Will the Real American Please Stand Up?


The Clustering of America, by Michael J. Weiss, New York: Harper & Row, 416 pages, $22.50

Baby Boomers, by Paul C. Light, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 319 pages, $19.95

In public opinion, as in architecture or countless other fields, form follows function. In polling, for instance, great care is given to question design, since word choice and question order have been shown to have dramatic effects on answers. Even subtle bias in wording can throw election predictions or issue surveys way off the mark. For instance, a 1985 Los Angeles Times poll revealed that while 75 percent of respondents agreed that "poor people can hardly get by on what the government gives them," 59 percent also agreed that "conditions for poor people in this country—like education, housing, job opportunities, and health care—are good."

That's one reason "conservative" (in the sense of cautious) pollsters such as the Gallup Organization always qualify survey results with all sorts of caveats and provisos. They know the danger of mistaking snapshot judgments based on single questions for in-depth, textured public-opinion analysis.

A related pitfall Gallup and other responsible pollsters usually sidestep is making connections between questions that the respondents themselves have not made—thus constructing a framework of attitudes that aren't really linked. In The Clustering of America, however, author Michael J. Weiss dives into this pit gleefully. The book is based on PRIZM, a lattice of 40 zip-code-based clusters devised by demographer Jonathan Robbin to help marketing and direct-mail firms target their efforts. Weiss, a contributing editor of Washingtonian magazine, seized upon Robbin's system as a basis for drawing a portrait of Americans based not on regions, cities, or political camps, but on clusters—bearing such colorful and confusing names as Bohemian Mix, Hard Scrabble, Furs & Station Wagons, and Norma Rae-Ville.

Weiss reveals everything you ever wanted to know about these clusters—and then some. Take Furs & Station Wagons, which, according to PRIZM, makes up about 3 percent of U.S. households. This cluster, in addition to going 70 percent for Reagan in 1984, buys depilatories at almost four times the national average while consuming a below-average amount of laxatives and dental adhesives. Weiss tries desperately to tie these disparate facts together in a cohesive portrait, producing an awful narrative in the process. In discussing Furs & Station Wagons' support for the GOP, he writes, "at backyard barbecues, guests stick to discussing mulch rather than military reform." Ooo, that's a shocker.

In using a marketing tool to attempt to explain American politics and culture, Weiss oversteps the capabilities of his form. After all, even the most sophisticated reader will have a hard time thinking of political attitudes in PRIZM terms, given the sheer number of categories and their befuddling names. In addition, the "clustering of America" thesis ignores the effects of region and common history on political attitudes, since it assumes that Furs & Station Wagons neighborhoods in New York and Alabama have more in common with one another than each has with other clusters nearer to home. Maybe that's true with regard to laxative consumption patterns, but I doubt it holds true for politics.

Besides, the cluster system, even if an accurate explanation of political attitudes, offers little utility to politicians, as Weiss himself admits. The system was designed to help target direct mail. But modern campaigns are waged mostly in the broadcast media, the messages of which can't be tailored by zip code anyway. Since most cities would contain about 10 cluster types at least, a campaign based on targeted direct mail would cost a whole lot to produce and distribute.

The cluster dynamic is simply unsuited to most thinking and planning about politics. And in trying to infer basic life-style attitudes from product selection, Weiss's approach—no matter how detailed and complex it may appear—is a gross oversimplification of voting behavior. Weiss assumes that buying patterns and political attitudes or "outlooks on life" must have a logical connection. But if 50 years of public-opinion research has discovered anything, it is that opinions aren't so systematic. People often hold contradictory positions without realizing it or being troubled by it. And certainly most of us don't consider the political import of our toiletry purchases.

It is the ultimate conceit of sociologists to presume that they can indeed divine such import when the "subject" cannot. Weiss should have confined his analysis to the function—in this case, evaluating market behavior—that his chosen form is suited to perform, leaving to other systems, such as the "voting typologies" devised recently by Gallup for Times Mirror Inc., the task of evaluating social or political attitudes.

If The Clustering of America is an example of how not to discuss public opinion, Paul C. Light's Baby Boomers is an example of how to do so. A deeply textured, revealing look at the baby boom generation (as well as the generations sandwiching it), Baby Boomers succeeds because of its temerity. Light begins his first chapter with the following paragraph:

"This book is about the real baby boomers—not just the young urban professionals; not just their grim, ruthless, upwardly mobile peers, not just their dual-income, childless neighbors. It is not that yuppies, grummpies, and dinks don't exist. It is just that they are such a small part of a very large generation."

Instead of regurgitating caricatures, Light does an exhaustive job of exploring every corner of the baby boom pantheon. The reader learns about "no collars"—picture a young guy in running shoes, work pants, a Miami Dolphin t-shirt, a handlebar mustache, and a baseball cap. And then there are the yuffies (young urban failures), who make less than $10,000 a year. According to Light, 4 of 10 baby boomers in 1985 were yuffies, making them eight times more prevalent than their more famous contemporaries, the yuppies.

Light spends a lot of time on the diversity of baby boomers but also discusses, intelligently, the forces unifying them. He leans heavily on the sociological concept of "defining events," which are those shared by a generation in its youth and making a lasting impression on it. Such events as Vietnam and Watergate are shown to be possible causes of disaffection with politics and governmental institutions among baby boomers, while the Reagan presidency is seen as instilling the next generation—the baby bust—with a more positive view of political and corporate institutions.

One of the most important factors unifying baby boomers, Light argues, is television. It vastly multiplied the effects of defining events like Vietnam by allowing nonparticipants to experience them vicariously. But even with this shared frame of reference, the generation developed a wide variety of opinions, attitudes, and political preferences. Light discards the tired conservative/liberal continuum and looks at other ways of describing baby boom politics. One of these, dreamed up by social historian Charles Reich in the early '70s, postulated that baby boomers would rise above two earlier "consciousnesses"—world as a jungle and world as a meritocracy—and embrace a third, world as a community. More recently, the Cato Institute has suggested a four-part attitude system: conservatives, liberals, populists, and libertarians—the last category being used by Cato almost synonymously with baby boomers.

Light grants that both systems have some merit, but adds that once again they oversimplify. Most people do not think in such ideologically precise terms. It requires an unnatural fastidiousness. While baby boomers demonstrate tolerance and disdain for heavy-handed government (vindicating Cato's vision of the silent libertarian majority), they also demand plenty of social spending and will, on occasion, support some social regulation (the drug issue comes to mind).

In Light's view, the baby boom agenda is really a search for three values: opportunity, personal safety, and individual meaning. The first of these, opportunity, is mostly an antigovernment sentiment—basically, clear out of the way and let me get what I want. This applies not only to economic success but also to free choice of life-styles and relationships. But the opportunity value doesn't completely rule out government action—when it is designed to "equalize opportunity," like the Equal Rights Amendment (80 percent of baby boomers support it) or child care plans that give mothers the chance to "have it all."

The second value, personal safety, also denies easy classification, as it is reflected both in the generation's tough stance on crime issues and deep commitment to Social Security and Medicare. According to Light, baby boomers aren't exactly risk averse; they just seek a little insurance—say, pesticide laws or the Strategic Defense Initiative—in case things go awry.

Individual meaning is the third value, and a squishy one at that. While it reflects a sort of "Me Decade" fascination with soul-searching and self-actualization, meaning can also be found in baby boomers' support for a grand collective cause, be it social justice, the anti-apartheid movement, or a big space program.

Light doesn't really have a clear handle on the third value and tries to smuggle his own biases toward activist government in with it. But to apply his general thesis, the search for meaning can also lead baby boomers to embrace positions from conservative (evangelical religion), liberal (poverty programs), libertarian (the spread of liberty), or other political perspectives.

What Light adds to the debate over generational politics is a much needed voice of, well, reason. The various camps have staked out their claims to the baby boom generation: Conservatives point to a growing number of former radicals having "second thoughts" about their '60s activism; liberals point to the progeny of Vietnam and Watergate who, they assert, will never let such catastrophes happen again; libertarians point to a mature class of hippies/yuppies who have traded in their love beads for Rolexes and link personal tolerance with entrepreneurial leanings.

In Baby Boomers, Light responds simply, "you're all right." The generation is large enough to accommodate all these groups, and many more, each embracing core values but uncertain of their application. The boom does not represent a tide of history that only one particular group can ride. Ultimately—as Light understands and Weiss ignores—politics is persuasion, not divination.

Contributing Editor John Hood is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.