and our focus on policies, not politicians. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is popular not because she’s good at Instagram, but because she wants to take most of Howard Schultz’s money and use it to give you health care and save the planet.
This country was built on the dual foundations of slavery and genocide, and public polling demonstrates that millennials (even Republican millennials—24% of which identify as socialist or Democratic Socialist) and the under-21 Gen Z crowd (who is a more populous generation than us) connect our original sins to systemic injustices that older generations typically rebut with standard American propaganda. Like the video above, older Democrats stand up and clap for the president, while the younger Democrat scoffs at the notion of showing any respect towards a transparently criminal leader who terrorizes marginalized communities.
This is the generational divide in politics: looking at politics through the lens of systemic injustices. Trump isn’t an aberration, but the logical result of the last forty years of Republican politics (enabled by a spineless Democratic Party all too eager to kowtow to America’s wealthiest interests).
Forget norms. Forget niceties. Forget decorum. The world is on fire and we’re arguing about semantics and clapping during a Trump State of the Union address. What the hell are we doing here, folks? If we do not 100% decarbonize the GLOBAL economy in the next 12 YEARS, millennials are guaranteed to die on a planet with a fundamentally different constitution than the planet that Baby Boomers were born into.
If that extremely likely event happens, that’s your only legacy, over-50 crowd.
We find ourselves in the midst of a crisis as big as this world has ever faced, and poll after poll demonstrates that on the whole, younger generations understand the structural issues that led to Donald freaking Trump giving a State of the Union address far better than older generations do (I should note that my generalization only extends so far into older generations, as Pew notes that on the topic of wanting government to do “more” to help people, “Among Democrats, however, these generational divides largely disappear”).
Normally, I’d say that the State of the Union was nothing but a waste of time, but this year it provided us with an important symbolic moment. Watching AOC mean mug and refuse to participate in the empty symbolism of the status quo made me feel represented in congress for the first time in my 32 years on this increasingly warm planet.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.