Left: Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks at American Enterprise Institute, Tuesday, June 27, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Right: Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a town hall event in Hollis, N.H., Tuesday, June 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)

Fifty-one-year-old Nikki Haley is putting age front and center in her presidential campaign, calling “for a new generation to lead us into the future” and for “mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old”—a cutoff that includes Donald Trump and Joe Biden. 

At the same time, the former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations panders to older voters with nostalgia. In a June 24 address to the Faith and Freedom Coalition, she said: 

Do you remember when you were growing up? Do you remember how simple life was? Do you remember how safe you felt? It was about faith, family, and country.  

Your parents raised you to be a responsible individual. You went to school, and you learned what you needed to to be successful. You went to church, and you found your faith and your conscience.  

Don’t you want that again? Because we could have that again. But in order to do that, we have to have a new generational leader. We’ve got to leave the negativity and the drama and the chaos of the past.  

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, 44, is even younger and nominally a member of Generation X, although, like Millennials, his high school and college years took place after the generation’s cultural touchstone, the Cold War, had ended. According to The New York Times, DeSantis, who is younger than Bill Clinton or Barack Obama were when they won the presidency, is playing up his youth. He touts his “energy” and showcases his young children. Yet while stumping in New Hampshire, DeSantis drifted into some good-ol’-days mythology: “When I was a kid, you watch a cartoon, it was a cartoon. Now it’s, like, parents have to worry, like, ‘okay, what are my kids being exposed to?’” 

The rosy depiction of Gen X childhood is absurd. The era of Ronald Reagan was constantly panicked over nuclear war, AIDS, drugs, child abductions, kids’ exposure to inappropriate media, and a crime rate that dwarfs today’s. 

To quote Billy Joel, circa 1989, “Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride / heavy metal suicide / foreign debts, homeless vets / AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz.” 

Some Gen X-era panics were more factually grounded than others. Fear of child abductions swept the nation—and the nation’s milk cartons—after several high-profile incidents, including the cases of Etan Patz, Adam Walsh, and the Atlanta child murders. But widely circulated and wildly inflated child abduction statistics led many parents to believe homicidal pedophile kidnappers lurked everywhere. A 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning debunking by the Denver Post did little to ease their anxieties

However, violent crime increased in the 1980s and early 1990s. Between 1976 and 1991, the annual rate increased by 62 percent.  

A guy named Donald Trump stoked the crime fears. He placed a full-page ad in New York City newspapers after a 1989 brutal sexual assault of a jogger in Central Park. He argued that Big Apple politicians should restore the state’s long-gone death penalty and “unshackle [police] from the constant chant of ‘police brutality.’” 

But the violent crime rate has steadily decreased, according to FBI data, beginning in 1991, reaching its nadir in 2014. As of 2020 (the last year for which the FBI has calculated the national violent crime rate), that number ticked up by about 10 percent—well below the peaks of the Reagan-Bush era, when Haley was a girl in Bamberg, South Carolina, and everyone felt oh-so-safe.  

When DeSantis watched cartoons in the 1980s—his father installed cable TV—plenty of parents were freaking out about kids’ programming. Activist groups such as Action for Children’s Television and National Coalition on Television Violence routinely expressed alarm at violence in cartoons and other programs attractive to kids. NCTV chair and psychiatrist Thomas Radecki tabulated the number of violent acts on cartoon shows and contended that Star Wars teaches kids that violence is “fun.” He declared that “the first TV generation has grown up to be the most violent adult generation this century.” (Where’s Radecki now? Prison, for pressuring his patients to trade pills for sex.)  

Saturday morning cartoons weren’t the only form of media stirring parental worries. Terry Rakolta (whose sister is married to Mitt Romney’s brother) founded Americans for Responsible Television after a failed boycott of companies that advertised on the lowbrow prime-time sitcom Married … With Children. More famously and successfully, Tipper Gore—after buying Prince’s Purple Rain album for one of her daughters, not knowing about the masturbatory lyrics of “Darling Nikki”—assembled other offended “Washington wives,” launched the Parents Music Resource Center, and lobbied the music industry to affix warning labels on albums with explicit content.  

So why are Haley and DeSantis, who could be helping the Republican Party appeal to younger generations, channeling Dana Carvey’s 1990s Saturday Night Live character Grumpy Old Man? (“When I was a boy, we didn’t have these video games. We made up our own games, like Chew the Bark Off the Tree.”) 

Today’s Republican Party has a significant weakness with younger voters. This was not always the case. For most elections between 1976 and 2000, support in exit polls for the Republican presidential nominee was roughly similar among age groups. In 2004, a modest age gap materialized; George W. Bush’s share of support among senior citizens was 7 points better than with voters under 30. Then the gap exploded. In the two elections with Obama on the ballot, the Republicans fared 20 percent better with old voters than younger ones. In the next two elections, with Donald Trump on the ballot, it was 16 points. (Post-election demographic analyses of the 2016 and 2020 elections by Pew and Catalist had slightly different but still large age gaps.) 

Moreover, Republicans have developed a fondness for older presidential candidates. The Grand Old Party had never chosen a nominee over 60 until Dwight D. Eisenhower. But since 1976, every nominee has been over 60 except for George W. Bush. (Six of the nine Democratic nominees in this period were under 60, and John Kerry was 61.) 

Granted, a candidate’s age does not dictate generational appeal. Reagan did well with younger voters, and, in the 2020 Democratic primaries, the Silent Generation’s Bernie Sanders had far more pull with the “youngs” than Pete Buttigieg, a Millennial. And Biden, America’s oldest president, crushed Trump among voters under 30 by 24 points.  

Issues matter. Sanders’ democratic socialism, especially in 2008 following the financial crisis, resonated with a generation that was coming of age. Biden has long been a canny pol who adjusts his positions to stay current, such as on abortion, LGBTQ rights (famously beating Obama to the punch on embracing same-sex marriage), and criminal sentencing. 

Meanwhile, the Republican Party is increasingly defined by dismay over cultural and demographic change, which is leading to aging in its ranks and is surely compelling DeSantis and Haley to idealize the past. Primary exit polls in 2016 estimated that only 37 percent of the Iowa and South Carolina Republican voters were under 50. (In New Hampshire, 43 percent.) But it’s madness for the younger GOP presidential candidates to hawk their odd wistfulness about their Generation X childhoods to Baby Boomers when what Republicans really need is the capacity to make inroads with Millennials.  

Like most of the Republican field, DeSantis and Haley are too obsessed with “woke ideology” and the “woke mind virus” even to contemplate modernizing the Republican brand. Haley had an opportunity to distinguish herself as a more contemporary figure when, as South Carolina governor in 2015, she signed legislation removing the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds. In the years since, she downplayed her achievement and even defended the flag’s “heritage.” 

Both DeSantis and Haley stir panic over discussion in schools of gender identity. For the Florida governor, it’s his signature issue, having enacted a law effectively banning any such classroom discussion. Perhaps these Gen Xers knowingly took their cues from their Republican forbearers in the 1980s, who peddled homophobia and stood in the way of robust funding of AIDS research. 

Republicans, of course, were successful in the 1980s. And in 2004, Republicans won 11 statewide ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage. Reactionary politics sometimes triumph, however ephemerally. But Trump already plays that game. “Make America Great Again” is the ultimate backward-looking cri de coeur. The immediate question facing Republican primary voters is: Trump or no Trump? Being anti-woke is woefully insufficient to convince GOP voters to jettison Trump. 

By unflinchingly cataloging Trump’s deficiencies, Chris Christie is showing more moxie than anyone else in the field. Although he hasn’t broken Trump’s stride, he has inched up in the polls as a result. Yet he hasn’t developed a vision to replace Trumpism and consolidate anti-Trump Republican support while appealing to younger voters.  

DeSantis and Haley are doing less than that. The Floridian’s best attempts to appeal to younger voters involve chasing niche issues that resonate with Elon Musk and other “tech bros,” such as vaccine skepticism and cryptocurrency. Haley traffics in brazen ageism with her competency tests.  

It’s not working—nor is their hallucinatory portrayal of America in the 1980s.  

Biden has survived politically partly because he articulates shared American experiences, despite his decades inside the Beltway. You never hear Biden wax rhapsodic about his childhood era, only how he learned hard life lessons while growing up working-class. But as they retreat to the past, DeSantis and Haley should heed the words of that 1980s Republican icon Ronald Reagan: An election is “a choice between different visions of the future.” 

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Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.