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Why Our Politics Are What They Are: The View From 3 Generations

The United States that 25-year-olds (top row) were born into is very different from the one of the 45-year-olds (middle row) and 65-year-olds NPR spoke with. Those differing circumstances and events have shaped very different political outlooks.
The United States that 25-year-olds (top row) were born into is very different from the one of the 45-year-olds (middle row) and 65-year-olds NPR spoke with. Those differing circumstances and events have shaped very different political outlooks.

When it comes to politics, it's voters' life experiences that count, not just the experiences of the candidates they'll vote for.

What national events have shaped your political views? And how do those similar events play out within and between generations?

NPR's Robert Siegel put those questions to Americans in three different age groups: 25-year-olds, 45-year-olds and 65-year-olds. They are from different parts of the country and across the political spectrum.

Among them: a 25-year-old who joined the military during the economic recession, a 45-year-old who became a U.S. citizen under President Reagan's immigration reform, and a 65-year-old who was one of the first black female firefighters in New York City.

A consistent theme across the groups is the influence of media on politics — from the reporting of Walter Cronkite, coverage of the Bill Clinton impeachment and O.J. Simpson trials, which often blurred the line between tabloid sensationalism and news, to the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle.

For Siegel, the conversations with these 26 voters reveal that America seems to go through rapid cycles of extreme cynicism and idealism. Overall, he says, optimism trumped disillusionment among these voters — though that optimism isn't as strong as in the past, or as wedded to it.

The 25-Year-Olds

Among the most disillusioned voters Siegel spoke with are 25-year-olds. From the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, the attacks of Sept. 11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an economic crash when they were very young, 25-year-olds have increasingly felt marooned by their leaders.

Unlike older generations, these young voters can't really recall a period in their lifetime when things were good in the U.S.

The attitudes of these 25-year-olds reflect their generation as a whole. This generation of 18- to 32-year-olds is less confident about the nation's future than their parents or grandparents were when they were young, according to the Pew Research Center.

For Timothy Ng, the son of Chinese immigrants, the United States was once seen as a place of safety and integrity. But the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. war in Iraq punctured that illusion.

"I trusted the authorities," Ng tells Siegel. "At the time I was very young and I trusted that the president knew more than I knew. ... After that, it's the great betrayal. I kept watching it, like OK, when are these weapons going to come up? When is the resolution going to happen? When are the people going to greet us as liberators?"

The 45-Year-Olds

Lorena Perez came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 3 without documentation before becoming a citizen under President Ronald Reagan's 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. In Perez's California household, Reagan was revered as a "star-like figure," she says. "He was Ronald Reagan, 'we owe a lot to him,' my parents would say."

Reagan made a clear impact on Matt Innis as well. The 45-year-old owns a lighting maintenance company in Lincoln, Neb.

"I clearly remember hearing a speech from Ronald Reagan," Innis says. "It was a moment in my life that for the first time I realized, I was an American. And that was the greatest thing on Earth."

Though reverence for Reagan was far from universal at the time, the country swelled with patriotism. As people of this age reached adulthood, the Cold War was ending and the Berlin Wall came down.

"It almost seemed like our country was unstoppable," Perez says.

But the idea that America held a special place and privilege in the world dwindled. Moreover, the emergence of a nonstop news cycle — carrying coverage of the Gulf War in 1991, the O.J. Simpson trials and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal — bred more cynicism about the political process.

"The media has really helped in creating the dysfunction," Innis says.

The 65-Year-Olds

The world most 65-year-old Americans were born into doesn't look anything like the world of today. It was a stable world of structure and conformity, which, for many, resembled the sitcoms that appeared on television.

"It was the Ozzie and Harriet era," Val Mobley of Orlando, Fla., says, referring to the popular TV show featuring the eponymous married couple and their sons. "You know, Mom stayed home. Dad worked. Her job was to raise the kids, take us to school, pick us up from school. ... And it was nice and safe."

Sitcoms about the white nuclear family provided an illusion that all aspects of life were secure and stable — an illusion that would crack and split into protests across the country during the 1960s.

There were civil rights protests, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, and the women's liberation movement.

"The rioting was occurring in my neighborhood, you know, Martin Luther King was killed, kids were running around looting," says Angelo Falcón of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "And it was a time we had groups like the Young Lords Party, which is like the Puerto Rican version of the Black Panthers."

And then, President Richard Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

These 65-year-olds were quickly jarred out of the reverie of the world they were born into. They had to reassess their identities in a time when much of their sense of self and security was undermined by their surroundings.

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Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.
Jessica Cheung