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June 6, 2006

Is there a Democratic Generation Gap?

Posted by David Postman at 8:03 AM

At last weekend's Democratic state convention there was a proposal, largely of interest only to delegates, that would give the Young Democrats organization a second vote on the state central committee. But what was interesting was that during the debate, one delegate — comfortably outside the 36-year-old age limit for the Young Democrats — expressed frustration that the group's members weren't taking a more active role opposing the war in Iraq.

I hadn't really noticed it before that: The anti-war forces were mostly older delegates, boomers, gray-beards, Vietnam-era protesters, folks whose Birkenstock's likely served orthopedic needs. Adding to the appearance of a generational split is that the Young Democrats, an official arm of the party, has endorsed Maria Cantwell for re-election, while some of the most vocal anti-war activists in the party are backing Mark Wilson and to a lesser extent Hong Tran.

Since returning from Yakima, I've asked a few people who were there if they see a generation gap.

"What I see from so many of the young folks is a desire to be accepted by the party machine and not want to be seen rocking the boat," said Chad Shue. He was a delegate from Snohomish County and is a Wilson backer.

I believe there is a real disappointment that young people are not as invested in the anti-war movement as is my generation. This is most likely due to the absence of a draft and the distance from the Vietnam experience.

Shue is 53 and an old-school war protester. He calls himself a Bobby Kennedy Democrat, signs his e-mails "peace" and closes with a John Lennon quote. He lays some of the blame for a generational split on John Kerry. He says that in 2004 if Kerry had "actually spoken out against the invasion of Iraq (and certainly not voted for it)" young people might have been inspired by his experience as a leading opponent of the Vietnam War.

Amy Ockerlander, 28, the press secretary for the Young Democrats, said she doesn't think there is a generational split. She told me about some high-profile anti-war activities of some YD members and said, "I think most people agree we want our troops home."

She said the organization endorsed Cantwell, as well as 8th District candidate Darcy Burner, because those candidates reflect their values on a host of issues, including port security and student loans. While Wilson supporters cheered his criticism of the 9-11 Commission, Ockerlander said Young Democrats want to see the commission's security recommendations implemented.

"Our tactics are different than the older generation but our feelings are similar," she said. Ockerlander, who works for the Legislature, said she disagrees with those in the party who have been pushing Cantwell to make some statement of public regret for her war vote:

I don't necessarily feel she needs to say the war was a mistake. She didn't make that decision to go to war, the president did. ... She voted for authorization of force as a last resort. The president made that decision.

River Curtis-Stanley, 46, and her husband attended the convention as delegates from Kitsap County. She supports Wilson. She said in comments posted here after the convention, "He doesn't have a snowball's chance in Hell of winning the primary, but we do think he's the better, more responsive, and more progressive candidate." In an e-mail later, she told me that Young Democrats seem to be taking their cues on the war from party leaders, like Cantwell.

During the convention, the greatest focus of the Young Democrats was their charter proposal (which passed), not issues of the day. Most of the focus our local YDs have is on assisting candidates in fundraising and other election-related activities, not on driving issues. These are our future Democratic Party leaders, and it makes me fear for the future of the Democratic Party. Yes, we need to elect candidates, and lots of them, but we also need to stand forth as a true opposition party at every level, from the grassroots on up. That's not happening.

I'd like to hear from more Young Democrats. Is there something keeping you from joining the older anti-war activists in your party? Is it about tactics and their vocal opposition to Cantwell? Perhaps more than the war, this is, like so much of internal party debate, about pragmatism vs. idealism.

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