In his masterpiece Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev explores the unbridgeable divide between a traditional generation and the uncompromising radicalism of its younger counterpart in nineteenth century Russia. The Democratic primary race for NY’s 8th congressional district, held today in Manhattan and Brooklyn, exhibits just the reverse: Hakeem Jeffries, a young politician who seeks consensus, versus Charles Barron the former Black Panther activist. As City University of New York's Kyle Thomas McGovern writes in his excellent summary, the race is “nothing short of a generational battle.” But in fact, the race for New York's 8th captures the conflict within the millennial generation itself: should we adopt traditional language and strategies in pursuit of change, or reject them and forge something entirely new?
The thrust of news coverage on the Jeffries-Barron race has focused on their diverging positions on Israel and Iran. Jeffries has espoused a normative position on the Israeli-American alliance, while Barron has drawn ire from a range of politicians and periodicals (my synagogue’s weekly handout included) for likening the siege of Gaza to Nazi concentration camps. The candidates differ on other issues as well, most notably on gay marriage (Jeffries for, Barron against.) But as McGovern shows, they agree on a lot too, most importantly on the need to tax the rich in order to balance the national budget.
Form, rather than content, is what really distinguishes the two candidates from one another. As Marcia Kramer reports, Jeffries has committed to formal congressional dress-codes, while Barron will not (check out their different looks here.) And their wardrobe differences reveal their contradicting sensibilities. Jeffries considers himself of the same ilk as other African-American politicians like Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick—black leaders who, in contrast to predecessors like Jesse Jackson, forge consensus across ethnic, socioeconomic, and even ideological grounds. Barron, by contrast, stridently calls out the “fat cats” of Wall Street, eulogized Muammar Gaddafi, and declared the failure of capitalism.
How does this all relate to millennials? My sense is that we are at a tipping point. As a freshman in college when President Obama was elected, many of my classmates and I resonated with candidate Obama’s inclusive rhetoric that sought to unite broad coalitions in a push for change. As we watched President Obama’s legislative agenda stall in a Congress laden with corporate interests, our faith in that rhetoric dwindled. Today, we stand skeptical of the possibility of change within the context of our political and financial systems, and ask whether any good can come through an engagement with them. Though Jeffries is perceived as representing the new and Barron the old, the youthful politician’s brand of non-confrontational politics wherein the goodwill of all is taken for granted is unfortunately ebbing.