Frustrated Baby Boomers Alienated from the Political Debate

Obama administration Twitters away, but the message isn't reaching a key audience.

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There's a big disconnect in politics right now. You could see it in the unexpected public reaction to the AIG bonuses, the tea parties protesting the federal budget, the trouble with cap-and-trade, the surprised looks on the faces of members of Congress at town hall meetings, and even in the skeptical reaction to the administration's pronouncements that the economy really is getting better.

"Obama's Tone-Deaf Health Campaign," one recent headline read. Another: "Obama Misread His Mandate." Over the past six months, the Democratic leaders in Washington haven't misread just the economy, as Vice President Biden admitted, but a lot of things.

They're misreading politics in America right now because they're not communicating with a big segment of our population. True, they're producing talking points for Democratic congressmen, putting cabinet members on TV, and posting in the blogosphere. They're on Facebook, Twitter, and the White House Web site. But there's a key group of Americans who are not in the conversation: baby boomers.

The older boomers, the ones in their 50s and 60s, are increasingly left out of the political discourse. That crowd is part of the biggest demographic segment of our population—78 million boomers out of 307 million Americans, more than a quarter of our citizens. I've talked to a number of them recently, residents of towns in Texas, Colorado, Missouri, and Florida. They're dismayed that their local newspaper—if it exists at all anymore—is getting thinner and thinner, with more emphasis on neighbors' obituaries and local real estate news. Any national news is buried somewhere far from the front page. They feel like they can't get issue-oriented policy news anymore and are frustrated at not knowing "what's going on in Washington."

When one friend in the Midwest expressed this view to me, I showed her, a news aggregator Web site that has the latest polls, economic news, and political commentary from around the country. That's nice, she said, but she doesn't want to read the news on her computer. How about a Kindle, I suggested, showing her mine. I explained how she can subscribe to national newspapers (not to mention U.S. News) and get them delivered to her bedside table. No thanks, she said. This generation likes to hold a hardcover book and get newsprint on their fingers. They use computers to get pictures of the grandkids by E-mail.

Local TV news is no better. The nightly broadcast seems like an endless crime report with occasional airy how-to pieces. The reports are short—a paragraph at most—and if you'd like more information, you're directed to the TV station's Web site. "I'm not going to go on the computer and track down more on the story," a retiree in Florida told me. "Why can't they just tell me what I want to know?"

How about cable TV? "Just too much shouting," a friend in Colorado said.

Many of them don't believe what they hear on the network news. One stopped watching when Tom Brokaw went off the air. All are painfully aware that Walter Cronkite is dead.

And so when that same Florida retiree started telling me—well before the cable news caught up with the story—about "death panels," I asked where he'd heard about it. His friends had told him, he said. It was the talk of Palm Beach, and that was weeks before it went viral to the rest of the population.

For these Americans, important news is often transmitted by word of mouth, from neighbor to neighbor, with predictable results. With the decline of newspapers and the cutbacks in local television news, more older baby boomers are getting their information from family and friends, coffee shops, and local meetings—not Jon Stewart or Katie Couric, and certainly not Politico or the Daily Beast.

And these are the people who already attended town hall meetings. They're the kind of folks who volunteer to man the polls, serve on the board of the local library, and walk in their town's annual Relay for Life. They're not lunatics or Nazis or hate-filled antigovernment types, as the Washington Democrats portray them. They're certainly not directed by K Street PR firms.