Many years ago, when I covered the political scene in California, I dared to write a magazine piece predicting the next generation of leaders. Most if not all of my “choices” went on to elective office, and none that I can think of went to prison. I had less luck when I wrote a piece for a woman’s magazine on seemingly successful Hollywood marriages. One of the couples split just after the story was published.
When it comes to political prescience today, Time magazine writer Charlotte Alter is arguably peerless. In “The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For: How a New Generation of Leaders Will Transform America,” the 30-year-old author focuses on 11 millennial men and women making their way into politics. Beginning in 2017, Alter followed, among others, an openly gay small city mayor with an impossible name to pronounce and a longshot congressional candidate from the Bronx with some serious bartending experience.
Besides former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Alter profiles activists of all stripes, including Democrat Braxton Winston, a member of the City Council in Charlotte, N.C.; Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), a former Navy SEAL who lost an eye in Iraq; and Elise Stefanik, the first female head of recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee. None of the book’s cast of characters was born before 1980.
“The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For” is organized a bit counterintuitively — not by person but by the issues (climate change, gun safety, tuition) or events (Sept. 11, Donald Trump’s election and a pair of endless wars) that galvanized them.
For example, A.O.C.’s story begins in seventh grade, when the attack on the World Trade Center is announced over her junior high school’s P.A. system. Eventually, the reader adjusts to the format, which sometimes generates real suspense.
Alter may or may not be prescient about a longer-term future in which younger politicians will solve newer problems, but she is no Pollyanna. Her chronicle of the transition from Barack Obama to Trump does not ignore the divisive, depressing and sometimes confounding realities, present and future, facing candidates — particularly when it comes to winning the “youth” vote. As we speak, that 38-year old former mayor is competing with a cranky 78-year old guy, and the latter probably has more of the kids on board.
While millions despaired in 2016, Alter tells us, others mobilized — most notably women, many of whom marched their way into politics and proved victorious in the 2018 midterms. Somewhat surprisingly (what did she know and when did she know it?), Alter did not choose to focus on Katie Hill, who was in a closely watched race and fit the profile of so many of her generation. After the California Democratic House member’s dramatic fall, Alter offered an insightful analysis in Time. “Millennials are gaining power at all levels of American government. Enter Katie Hill,“ she wrote. “Millennials are navigating a rapidly shifting landscape of technology, sex and power. Exit Katie Hill.”
While the liberal activists in the book are uniformly more progressive than their parents, they clearly have different paths and views: Mayor Pete is a “fix the system” guy, while A.O.C became a “f— the system” leader.
Each of of Alter’s chosen ones emerges as an individual with his or her own history and path. The result is a more nuanced picture of a generation than previously reported. And although Alter may be liberal in her politics, the book is not biased. It is a Texas conservative, after all, who came home from the battlefield badly wounded, only to fight hard to serve his country another way.
Alter certainly speaks the language of her generation, quoting 18-year old gun-regulation activist David Hogg making a Harry Potter reference. And more important, she understands tech as both a potential solution and a part of the problem.
“Technology brought instant gratification that often translated into political impatience,” she writes. With a click or a swipe, her generation is always awaiting the next upgrade, and no millennial candidate or operative would dare ignore social networks. But danger lurks in the form of restricted privacy and the hacking of democracy. This section too feels remarkably on target, as Americans deal with a caucus system endangered by a faulty app, the likelihood of continued foreign interference and a tech-enabled cheating scandal at the heart of America’s favorite pastime.
Is “The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For,” with its scenes of youthful triumph and predictions of a savvier political class, too optimistic? I’d say not, because the coming tribe really does bring hope of breaking the gerontocracy — time is on their side, of course. Is it a book only for young people, as opposed to “oldsters” (to quote Alter)? I would say the book needed to be written by someone her age, but it holds lessons for everyone. Along with the compelling personal narratives, there is historical context and acknowledgment — much of it from the subjects themselves — that every innovator stands on the shoulders of those who came before.
“It’s time to own that our party was the one of the Great Society, of the New Deal, of the Civil Rights Act,” Ocasio-Cortez told Alter. “That’s who we are and it’s time for us to come home.”
In this way, the book manages to engender a sense of pride — along with some healthy “we’ve been there” skepticism — among prior generations, especially boomers. My first published piece, in 1969, was for this newspaper. In an op-ed piece called “A Child of the Sixties: From Mouseketeers to McCarthy,” I lamented all the things we’d tried but failed to do as that dark decade ended. Alter’s book helps older folks better understand our own struggles, not to mention our own millennials. Time will tell whether their struggles bear more fruit.
Willens is a bicoastal freelance writer. Her last piece for The Times was an appreciation of biographer James Atlas.
The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For
Viking: 368 pages; $27