OTI Online
Fall 1998

A New Kind of Party Animal
Book Review by Jennifer Nix

A New Kind of Party Animal:
How the Young Are Tearing Up the American Political Landscape

by Michelle Mitchell

Simon & Schuster, 224 pages, $23.00

In the early 1990s, fresh from a stint working at a political research institute in Jerusalem, and in the throes of founding a nonprofit organization for inner-city kids back in the U.S., I was regularly pummeled by media accounts of how lazy, apathetic, and cynical I was.

I often wondered how the generations preceding mine expected those of us just coming of age to gain confidence and "amount to something" when we lived under a nearly constant media assault. According to the headlines and talking heads, those of us born between 1961 and 1981 didn't vote, didn't read, didn't even know how to dress.

In her unfortunately titled book, A New Kind of Party Animal, 28-year-old Michele Mitchell chronicles well the media's "unrelenting rush" of articles full of ill-conceived, stereotypical notions: little good, most bad, about my generation. The book also provides insight into the political "gulfs" between "18-35s" and "boomers" and seniors, by telling her own Capitol Hill tale (she landed her first job at 22 as communications director for Congressman Pete Geren) and the stories of seven other young, up-and-coming activists around the country.

At its worst, Mitchell's book is a superficial, too-broad account that continues to simplify, or gloss over, some of the more subterranean and vastly various economic and social issues affecting the 70 million young adults best known as Generation X. Mitchell herself relies too heavily on stereotypes of both 18 - 35s and boomers, giving readers one-dimensional views of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young can-do-ers like Chicagoan Jerry Morrison, who takes on the legendary Democratic "machine" in a local political race. Having done time on the Hill herself, Mitchell also includes three young congressional aides who begin as either Democrats or Republicans, but evolve to see the light in Political Independence.

To represent boomers in Washington, Mitchell includes "old-school" staffer Joe Morgan (a pseudonym), who has not one redeeming quality, keeps booze in his bottom drawer, and "divided women staffers into two categories: those he wanted in his bed, and those who had turned him down, also known as 'bitches.' This kind of black-and-white caricature lends a canned feeling to the book, especially when combined with doses of cliche-ridden dialogue such as, "If we don't do something, who will? The clock is ticking," from one source.

However, at its best, A New Kind of Party Animal is an intelligent, even inspirational, opening salvo in what could result in further discussions of the many true and diverse states of young political minds, and where they will lead us in the next century.

Mitchell is particularly on-target when discussing two of the early national-level attempts made by Gen-Xers to combat the negative hype with, well, hype. One of the two groups Mitchell cites as examples is Lead or Leave, a half-baked idea for a membership organization built around the issue of budget deficit reduction. Originally declared by the media to be the Next Great Youth Movement in politics, Lead or Leave fell into oblivion three years after its birth when co-founders Rob Nelson and Jon Cowan quit.

The second political advocacy group was Third Millennium, which Mitchell and I both played a role in founding. Mitchell relays how (particularly in the beginning) the group's New York-based chiefs were far more interested in the media coverage, as opposed to the actual carrying out of their agenda, which primarily centered around reducing the deficit and ending Social Security as we know it. As Mitchell writes, "Instead of cultivating membership, [Third Millen-nium] poured its limited resources into polls. 'If we release the polls, we get press, and that leads to more money,' the 29-year-old executive director said." Mitchell also cites the group's "carefully declared" nonpartisan status as the reason she "wandered" in.

The problem here is that Mitchell's account skips over messy details, such as the fact that despite the group's claiming to be non-partisan or "post-partisan," nearly all the money in the coffers the first few years was funneled in (sometimes anonymously) by conservative foundations, which resulted in a heavily Republican-style agenda. Consequently, liberal members dropped out in droves.

Mitchell's comments on the relationship between 18-35 feminists and their elder, boomer sisters should raise some eyebrows. Describing the choice that young, politically-minded women have when it comes to joining up with older feminists, Mitchell writes, "Depending on which theory [at either the liberal or conservative end of the spectrum] 18-35s bought into, young women...are either shortchanged or face lives of wantonness. It is a bewildering choice presented by the women who went first -- and who don't want anyone to forget that." Later comes, "When [the young] founder of the community action group Public Allies asked at a meeting of older feminists what wisdom they would like to pass on to younger activists, one replied, 'say thank you.' The room burst into applause. . . 18-35s are brushed aside by veterans who say, 'I'm not dead yet' or, 'that's my issue; I've been working on it for twenty years.'"

A New Kind of Party Animal goes to the heart of common misconceptions, proving that 18-35s do vote and do get involved. Gen-Xers may not buy into "placard-bearing protests," but we volunteer in higher numbers than any generation before us. As Mitchell writes, "When it came to politics, we said, 'show me' when offered a promise. We believed in only what we could see with our own eyes. . . . We did not unconditionally offer up our loyalty."

At their best, Mitchell's words are a call to action, inviting 18-35s to continue evolving politically and to make their unique contributions. The book is a roadmap showing young people ways to enter politics by starting locally, either in community activism or running for office.

Quoting Charles McKinney, an activist working with kids, Mitchell reveals what must have been her reason for writing this book: "Just once I want to see someone stand up and say, 'this is what I believe in. You might not agree, and this might not be a popular thing to say, but let me give you my reasons. If you elect me, I'll stick to these principles.'"

That may be reason enough to read A New Kind of Party Animal.

Reviewer Jennifer Nix, formerly a producer for National Public Radio, is a reporter for Variety. Her articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Observer, The Nation, and the Village Voice.

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