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New Kids in the Bloc

Writer Believes in Her Generation's Political Potential

September 30, 1998|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michele Mitchell knows the Generation X litany by heart.

When it comes to politics, Gen-Xers have been called slackers, cynical, apathetic, uninformed and uninvolved.

But Mitchell, author of a new book about America's young voters, disputes the stereotype of the generation of Americans born in the wake of the baby boomers.

In "A New Kind of Party Animal: How the Young are Tearing Up the American Political Landscape" (Simon & Schuster, $23), the former Capitol Hill press secretary and political reporter shakes up preconceptions about Generation X--a term the 28-year-old Mitchell, like many of her peers, detests.

Mitchell, who grew up in Yorba Linda and now lives in New York City, paints a broad-brush portrait of an independent-minded, socially inclusive, gender-bias free, media-hype savvy and "spin"-proof generation.

Mitchell avoided coining her own term for her generation because, she said in an interview, "We all hated 'Generation X' so much, it would be just as bad for me to come up with a cute term."

Defining members of this generation as those born between 1961 and 1981, Mitchell predicts they'll become the most powerful potential voting bloc in the year 2000 when all 80 million of them will be eligible to vote. Contrary to the stereotype, they do vote--about as much as any age group in this era of low voter participation, she said.

In 1992, 42% voted in the national elections, the second-highest number of young voters since 1972, according to Mitchell. Even in the 1996 elections, which saw record-low voter turnouts nationwide, the young generation--which wasn't courted by either political party--had a 21% voter turnout, she said. That was only 2% less than heavily targeted senior citizens.

Armed with a slew of surveys and poll numbers to support her generational profile, Mitchell provides portraits of young people who are having an impact--not on the national scene, at least not yet, but at the local level.

Young people such as Jerry Morrison, a 30-year-old political upstart who registered thousands of young Chicago voters and challenged the entrenched Democratic Party's handpicked candidate for committeeman in a city ward. Or Kim Alexander, a 30-year-old Sacramento woman who created the first Internet voter guide to include information on campaign contributions and expenditures. Or two North Carolina men, Quillie Coath Jr. and Charles McKinney, both under 30, who head a community service program for troubled youths.

More Young Voters on the Move

But is the younger generation, as the subtitle of Mitchell's book suggests, really "tearing up the American political landscape"?

Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, for one, takes exception to what he calls "both an exaggeration and a sweeping generalization."

"Now as always, the country's political landscape is changing, but as yet there has been no upheaval comparable to what Mitchell's language implies," he wrote. "Because the number of young people actively involved in politics is relatively small, she should be more reluctant to make large claims for their influence."

Mitchell, however, said increasing numbers of young people are becoming politically active.

"There are thousands of them," she said during a recent interview at her parents' home in Yorba Linda, where she was staying during a promotional swing to Los Angeles that included an appearance on Tom Snyder's "Late Late Show."

"In Oregon, actually, they have a whole group of young candidates running for local office and, I think, they even have a Gen-X PAC up and running, so it's happening all over the place."

Mitchell said she knew when she started working on her book that the generational stereotype wasn't true.

As press secretary for Rep. Pete Geren (D-Texas) from 1993 to 1996--a job she landed at 22 when she was fresh out of Northwestern University and armed with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism--Mitchell read media reports and heard the assumptions of the political pundits and consultants who claimed the younger generation was breaking down along the usual Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative lines.

But what she discovered while reading think-tank reports on party affiliation was that many members of the young generation were shunning the two major parties and instead were registering as independents or with third parties.

Although she was surprised by several generational discoveries she made while researching her book, Mitchell said she was most surprised to learn that virtually every previous young generation has gotten a bum rap from its elders.

Today's senior citizens, she said, were decried as apathetic and slackers when they were young.

"It was the exact same words," Mitchell said with a laugh. "My favorite line [from Harper's magazine] being 'a lost generation that is even now rotting before our eyes.' And these were the people who went on to win World War II."

A Demographic of Shared Experiences

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