Matthew Yglesias and Garrett M. Graff on the Election’s Generational Divide

Mother Hale, as Nancy Reagan's guest during
Ronald's 1985 State of the Union Address.
Photo: Getty Images

Every day (or close to it) until November 4, a series of writers and thinkers will discuss the election over instant messenger for nymag.com. Today, Think Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias and Garrett M. Graff, author of The First Campaign and editor-at-large for the Washingtonian, discuss the generational split among voters, how our economy might be transformed for the better, and why, in the election, technology and innovation are the elephant in the room.

M.Y.: I wonder what you make of the generational divide in the election this year — your book seems germane, and McCain looked more old-mannish than ever to me last night.

G.G.: This election, even more than we realized, is shaping up to be a generational election — will the Millennials take over or the Greatest Generation rule one more time? McCain is really struggling to not come off as a cranky old man, but he has the problem of, well, being a cranky old man — out of touch with the world and the trends of the last decade.

M.Y.: But do you think there's anything of substance to the generational split among voters, or is it really all about style?

G.G.: There is substance behind it. Obama won the Millennials — those under 30 — in the primary and that put him over the top with Hillary, whose support was largely 60+. The Millennials are more socially tolerant and more diverse (one in three non-white) than any other generation. We see the world differently and are more understanding of it.

M.Y.: Obama does seem to personify the era of globalization. He's been sort of running away from that image in order to compete in the Rust Belt, but I think that no matter what he says or does, that's an inescapable part of his persona and it fits with a less-nationalistic approach to foreign policy.

G.G.: Absolutely! He's also been trying, at times, to make a positive case for international trade, which I think is an important step for the Democrats. The whole "Green Jobs" movement is a huge opportunity for the United States to invent what's next. So here's my question for you: Can the Rust Belt be won over to international trade, or is McCain's "Country First" too compelling a motto?

M.Y.: Well, the economists are always reminding us that trade has winners and losers, and it doesn't seem realistic to me that you'll ever get the losers to embrace policies that may cause their factory to shut down. At the same time, it's nowhere written in the laws of nature that the United States has to be a net importer; for all I know, we'll emerge from the current economic problems as an export-oriented country like Germany. My sense is that the most contentious future trade disputes are actually going to relate to agriculture rather than manufacturing, which may make it easier for Democrats (and harder for Republicans) to be free traders.

G.G.: Huh — I had someone at the National Association of Manufacturers tell me last year that the challenge of trade is that you always know if you're about to lose a job but you never know if you're about to gain a job. For instance, we all hear about the factory down the street being closed, but no one reads about the fact that your neighbor Michael Dell just founded in his garage a company that one day will employ 88,000 people.

M.Y.: Speaking of which — it seems problematic to me that we don't seem to hear any explicit discussion of technology-policy issues in our political campaigns. The whole nexus of telecommunications and intellectual-property issues is very economically significant and very dependent on political decisions, but candidates never talk about any of it.

G.G.: The idea of tech policy in the race dried up when Mark Warner dropped out — and, to our earlier discussion about McCain, part of that lack of discussion comes from the fact that McCain doesn't use the Internet personally. Obama, though, has talked about appointing a chief technology officer for the United States and it appears that Vint Cerf, who literally invented the Internet and now works for Google, is the leading candidate for that. He danced all around the question during a Q&A here in D.C. Monday night at the Cosmos Club and said he wasn't supposed to talk about it. That'd be a very welcome move to getting the U.S. back on the innovation track.

M.Y.: Indeed. Although McCain, despite not knowing how to e-mail, has actually been the top Republican on the committee overseeing the telecom industry for a long time now. I would think he could make something of that — come out with some interesting ideas, be they good ones or bad ones. Instead all we got was a dumb Doug Holtz-Eakin joke about McCain inventing the BlackBerry.

G.G.: Yeah, to me there's a disconnect in McCain's approach to tech. He's obviously smarter about it than he seems (given his time on the issues in the Senate), but the fact that during the last decade he never sat down on a Saturday afternoon and said, “I'm going to teach myself how to use the Web and send e-mail,” is troubling. It just feeds the out-of-touch-ness. Obama on the BlackBerry himself is a powerful image.

M.Y.: It really does make you wonder what he was basing his policy decisions on. You'd think he'd be curious, right? He's voting on these bills, and his office has computers in it. Still, to me the most remarkable thing isn't about McCain personally but how slowly our definition of the "important issues" shifts — the whole idea of the information economy still isn't much more than a throwaway line as far as political campaigns are concerned.

G.G.: I think what Americans are really missing in this campaign is a candidate who puts all these pieces together. Look, they know we're on the wrong track. One GOP congressman told me they just had a poll come out of Michigan that showed the “right track/wrong track” question garnered effectively 100 to 0 wrong track. But people don't know where to turn. They want a leader who can take the economic mess, the energy mess, the technology mess, the health-care mess, the education mess, the national-security mess, and unite it all into a vision for the future — how America can succeed in the 21st century. The answers, sadly, are pretty clear. The candidates just haven't pulled them together yet.

M.Y.: I'm not so optimistic that the answers people are looking for are the right ones. One reason this discussion gets confused is that politicians insist on talking about energy in terms of "energy independence." The polling really backs them up on that — people love the phrase — but on the merits it doesn't make much sense as an objective.

G.G.: I've been surprised that Tom Friedman's new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, hasn't gotten more attention in this race — it's the best-selling book in the country, it's about these big, central questions, and no candidate has raised it that I know of. He certainly shows that “energy independence” isn't the main question. Do you have any suggestions about how to move the debate to a better answer?

M.Y.: Well, it seems to me that you can illustrate the energy-independence fallacy pretty easily by pointing out that we import an awful lot of our energy from Canada, but I'm not sure that really reframes the argument in the right way at the end of the day. The problem is that all evidence suggests that global warming is a low priority for most Americans, and I don't know what to do about that.

G.G.: Part of it is also that our leaders aren't willing to ask for sacrifices. I don't know what moments stood out for you in the debate last night, but for me one was the question about sacrifice — and both candidates purposely whiffed the answer. No one is ready to stand up and say we can't have everything in the world, live any way that we want, and not pay for any of it ever. It's as if the American Dream is now really just naked, unbridled greed.

M.Y.: Maybe; although honestly I'm not sure how much the average family really ought to be asked to sacrifice. It seems to me that given the enormous run-up in inequality over the past 30 years and recent revelations about the quality of decision-making the “masters of the universe” have been offering that we should be focusing more and asking the tiny minority of multimillionaires to do most of the sacrificing.

G.G.: Fair point yet even middle-class families have tens of thousands in credit-card debt, haven't saved for retirement, and helped fuel these subprime McMansion disasters. There's that great poll that David Brooks always cites, though, about how 20 percent of Americans believe they're in the top 1 percent of income earners and another 20 percent, when asked, believe they'll be in the top 1 percent within five years. American optimism at its best!

Earlier: Katie Roiphe and Matthew Yglesias on the Financial Crisis’ Upside and Why McCain May Well ‘Win’ Tonight’s Debate

For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.