For the most part, generational politics are a self-defeating enterprise, because you end up attacking your allies. It is hard to attack people about whom you know little, but it is easy to find fault with those you know well. Every generation strains against its parents and every generation strains to teach its children. This is why it has been encouraged among the majority populations in the West. It is an effective way of keeping a natural majority from forming up in opposition to the ruling elite.
That said, there is something useful to thinking generationally. Oswald Spengler relied upon a form of generational politics to put forth his theory of history. Of course, we have the old adage, “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”. This describes the inability of grandchildren to manage the wealth passed down to them from their grandparents and parents. This is Spengler’s argument in a nutshell. A civilization rises, accomplishes what it can and then falls into decline.
We are witnessing the end phase with the Global American Empire. It is not exactly a three generation cycle, but the basics are right. One theory of American history says the empire was founded at Gettysburg. That would mean the current generation of rulers is the fifth or sixth generation. On the other hand, some argue the Second World War is the founding of the empire, so that mean the third generation is in charge. The concept still works and is closer to the old adage.
Even if we place the start of the empire in the middle of that last century, the men who founded it were men of the prior age. Roosevelt was born in 1882 so he was an old man during the war. His Secretary of State during the war was born in 1871 so he was even older than his boss. Roosevelt’s Secretary of War was Henry Stimson and he was born in 1867. The point here is the generation that created the American empire were not the “greatest generation”, but their grandparents.
The best example of the distance between the generation that created the empire and the present is in the biography of Cordell Hull, FDR’s Secretary of State. He was born in a log cabin in Tennessee. He was a rising man of his community at 16, when he gave his first political speech. He fought in the Spanish-American War. His father killed a man in a blood feud. Hull is a bit of an outlier, but most of the people in that regime were tough guys who earned their position.
When the next generation took over for the founding generation of the empire, they were mostly men who fought in the war. Then as now, avoiding war was the instinct of the politically inclined, but they needed to have at least worn the uniform. JFK was in the Navy during the war. Johnson was in the war as was Nixon. Of course, Eisenhower was the last man of the founding generation to serve as President. Reagan was the first leader of the empire who had not worn the uniform.
The point here is that when we put aside the pedantry of the generational lines, we see the old adage comes into focus. Spengler’s observation about the life cycle of a civilization becomes clear. That founding period was made by tough men who had to endure great hardship while forging the empire. Their children inherited the empire, but many paid a price while it was being forged. They at least understood the enormous cost to their ancestors and appreciated it.
It is the third generation that is in charge now. This is incredible, given that their grandparents were born in the 19th century. Nancy Pelosi’s father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. was born in 1903. He dodged both wars, by the way. Joe Biden’s parents were a bit younger, born during the Great War. Senator Mitch McConnell’s parents were the same generation as Biden’s parents. In other words, the geezers of the gerontocracy are the third generation and their staff is the fourth.
It is the third generation that followed the type we see in both Spengler’s formulation and that old adage about business. When the Boomer politicians took over in the 1980’s and 1990’s they started to auction off their inheritance. The first step was the financialization of politics. The old “coalition of interest groups” system was replaced with naked graft. Wealthy interests bought the political system because the new generation of leaders had no emotional attachment to it.