Congress is taking a hard turn toward a younger generation 

As far as I can tell, Sean Duffy is the only world-champion lumberjack and reality TV star running for Congress this year. Duffy is the Republican candidate in Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District.

His candidacy — and the prospect of a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives — led 20-term incumbent Democrat David Obey to announce his retirement.

The first thing that strikes you about Duffy is his age. At 38, he wasn’t even born when Obey entered Congress. They view the world through different lenses, and they have different priorities.

Duffy is not alone. Congress is in the midst of the most significant generational shift since 1974. The congressmen and senators who came of age during the Nixon years, mainly liberal Democrats shaped by Vietnam and Watergate, are on the way out. A bunch of youngsters, mainly conservative Republicans shaped by 9/11 and the financial crisis, are on the way in.

And it’s been a long time coming. The average age of senators declined between 1955 and 1981, and the average age of representatives reached a low of 47 in 1983. But these averages have been increasing, in fits and starts, ever since. There was a brief dip in 1995 with the Republican Revolution, but the trend quickly resumed. In 1995, the average age of representatives was 51. The average age of senators was 58. Now, the averages are 57 and 63, respectively.

Expect those numbers to be much lower when the 112th Congress convenes in January.

The change is obvious when you look at recent Republican primaries, special elections and retirements. A similar, if less pronounced, transition also is taking place inside the Democratic Party. The younger newcomers may have watched the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the protests in Tiananmen Square and Yeltsin on a tank outside the Supreme Soviet, but they had little understanding of these events at the time. For them, the landscape of politics was shaped by 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008.

They are reacting to the establishment’s response to the financial crisis. The establishment theory is that the panic was caused by too little government. So, beginning in 2008, the government intervened massively in the economy. It took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It seized AIG. It authorized the bailout of the major banks. It bailed out GM and Chrysler.

The anti-establishment theory is different. It says government policy contributed to the housing bubble and overleveraged banks, and that self-interested elites are using government to make things worse. The next generation of Congress is anti-bailout and anti-Washington, D.C. They are terrified of the debt America has accumulated the past two years.

This is a group that came of age during the 25 years of barely interrupted prosperity between November 1982 and December 2007. The individuals in this group matured during America’s “holiday from history” in the 1990s. They have not known the draft, or war on the scale of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. But 9/11 shattered their confidence that America would always be safe. And seven years later, the financial crisis shattered their confidence that America would always be rich.

Matthew Continetti is associate editor of The Weekly Standard, from which this article is excerpted.

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