As I’m sure many Tufts students did, I spent the majority of my winter break with my family. While family time is something I’m always grateful for, it also means spending a lot of time and energy arguing with my family members whenever topics of social or political importance come up. During one of many such conversations with my mother over break, I was accused of being naïve and overly simplistic. Her words made me feel petulant, and especially more so as I tried to defy her by arguing back, like a child attempting to use what I’d learned in school that day as ammunition.
One particularly memorable argument centered around bioethics—an area in which neither of us can claim expertise—and as we flung anecdotal evidence and stubborn opinions back and forth across the gum-smattered sidewalk we strolled down, the roots of the differences in our arguments became increasingly apparent.
We were discussing the pivot towards widespread use of pesticides that occurred in the US during the 1940s––a move that came decades after pesticide regulations were first enacted in 1910. I commented that leading scientists of the time should have invested in more sustainable methods, rather than pour resources into an industry with relatively unknown and potentially dangerous environmental impacts.
Immediately, my mother told me that I was being naïve, and while she agreed that what I said was technically right, it was also idealistic and ignorant of the historical context in which these developments occurred. She reminded me of the era’s reality of the closing World Wars and the fear that characterized those years. She argued that the excitement sparked by innovations in chemistry and other sciences as a means of security was so overpowering that no one was pausing to consider their implications. Although she did agree with me to an extent, she also defended the historical actions that led us to the environmental crises of today.
I’ll admit––the evidence she brought to the argument was illuminating both in terms of the subject itself, and in helping me to understand the social and cultural contexts that informed her opinions. My mother was born in 1955. Consequently, she was influenced by a combination of her own personal experiences and the experiences of the adults in her own young life. My mother’s birth year clearly marks the transition between the first and second cohorts of the Baby Boomer Generation––categories that bear subtle, though distinct differences.
The first cohort, born between 1946 and 1954, counts the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and Woodstock among its defining events. In response to their rapidly shifting world, “Early Boomers” became known for their social and political progressivism and a youth-driven counterculture reflective of the optimism of the period. Cohort 2, born between 1955 and 1964, saw the assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. early in their lifetimes––two national tragedies that were then followed by Watergate, the Iran Hostage Crisis, massive economic downturn, and with it, rapidly declining post-war optimism. This group came of age amidst intense unrest and widespread fear; as a result, they began to rely more heavily on stable institutions and traditions to quell the sense of vulnerability they felt in response to these seismic events.
This generation entered the voting population between 1964 and 1982, and throughout the following decades, many of significant modern social and political issues began to cement. These issues included consolidation and stratification of wealth, acceleration of environmental degradation, White flight, and subsequent disinvestment in urban centers and communities of color. This all took place during my parents’ lifetimes. From my observations, it feels as though the fear and subsequent resistance to question authority characterized the political complacency of their generation.
Just as my mother toggles the cusp of the two Baby Boomer cohorts, my birth year, 1996, places me on the border between millennials––a group infamous for their narcissism––and the more recent Generation Z, commonly nicknamed “iGen” or “the Pluralist Generation.” While I don’t want to ascribe too much value to these arbitrary generational labels, I do find them useful in terms of understanding what may be some of the bases for my own political beliefs.
As I reflected on my conversations with my mother, I found myself drawing parallels between my experiences and those of another “young” group: the new freshmen members of the U.S. Congress; and more specifically, that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (often nicknamed “AOC”). AOC is the recently elected U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th Congressional District, and made history as the youngest woman to ever hold a seat in the House. Her win upset 20-year incumbent Joseph Crowley, whose history of accepting financial contributions from Goldman Sachs, Facebook, and Google, among other high profile corporations with vested political interests, places him in stark contrast with AOC. Since her election as a Congresswoman, Ocasio-Cortez has faced widespread criticism, as Republicans have attacked her with statements embedded within racism, sexism, and ageism.
In addition to Republicans berating her policies, establishment Democrats––especially during the earliest days of her tenure––lashed out at the young Congresswoman for various reasons. Exactly a week after AOC’s swearing in ceremony on January 3, Emanuel Cleaver, a Democratic Representative from Missouri, told Politico, “I’m sure Ms. Cortez means well, but there’s almost an outstanding rule [in Congress]: Don’t attack your own people.” Cleaver and other establishment Democrats feared her willingness to call out the members of her own party with whom she differed on policy issues. However, I believe this practice should be lauded rather than critiqued. The tendency to remain complacently in line with party positions against one’s personal convictions is a major shortcoming of modern party politics, and leads only to stagnation rather than change.
At the same time, however, many Democrats are expressing support of AOC and other freshmen Representatives’ more progressive stances. Since November, support for the Green New Deal––a new bill calling for a transition to 100 percent renewable energy in the next 10 years––has garnered vast support among politicians and voters alike. According to Ocasio-Cortez, the Green New Deal would “promote justice and equity by preventing current and repairing historic oppression to frontline and vulnerable communities.” Early Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are among many Democrats who have endorsed the deal, while more than 80 percent of voters––92 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans––say they support it.
Additionally, support for Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal to raise the marginal tax rate on the nation’s wealthiest taxpayers to 70 percent has been met with sweeping support from fellow politicians and media outlets. Still others, such as former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, remain doubtful. Despite this variation, AOC’s widespread backing for her bold leftist agenda is indicative of a new trend almost as ubiquitous as the early criticisms she faced: skepticism giving way to approval.
The more I thought about Ocasio-Cortez’s unique entry into politics, the more I began to relate them to my arguments with my mother. Our disparate worldviews, despite our generally aligned political views, were fairly comparable to the relationship between the young Ocasio-Cortez and an older, veteran Democrat: Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.
The two have been called “the yin and yang of democratic politics” for bringing “different but complementary skill sets to the table.” Pelosi is one of the most experienced politicians in Washington, and time and again she has proved her astounding capability to use her knowledge and power to play hardball with Trump on issues like his proposed border wall. AOC, on the other hand, has fresh energy, uncorrupted points of view, and a willingness to challenge rather than subscribe to existing systems. Though my mother and I may not have the same public visibility that they do, I still found myself comforted by the significant similarities we shared.
Though in the past I have often left conversations with my mother feeling frustrated, invalidated, and angrier than I had been at the outset, thinking critically about both the sources and consequences of our differences has given me perspective. Witnessing the debates of individuals who represent the new face of the Democratic party is encouraging. Developing an understanding of how they can work with members of older generations to most effectively enact change is a crucial step towards more progressive politics.
As AOC recently tweeted, “[Y]outh is not an embodiment of age, but of attitude—a willingness to risk for what is right.” As younger, more progressive politicians find their place in our political system, their approach will work its way into the mainstream. Their new ideas truly have the potential to compliment the seasoned wisdom of longtime party members and create the strongest possible outcomes for not just some, but all Americans. If we look closely at the developing relationships between leaders like Ocasio-Cortez and Pelosi, it is clear that this is not just an optimistic projection; it is already happening.