As Republicans never tire of pointing out, the Democratic candidates for president are old.
The average age of the leaders, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders, is 71, older than Ronald Reagan was during his successful 1980 campaign.
The Republican candidates average 57, with three candidates in their 40s, even after Scott Walker (47 at the time) dropped out in September. The sole Republican candidate old enough to collect Social Security? Donald J. Trump.
Where are the national Democratic politicians in their 40s and 50s? At 52, Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, is this year’s lone exception. Does it say something about the party, or about the generation, that other than President Obama (born at the tail end of the baby boom), national candidates from this age group are rare? If Hillary Clinton is elected and serves eight years, by 2024, the oldest of the millennials will then be hitting their mid-40s, ready to take over. The generation of Run-D.M.C. and Winona Ryder might miss its chance altogether.
For some members of this missing middle in Democratic politics, there are some simple explanations. Several of the most talented and seemingly ambitious politicians now in their 40s and 50s are women, including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Gov. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, and have no interest in harming Mrs. Clinton’s chances to become the first female president.
Moreover, governors are often the strongest candidates for the White House — six of the Republican candidates have held that job — but the last two midterm elections left only 18 Democrats in the nation’s statehouses (17 after Kentucky’s recent election), and few, other than the governor of California, Jerry Brown — older than all the other candidates — who could point to success in an executive role.
But there’s more to it than that. Politically active Democrats of this post-boomer generation (my own) should admit that our experience is a bit out of step with the tone and demands of current politics. Unlike baby boomers, we weren’t brought up on the campus activism of the late 1960s, and we didn’t describe ourselves as “searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living,” as Mrs. Clinton did in her Wellesley commencement speech in 1969. The formative experiences of older Generation Xers were in the quiescent Reagan years, when civic life offered neither the sense of affirmative mission of the civil rights era nor the intense protests and passions of the late 1960s.
As a few members of this generation found their way into politics and government, it was usually not through the voluntarism and culture of service that emerged in the late 1990s, exemplified by Teach for America, nor the intense progressive — and unapologetically partisan — organizing of the 2000s, in vehicles like MoveOn.org or campaigns like the Vermont governor Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid.
If we got involved in politics and government at all, it was as a vocation. (I was a congressional staffer in the 1990s.) From dreary experience, even liberals learned to be wary of grand progressive ambitions, like President Bill Clinton’s health reform proposal, lest they invite backlash from an electorate we had been taught to identify as “Reagan Democrats”: culturally conservative, wary of change, but still expecting support from government. Our generation — the triangulation generation — devised anti-crime policies and welfare reform, got nervous at the mere mention of same-sex marriage, was taught that government should work through market mechanisms, rather than act as a countervailing force, and learned to govern through inoffensive gestures like tax credits.
The Democratic Party, as an institution, had little meaning for this generation. It was not ideologically coherent — extremely conservative Southerners were still Democrats well into the Clinton years — and the party’s operatives did little to make it meaningful to young people. The idea that by the mid-2000s, young people would identify as “Fighting Dems” and embrace Mr. Dean’s “50-state strategy” to expand the party would seem really surprising to us in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, like most of the Republican candidates, middle-aged conservatives spent their youth in the sunshine of the Reagan era, sometimes like Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton character, surprising their boomer parents with their right-wing views. Their early adulthood was shaped by the galvanizing backlash politics of Newt Gingrich, a mode that the candidates and their congressional counterparts are now taking to absurd extremes.
The passionless, compromised assumptions about politics among mainstream Democrats in the 1990s seem deeply irrelevant to the post-Great Recession, post-Iraq war world of #BlackLivesMatter, the Occupy movement and a socialist slugging it out in the polls. The “Reagan Democrats” we were chasing have now been Republicans for half a lifetime, and aren’t coming back, while an “emerging American electorate” that is younger and less white takes their place.
Step into any progressive organization in Washington or the states, and you’ll see the same phenomenon: leadership by baby boomers, an intense and passionate group of 20- and 30-somethings, and nobody else. The middle generation is largely missing. Similarly in the electorate, support for Democrats drops off in the 45-64 age group.
Eventually, this may not matter. Younger politicians and public servants shaped by more recent experience will take their place in leadership and in national elections. But the missing middle-aged Democrats remind us that the formative assumptions of each generation can cast a long shadow on the future.