Saturday, September 14, marked the five-year anniversary of Lehman Brothers announcing bankruptcy. For all intents and purposes, it was the beginning of the great crash that would swiftly take down both the U.S. and the world's economy.
For those of us that came of age around that time, the financial crisis will come to define our outlook on politics and economics for decades to come. It will come to define us as starkly as World War II defined the Silent Generation, Vietnam defined the Baby Boomers, and the ascent of Wall Street defined Generation X.
I was 19 when the great crash took place. Most of our generation was around the same age, in college or near the end of high school, and we were supportive of a young senator named Barack Hussein Obama who was running for president and winning against all odds. Just coming off of President George W. Bush, whom many of us saw as a failure, we embraced the more nuanced, optimistic style of Senator Obama.
Then the crash came.
The Republicans and Democrats banded together to bail out the banks, something both sides were severely uncomfortable with but decided was necessary to save the economy. Congress bailed out General Motors and passed an almost trillion-dollar stimulus package. Congress passed a health care reform bill to fix a broken system, and a Wall Street reform bill to make sure a crash like this never happened again. The Tea Party broke out in protest of these dizzying changes, and Occupy Wall Street broke out in protest of not enough change.
In the meantime, for those of us coming of age, we were spellbound and unable to make sense of what was happening in our country. Perhaps no one really could, but we had nothing to compare it to. We were too young to be cognizant of politics during the calm Clinton and George H.W. Bush years. To us, the uncertainty that pervaded our country post September 11 and during the crisis were the norm, and our political worldview was a result of that.
From what I can see, our generation has split in to four camps: Libertarians, mainstream Republicans, the Obama supporters, and Occupiers.
The libertarians, whom we see quite a bit of here on PolicyMic, saw the financial crisis and decided the whole system was corrupt and needed to be thrown out. They looked at the programs that our parents saw as the glue holding our economy together — the social safety net, the Federal Reserve, regulations — and viewed them as the reason for our misfortune, not the remedy. Having put their faith in Barack Obama in 2008 and having been let down, they found more trust in Representative Ron Paul and the historical writings of Hayek and Mises.
On the flip side were the Occupiers, many of whom had also put their faith in Barack Obama. He promised better political discourse, post-partisanship, and none of the games that plagued Washington and made so many in our generation distrustful of it. Instead he played the game, making trades to get his bills through, dropping single-payer from the health care bill, and supporting what they saw as a watered-down financial regulation bill. Instead of supporting the president, they occupied, hoping to influence public policy from the left.
While the crisis produced a mass of millennials going to the extremes, it also produced a fair number of moderate Democrats and Republicans. But don’t be fooled — these were not the same mainstream Democrats and Republicans of generations past.
The younger mainstream Republicans saw the Bush presidency as a failure because he focused too much on social and military matters and not enough on the economy. They believed their party should drop the focus on gay marriage and immigration, support the military, and focus on helping businesses.
On the mainstream Democratic side, where I consider myself, we supported a president who promised single-payer health care, a new tone in Washington, and to be hard on the banking system. He delivered on none of those promises. Instead of becoming irate and occupying, we decided to be more understanding of what was happening in Washington and the underlying reasons he changed his viewpoint.
To be within this camp was to be a hard nosed “realist” of what Washington was and is. This younger generation of Democrats had to throw its idealism to the wind, and created a generational outlook very different from the McGovernites of the past.
On the five-year anniversary of the crash it’s important to look back and see what caused it and what can be changed. But almost equally as important is what it caused in us, and how it changed our generation forever.