Sorry, That's Classified
Sorry, That's Classified!
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Ever heard the saying three may keep a secret if two of them are dead? Now multiply that by…
OONA HATHAWAY Millions of people with access to classified information. It ends up becoming self-defeating because we're keeping so many secrets that actually we really are not very good at keeping those secrets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE America's overclassification problem means more leaks, even in online games.
NOAH SMITH The tiers that these documents were classified as, they could have been available to someone who indeed was in one of these respected militaries.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus, the news events that defined our lives as seen over generations.
BRIAN LEHRER If the people who came of age when the Depression was first brewing had epic life challenges. So do the millennials and Gen Z today in the 2020s. I think there's been nothing like it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Anyone can misplace their keys or forget that their glasses are on top of their heads. Or maybe, as it seems amongst presidential persons recently…
STEPHEN COLBERT CLIP Every day we learn about a new batch of classified documents showing up where they shouldn't be. And today is yet another day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Late Show host Stephen Colbert is referring to the newest member of the Brotherhood of the meandering manila folder.
NEWS CLIP Breaking news. We have learned that classified documents have now been found in the home of former Vice President Mike Pence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mike Pence in an ABC interview two months ago:
DAVID MUIR Did you take any classified documents with you from the White House?
MIKE PENCE I did not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Oops! And just last week...
NEWS CLIP FBI Investigators found more classified documents while searching President Joe Biden's Delaware home.
NEWS CLIP As well as some of Biden's handwritten notes, all of it from Mr. Biden's time as vice president and some from his time as senator.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This was the fourth time that classified documents from Biden's time as VP were found where they oughtn't be since the first batch turned up in November, when.
NEWS CLIP President's lawyers find ten classified marked documents in an office closet at the Penn Biden Center in mid-November, Attorney General Merrick Garland gives the case to Trump appointed U.S. Attorney John Lausch. Late December, the president's counsel tells Lausch there are more documents in the President's Delaware garage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE On January 5th, Lausch recommended a special counsel for the case. But all of this only became public when CBS News reported the story four days later, and over two months after the first documents were found, inviting some unsettling comparisons.
NEWS CLIP Two investigations. Two presidents, as President Biden and former President Donald Trump are being investigated for their handling of classified documents.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The FBI’s raid of Trump's Mar-a-Lago home late last summer was the climax of a year long news saga that started with a subpoena. The subpoena was the first of many efforts to recover Trump's errant documents. The Biden White House actually initiated the searches. What's more...
NEWS CLIP The White House points out the two cases are different, especially since Trump had more than ten times the number of documents at Mar-a-Lago, and he refuses to fully cooperate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So far, it's reported that between 25 and 30 classified documents were found in Biden-places, the Mar-a-Lago search revealed over 300. What was in all those documents? We won't know until government investigators release their reports. But as more folders are found at more houses, you got to wonder how much of the stuff is just lying around and why? Oona Hathaway is a professor at Yale Law School and former special counsel at the Pentagon. In her Pentagon role, she had the highest level of security clearance that the government provides and even the power to classify documents. Oona, welcome to the show.
OONA HATHAWAY Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Last year you wrote that the vast bulk of the classified information you saw was remarkable for how unremarkable it was. Can you give us a sense of scale?
OONA HATHAWAY Well, the problem is really out of control, frankly. The last year that we have data was in 2017, and then it was around 50 million classified documents were created that year. And it means that a lot of things are classified that shouldn't be classified.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And that 2017 data say that about 4 million Americans with security clearances classified those 50 million documents at a cost of about $18 billion.
OONA HATHAWAY You know, so we bring in all these outside people to manage this information. And of course, they have to have clearances of their own. But the more people who are touching this information, the more vulnerability this information really has. And so the irony of all of that is that the more that is classified, the less well protected the information really is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you have these three classifications: confidential, secret and top secret. Then special compartmented information receives a special designation. This is the real deal. It has to do with human intelligence, satellite intelligence and so forth.
OONA HATHAWAY Yes, exactly. So in addition to those three levels, there's kind of a separate designation, which is sensitive compartmented information, SCI, and that's classified information that often is derived from intelligence sources or methods, compartments of information that are set up so that if that compartment is compromised, other compartments aren't compromised, but also said that you can limit access to that compartment. These are very tightly guarded programs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Weren't some of this level of classified documents found in Mar-a-Lago?
OONA HATHAWAY Yes, they were. So the information that we have is not very extensive, but we do have this photograph that was interestingly released as part of the investigation. And from that, we can get some insight into what documents were there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mm hmm.
OONA HATHAWAY And we can see that very bright red letters and that photograph that shows top secret slash SCI. That's supposed to be kept in a government facility where access is extraordinarily limited.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They have to be reviewed in a skiff.
OONA HATHAWAY Yes. The skiff is a sensitive compartmented information facility. It's extremely well protected in terms of sound, in terms of access.
BROOKE GLADSTONE These designations are pretty obvious right? They’re stamped at the top of the document. You said that sometimes the cover pages are even a bright color, so they can't be mixed up with other documents.
OONA HATHAWAY Yes. So the most sensitive documents that top secret SCI documents have these bright cover pages on them, bright yellow and red, that make it very clear that this is a document that is supposed to be handled in a sensitive way. And they do that precisely to make it hard to make a mistake so it doesn't get shuffled in with the other papers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Okay. So we don't know much about what classified documents were found at Joe Biden's house from his days as vice president. One of the reasons why we don't know is because the people who found them weren't cleared to look at them and had to pass on the whole job to someone else, right?
OONA HATHAWAY As I understand it and of course, this is just from public reports, his private attorneys were going through materials that he had taken with him after he had left office as vice president and tripped across a classified document. And the minute they saw a classified document, they stopped looking and they notified the National Archives, which notified the Department of Justice. And then they had to send in people to investigate more fully who actually had access to those documents.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So President Carter signed the Presidential Records Act, which set this whole urgent need to archive in motion in a real way. Back in '78, it didn't really apply to him, though. It didn't apply until Reagan came in. And yet they found documents at Carter's house in Plains, Georgia.
OONA HATHAWAY This is not unusual. It is part of the difficulty at the very highest levels of government. How do you separate what is part of your work as a government official and what is you as a private person? Sometimes the lines between the two get pretty blurred. In the case of then Vice President Biden and Vice President Pence, they would unlikely have been the people who boxed these documents up. What would have happened is at the end of the administration, their aides would have gone through and boxed up the documents and probably should have been responsible for making determinations about what are personal papers that really should go home with them and what are documents that should be going to the National Archives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Have you noticed any red flags in the media coverage of the Biden versus Trump classified documents events?
OONA HATHAWAY I think early on, everyone kind of threw up their hands and said oh, what Trump is being accused of. President Biden, when he was vice president, did exactly the same thing. So why are they going after Trump? Coverage has become a little bit more nuanced. There's a little bit more recognition, although still not widespread, that there is a difference between these two cases, because in one case, the National Archives was requesting over and over and over and over again access to information that they believed had been removed by the Trump administration and that needed to be returned to the National Archives. And then the other case, it was President Biden's own personal attorneys who alerted the National Archives that there might be documents that were the property of the US government, and then they invited them in to scrub the house from top to bottom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's a lot of weirdness in the classification system. The CIA drone program was widely covered, and yet its very existence was top secret. What are the biggest risks of overclassification?
OONA HATHAWAY Maybe the most dangerous one is that it makes it very hard for the government to disclose its activities to the American people. The drone program was one of the most highly classified government secrets, even after it was very much an open secret. Everyone knew it was happening, but President Obama couldn't even talk about it until finally he decided the whole thing was absurd, declassified the existence of the program, and started talking about it. But that's a kind of absurdity that the American people can't even be told that the American government is running a significant program of using military force abroad through these remotely piloted vehicles. And what are the consequences of that and where are they being used and who is making the decision and who are we trying to kill with these drones and why are we doing this? And how much does it cost? Like, none of those questions can be talked about with the American people because those who know about it can't even disclose the facts of it, including members of Congress. They can't talk about it with their constituents, even when it's a program everybody knows about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about the potential for press intimidation? Reporters at the New York Times have gotten into trouble, a fair amount reporting classified information, some of which could be argued is genuinely secret and some, like dropping bombs, is very hard to keep under wraps. What are the freedom of information implications? You know, laying aside the fact that some secrets ought to be kept.
OONA HATHAWAY Yeah. When they publish articles about these programs that could potentially put them at risk for prosecution under the Espionage Act. And in fact, when Julian Assange, who is a controversial figure but he was initially charged for hacking documents when he created the site WikiLeaks web page where you can get access to all these leaked documents. But then the Trump administration added a charge under the Espionage Act, and that made many journalists very nervous because what he was being charged for — making available to the public documents that he had received that had been leaked and putting them on the Internet — was, the exact same thing that a lot of mainstream news sites do. And the only thing standing between them and prosecution is a history of the Department of Justice deciding not to prosecute these cases. But that's where the Assange case makes everybody nervous, because that suggests maybe the Department of Justice won't stick to that forever.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But in the Assange documents, were some materials related to sources and methods, as I understand it, that could possibly affect national security.
OONA HATHAWAY I'm a big advocate of mass declassification and in fact, mandatory declassification of documents and materials that are more than ten years old. The one exception to that is for information that applies to sources and methods, and particularly human sources, human intelligence. What he did was reckless, but the decision to prosecute him under the Espionage Act makes a lot of much more mainstream journalists who would never put something online, who generally have the practice of notifying the government before they're going to place these documents online just in case there is some good reason that they shouldn't be disclosed – puts them at risk. And I think that's the danger and the concern.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ed Snowden — he is celebrated for exposing a data collection program so sweeping it's swept Americans into its maw. But some of those leaks did arguable harm to national security, right?
OONA HATHAWAY Part of the challenge here is that the reason that those programs were kept from the American people for as long as they were was because, of course, they're extraordinarily highly classified. And so even when Congress knew about these things, if you're briefed on a intelligence program in a highly classified setting, you have a very hard time doing anything about it if you're a member of Congress, because you can't tell your constituents about it, probably can't even tell your staff about it. You may not even be able to tell your colleagues about it if they haven't been read into the program. And so part of the reason I think these programs can persist is that those who learn about them can't do anything about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Please fact check me. Didn't some of Ed Snowden's revelations put legitimate sources and methods at risk?
OONA HATHAWAY That is what the government says. I actually can't even look because I'm not cleared into those programs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You can't look at stuff that was leaked.
OONA HATHAWAY If I ever want to get access to classified information again, so be read into a classification program again, I can't look at improperly leaked material that remains classified. Just because it's leaked doesn't mean it's declassified.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So as somebody with a clearance, you're not allowed to look at it. I am allowed to look at it.
OONA HATHAWAY There is a kind of absurdity about that because –.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah!
OONA HATHAWAY [CHUCKLES] and it's hard for people like me who are researchers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much.
OONA HATHAWAY Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Oona Hathaway is a professor at Yale Law School.
Coming up, that video game you're playing might be a danger to national security. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. So now we bring you a case where leaked classified material was so insignificant that even when posted online, the authorities barely blinked. But we also see it as yet another case where a forum of vast importance to the post-Boomer generations is being ignored by their elders at their peril. The lead from the Washington Post piece last August read “Video games have long led to fights, controllers thrown, unsubstantiated accusations of cheating, insults hurled at mothers and even dogs. But no one has ever leaked classified documents related to national security in a public forum to win an argument until twice in 2021, and then again last summer” and – I'm updating now – several times since. Noah Smith wrote that piece. He writes on the business and politics and cultural implications of video games for The Washington Post. He says that these were penny ante leaks, just ammunition really in a dust up between the designers of the game, War Thunder, specifically the Tank War edition of the game, and the ordinance nerds among its users who wanted the game to feel even more real.
NOAH SMITH It's funny, they wanted it to be realistic, not so realistic that like the tank breaks down on the way to the battlefield, which is something a source told me, you know, and then they have to sit there while everybody else plays. Not so realistic that they're in 120 degree heat and can't go to the bathroom and getting shot at. Not that realistic, but realistic so you have a British Challenger 2 tank, which is their main battle tank facing off against, say this Chinese ZTZ 99 which is their main battle tank. And then the Chinese tank shoots the shell and it hits the tank at a – I'm making this up – but say a 45 degree angle in the turret and there's no damage done. The argument was something like, oh, that should have blown up the tank and it didn't blow up the tank. This is then where the argument could ensue.
GAMER CLIP What? Oh, he hit me with a missile, bro. From how far? Dude, he was, like, almost three kilometers behind me. With an R60. Like, how does it even catch me?
BROOKE GLADSTONE And to force their opinion on what would make it more real. They posted some manuals related to those tanks — a British one, French one and a Chinese one that were at least technically classified.
NOAH SMITH Yeah, exactly. The Chinese example, it was a tank shell, something that goes in the tank that they shoot, and they post that next to what they posted from the manual to sort of prove its legitimacy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do we know about how this classified information, these manuals, were obtained to begin with?
NOAH SMITH We don't know much. It could be manufacturers. It could be people in the military. It could be people in foreign militaries. It could be salespeople, people who are trying to sell this at different trade shows.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right.
NOAH SMITH Safe to say it is not life and death. You know, I spoke to several sources and military experts, folks who are in the military, folks who operated tanks. All of them came back and said, look, the information that was posted online was basically not a big deal. On the other hand, there's a deeper issue at play here, which is, you know, folks thinking that it is okay or acceptable to post classified information online. And that's why the game publisher acted so quickly to take it down. You know, I spoke with a spokesperson for the British Ministry of Defense. He was very clear about the fact that they were serious about making sure that classified documents, as defined, were not just posted willy-nilly online just because whatever gamer thinks, oh, you know what? It's not a big deal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So given that the stakes are so low, what struck you about this story?
NOAH SMITH First of all, I thought it was hilarious. I thought this story was really funny. But number two, also looking at the increased relevance of video games, that it is a mainstream and in fact, most lucrative form of entertainment in the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah, the military has used games to inspire recruitment and to train for some time.
NOAH SMITH They sure have. And yeah, I think the military certainly understands that if you want to reach younger people, it's videogames. In fact, I did a story about a weapons system in Israel that was going to be developed where they actually used, instead of a joystick, an actual Xbox controller that they got on Amazon.com. And they said, because kids today, this is what they're comfortable with and we don't want to waste time teaching them a new interface. Here's the Xbox controller. And now you can control this weapons system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, this week, The Washington Post announced that they were shutting down their gaming vertical called Launcher. What do you think we as readers will lose? Is the Post missing an opportunity here?
NOAH SMITH I would say that the numbers speak for themselves. The video game industry, depending on which estimates you want to look at, was worth over $100 billion last year. Some estimates put it at $200 billion. For comparison, global box office for film was $26 billion last year. On Twitch, which is the main venue for people watching other people play video games, there was 1.3 trillion minutes watched. 70% of the viewers were between 18 and 34. Not only that, but people also assume that the gamer is some young man in their parents basement. The reality when you look at the whole gaming industry, which includes mobile games, which are games that you play on your phone, and that's half or in some estimates, more of all the games that are purchased than played. Those mobile games are being played mostly by women. Most of the profit in the gaming industry is from mobile games being driven by women. And so there's all of these stories, for instance, that are not going to be told. In this moment right now, there is nothing like a monoculture as happened in years past, because there was network news that everybody watched and there was newspapers that many people read, and we don't have that anymore. And so as a result, people who are older don't understand the significance that gaming has in the culture right now. For instance, people I'll say names like Ninja, I'll say names like TIFF, see, names like XQC. These are the younger generation’s movie stars.
The biggest shame of this decision by The Washington Post is that they would really not know if there was a new Elvis coming up. And it's fascinating to think about if there was an Elvis now, which, by the way, there are. And they're making mid-8 figures for playing video games. These are the new movie stars. And so the fact that one of the leading national outlets that had focused on this and was lauded in the industry for the kinds of reporting that it was doing is no longer having that focus. And if you even if you want to move away from the cultural implications of this decision, right, in the fact that readers won't know about the latest developments that are taking place in, again, the biggest form of entertainment in the world. We can talk about it from a financial standpoint. We can talk about it from a cultural standpoint. We can talk about it from an attention standpoint. This is where the culture is right now for younger generations, and it's where it's going to go. It's not just that, oh, people are going to turn 23 and 25 and 30, stop doing the things that they love. Now it'll shift.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And is there a way to tie this, you know, silly little story into that larger picture?
NOAH SMITH This will not be the last time that somebody posts a classified document in a game. It's much harder to break through on these kinds of stories when it's coming from an online outlet as opposed to a mainstream legacy outlet. I don't necessarily agree or think it's right, but it's the fact. And so while this one, you know, the implications were a little bit less, I wonder about what happens when there's an indication of something happening in the gaming world that will have outsized implications for mainstream society or for older generations. And someone's going to try to be the canary in the coal mine and it's not going to be taken seriously. And Kennedy was the first president to understand television. It might not happen in the next cycle. It might not happen in the cycle after that. But there will come a time and I'm saying this now again on the record on this program, where candidates will need to understand Twitch. They will need to understand streaming. And – dare I say – they will need to understand video game culture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much, Noah.
NOAH SMITH Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Noah Smith is a reporter for The Washington Post.
Coming up, not generational warfare exactly, but you might say tensions are rising. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. We've just heard about the quirks and the consequences of overclassification when it comes to government information. But use the word in a different way and we can see a problem with the overclassification of people, too. Especially when it comes to generalizing about generations. We just can't help stuffing Americans into discrete boxes neatly labeled Silent Generation, Generation X, Millennials, Gen Z, and of course, the Boomers. As their cohort ages and their power fades, it's maybe not the greatest generation, but until lately it's been the biggest – and for a very long time. Around 76 million Americans were born between 1946 and 1964. In the postwar economic expansion, with financial benefits galore — for white people anyway. And as we'll hear, this generation is whiter than those that followed. It was a time of “the generation gap,” a term coined by an editor at Look Magazine, describing the great and growing divide between the nascent boomers and anyone over 30. In culture, politics, and everything.
NEWS CLIP Civil rights, feminism, LGBTQ and disability rights.
NEWS CLIP Baby Boomers were one of the most influential generations in history. They changed American society and gave the next generations the cultural freedoms they enjoy. Without Baby Boomers. America wouldn't be as free or prosperous as it is today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But as the Boomers continued to age their aggregated wealth, not individual wealth, has become an aching spot for younger people. Philip Bump, national columnist at The Washington Post, set out to interrogate how this staggeringly enormous generation reshaped America as we know it. In his new book, The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America, he examines what will happen when the boom inevitably fizzles out.
PHILIP BUMP America was not prepared to handle the baby boom. So you saw this massive surge in, for example, the diaper industry. You had to build a whole bunch of new schools. The county of Los Angeles was averaging one new elementary, middle or high school every single month over the course of the baby boom. Then, of course, they all start to graduate from high school. And what are you going to do with them? Some of them — that's a reason so many went to college. You had to find space for them in the workforce or a lot of them got drafted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are you able to ascribe closely characteristics to the baby boom? I read your book and I know you do, and I have a couple of bones to pick. But first, go ahead.
PHILIP BUMP Fair enough. Of course, the baby boom is a very, very heterogenous group of people. There are Democrats, there are Republicans. There are not white people. There are white people. But it is also the case that the baby boom, just by virtue of its size, really did reshape the United States in fundamental ways that now define what the United States is. And as such, there was a collective manner in which the baby boom was itself addressed by institutions of power in the United States and reacted to those institutions of power that I think have a sort of collective sensibility, even if they aren't necessarily universally shared politics or economics or things along those lines.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I guess what rankled me is that as a member of the boom, I do see my cogenerationists, a lot of them, voting for Trump, which I can't understand. But I also see it as a time where there was a push for greater freedoms and more acceptance and racial equality, however thwarted it would be, which I feel you sort of elide over a little bit.
PHILIP BUMP I mean, honestly, I think that's fair. It is certainly the case that the book spent some time looking at the ways in which the cultural and racial and particular differences between older generations, specifically the baby boomer and younger generations, have contributed to the moment and tension that American politics is seeing. The book also obviously points out that when you look at, for example, the resistance movement to Donald Trump that was driven by members of the baby boom generation, that there is tension within the baby boom generation itself. That, however, doesn't mean that we can simply say, okay, well, the baby boom is a land of contrast and sort of leave it there, right? I mean, there really is this very particular approach to politics and power because America has been so long responding to the needs of the baby boomer, not meaning individual needs of individuals, but rather collective – the collective needs of the baby boom, that it really changed institutionally what America looked like. And there was this expectation that baby boomers were adapted to. This does not mean that you as a baby boomer felt like, Oh, well, America is going to provide for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE OK, now I'm getting really embarrassed.
PHILIP BUMP There was this sense that, okay, the needs of our generation will be attended to. And now for the first time, that's being challenged by a younger generation that is almost equivalent in size, if not as percentage of the population, that has its own needs for housing and child care — that being the millennial generation — and that is also contributing to the tension. One thing that's important to recognize, too, is that part of the political tension is rooted in the fact that the political priorities of younger Americans, specifically millennials and Gen Z, are things like LGBTQ rights and climate change, which were not as prominent as issues for liberal baby boomers. Liberal baby boomers did focus very heavily on diversity and race and often environment broadly, but it's a different set of issues that are motivating younger people now, in part because they don't have to do things like fight over race in the same way that race needed to be fought over in the 1960s and 1970s. Now that has taken on a different tenor. But there are other issues that define what it means to be liberal for young people that aren't necessarily reflecting the values of the baby boom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah, no, you're right. As you note in your book, so many fundamental ways in which we communicate are closed off to the large section of the baby boom who are not early adopters. So, I mean, they just can't handle that technology. When we were talking about political tension that the boomers ultimately must claim some responsibility for – or maybe the lion's share. There's also the tension between generations. And you spend a little time on the song that came out of TikTok. 'Okay, Boomer.'
PHILIP BUMP It's not a great song.
BROOKE GLADSTONE No, its a terrible song.
SONG CLIP I'm not even a millennial, I'm Generation Z okay? OK, boomer. OK, boomer
PHILIP BUMP I mean, I mean, esthetically and certainly in message. But I mean, look, the song is representative of a way in which technology really enabled younger generations to confront older generations in a way that wasn't previously possible. Right. So, yes, it was absolutely the case that you had famous young people that existed, you know, in the 1960s and 1970s, but they were often curated, right? Selected by gatekeepers in the music industry or in the media and elevated as voices for a generation. Nowadays, older Americans, particularly baby boomers, are being presented with a new face of an America that doesn't necessarily share the same priorities as they do, and often doesn't even look — very literally — look the way they do. That's a challenge that the boomers have never faced before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote that the demographics of Florida is one of the best predictors of what America will look like in 2060. And yet there's a lot of inconsistency there. Can you walk me through this?
PHILIP BUMP Sure. The Census Bureau does projections out to 2060. And when you look at their demographic projections, which are just projections and may not actually bear fruit, but if you look at their projections, the state that best matches the composition of race and age predicted by 2060 is Florida. And the reason for that is because America is getting older, in large part because of the baby boom. And Florida is already there. Florida already has a much more densely old population than do most states. It also has a much more heavily Hispanic population than in most states, which is also what the Census Bureau expects to happen. That said, the old population in Florida now and Hispanic population Florida now probably does not look like the old population in the Hispanic population of the United States in 2060. First of all, the Hispanic population in Florida is very heavily Cuban-American, which we saw had a very stark effect in the 2020 election in particular. But also the old population of Florida is very heavily white because older Americans now are very heavily white. But in 35 years, the older population in America will be much less densely and homogeneously white than it is today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The other states that fall closer to U.S. projections for 2060 were mostly ones that supported Joe Biden in 2020. Why is Florida more of a predictor than any of those other states?
PHILIP BUMP Well, it's a very good demographic predictor, but it's not necessarily a political predictor. And that's really the broad question. What happens to American politics as America gets more diverse? I spoke with people who do politics in Florida, and they noted that over the past decade, two decades, they expected Florida to be much more heavily Democratic because they were seeing these demographic trends unfold. But that didn't occur in part because of the nature of the diversity in Florida, in part because so many older, more conservative people moved to Florida and in part because, quite honestly, the Florida Democratic Party is kind of a mess when you talk to people. And that's an important consideration because we tend to talk about politics as though everything is going to stay as it is now in perpetuity. That's not going to happen. The Republican Party will at some point in time, if they want to have any success, have to figure out how to appeal to a more diverse American electorate. We don't know then what their policies will be. We don't know what it'll will look like by the time the 2060 rolls around.
BROOKE GLADSTONE As the whiteness quotient diminishes and as the age of the nation or the age of the people in power go down, will we see less conservative politics? It seems obvious, but when people get older, they get more conservative frequently.
PHILIP BUMP Well, they may. That statement is obviously one of the things that came up a lot as I was doing the research for this book. And there are two things about that statement that are interesting. The first is that the history of social science in United States really isn't that old, right? You can only go back maybe 50 years, a little bit longer than that, and get a good assessment of who Americans are and what they believe in. And so when we talk about the trend over the long term of what happens as people get older, it's sort of hard to evaluate. And there's another aspect here, too, that the sociologist Richard Albert raised to me, which I think is fascinating. If you look at the patterns of citizenship, obviously only citizens can vote in federal elections. When you look at the patterns for citizenship, the Census Bureau anticipates that by 2045 or so, America will be about half Hispanic, black, Asian, everything besides non-Hispanic white. But if you look at citizenship, it won't be until at least 2060 when white American citizens make up half of the population of citizens. In other words, this could be another at least 15 years before whites lose that particular dominance, according to Census Bureau projections. If the patterns of naturalization hold.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why did you write this book? And did you find the answers to the questions you had about what the post boomer future held?
PHILIP BUMP And I was very curious what can we anticipate about politics as a result of this? And I did get a very clear answer, which is it’s hard to say. You know, you may not be entirely satisfied. It's not necessarily you put a pin in, you know, stick to your wall, but it is very useful to consider. Political parties changed the past patterns that we have that we use to anticipate what's going to happen are incomplete and often very short lived themselves. So, when we think about the future of the United States, it's really important for us to remember the ways in which things can go differently than what we expect. And I think that is as good a lesson as you can apply to anything when you're thinking about the future, as opposed to having a concrete answer to all of your questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE If there is a prevailing attitude in the boomer generation that will be replaced, what is the biggest thing that will change?
PHILIP BUMP I think part of the challenges that we have younger generations now who exhibit the characteristics that we expect from younger generations of being more open to difference and being more open to collective action.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I remember they said that about us when we were young.
PHILIP BUMP Exactly. My point is, it's not clear if, for example, the higher rates of college education among younger Americans will contribute to that lasting longer within generation than it did for the baby boomers. But I really do think that because America will look different, even potentially the very definition of what it means to be a white American will be shifted in the way that it's shifted to accommodate a broader variety of Europeans a century ago. Does that mean, then, that Americans will have a collective respect for diversity broadly that doesn't necessarily exist at this point in time? Again, the baby boom — absolutely instrumental in fighting for civil rights in many different ways. The nature of that fight, though, has changed, as has the nature of the people to whom it's being applied. And I think that may then have longer term repercussions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now I'm satisfied. Phillip, thank you very much.
PHILIP BUMP Well, thank you very much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Philip Bump is the author of Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Whether or not you're sold on these generational labels, the length of our lives undeniably determines which bits of history we encounter up close and which are passed down to us. This month in a series titled News That Defined Your Generation. WNYC host Brian Lehrer embarked on a kind of oral history project where callers described the events that changed their lives forever. He began with listeners in their nineties, like Sheila, who rang to tell him about the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Navy on December 7th, 1941:
CALLER I was nine years old, and I had no idea at that time that anything bad could ever happen to me. I just thought that I lived in this perfectly protected world, and suddenly I grew up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Then Brian heard callers in their eighties, seventies, sixties and fifties.
CALLER My father was born in 1915, and I could never understand why he couldn't get over the Great Depression until AIDS happened to me. It completely changed everything about how I live my life. It brought a lot of miracles and a lot of connection to my life, but as I'm talking to you, I can see the faces of those 200 people I lost.
BROOKE GLADSTONE People in their forties and thirties described how 9/11 or the stock market crash of 2008 altered their lives. The series ended with callers in their twenties. This is Zara, who said she was changed forever by the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.
CALLER I was about 14 at the time 15 and I remember that being the first time that I was ever viscerally mad at a news story. That was really defining because it had really solidified a lot of the conversations that my parents had had with me about how to conduct yourself as a black child or a black person living in America.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The idea for the series began with The Brian Lehrer Show's coverage of the midterms. Back in the summer, Brian had asked callers to tell him which issues they cared about the most.
BRIAN LEHRER I was noticing how a lot of the issues that were coming up seemed to be very age-specific. Senator Rick Scott of Florida was proposing to end Social Security as we know it. President Biden wanted to forgive some student loan debt. The Supreme Court's Dobbs decision was obviously so relevant specifically to women of childbearing age. Ron DeSantis and others were running on what you could and couldn't teach to kids in pre-K through third grade. So there were all these age-specific issues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what did you learn about the limits of peering through a generational lens?
BRIAN LEHRER The biggest thing that I think we learned was that callers were not stratifying by age so much. Callers in their nineties were as likely to say democracy and climate change and abortion rights were their top issues as callers in their twenties and thirties.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've built up such a special community of listeners across generations and nationality. Was one of your goals to encourage generations to talk to one another?
BRIAN LEHRER Absolutely. You know, talk radio, as you've been exploring in such revelatory depth on your show recently, tends to run people into echo chambers of people who are very much like each other. And one of the big ways that the commercial media business stratifies people is by age. Openly and explicitly, one show is for 18 to 34 year old women. Another is for 25 to 54 year old men interested in sports. All that demographic marketing speak. And part of our mission is to bring people together from different kinds of backgrounds, not just to talk, but also to listen to each other. So we're always looking for ways to bring different groups to the same talk radio party.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It was pretty clear most of the generation defining news was bad news. We are wired to be changed more by bad news. Some cited the election of Obama as a notable good news event. But wars, assassinations, pandemics, that stuff predominated.
BRIAN LEHRER Yeah, I was struck by that. I guess if I had thought about it in advance, I would have predicted it. And maybe it's just a reflection of what makes news. You know, we don't report every day that thousands of commercial airline flights took off and landed safely. Bad news drives politics and drives policy because it's the bad news that we have to do something about. But a minority of people did also call in with some iconic good news events. One guy remembered a block party breaking out on his block in New York City on V-E Day at the end of World War Two. Another caller remembered when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. So there were these iconic positive events that people remembered. But I guess it's really bad news that drives change, and that's why people remember the assassinations and the wars.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So, Brian, you must have come up with your defining news events.
BRIAN LEHRER You know, it's funny, Brooke, even though I ask the question on the air for two weeks, I have a very hard time coming up with a single one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That is a cheat. I know you live in the news. I'm going to lean on you a little here.
BRIAN LEHRER Then I'm going to say the year 2020.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Okay.
BRIAN LEHRER Because even having been in the news business for decades, in addition to living my own life, the fact of the Big Lie, the intense election campaign of 2020, after having gone through four years of Trump as president and the pandemic coming right at the same time, and George Floyd, there was nothing in my experience like 2020. I think I've come to the conclusion that it might be the most intense time of anyone alive today. The number and magnitude of the shocks we've seen here in the 21st century. 9/11 was in 2001, right, then the financial crisis and Great Recession, the Trump era and all of its implications. The pandemic, O-M-G. If the people who came of age when the depression was first brewing, let's say the late 1920s had epic life challenges, so do the millennials and Gen Z today in the 2020s, I think there's been nothing like it. What was yours?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, my first one was when I was 13, the assassination of Martin Luther King. I certainly was aware of the assassination of President Kennedy before that — I was eight. But the one that really, really hit me was King. I followed his movements throughout the South. I listened to his speeches. He really was a hero. And that was devastating. The next time I was devastated by an assassination was John Lennon. I'd grown up with him. He felt like an older sibling, and he was sort of clearing the brush so I wouldn't make maybe the same mistakes or perhaps make some of them, you know what I mean? It was just really personal. But in terms of huge historical impact, mine is very similar to yours in that it was the pandemic. And in the pandemic, what I saw as we were following all the different repercussions was the change in attitude. I don't think George Floyd would have excited the kind of anguish and rage that his death did across so many communities without the pandemic. I think that there wouldn't be a changing feeling about work, reinvigoration of the union movements. I just think so many things came out of the pandemic, even aside from the tragic death and how it pointed out the weaknesses in how we address varying degrees of risk across communities. So I guess as weirdly imbalanced as all that would be, it would be the assassination of Martin Luther King, the murder of John Lennon, and the pandemic.
BRIAN LEHRER And one of the things that you touched on, that the pandemic forced a lot of, let's say, white or more affluent people to confront was who we considered, quote, essential workers. The concentration of people of color still in those lower paid service industries and how much everybody else depends on them. So hopefully there will be a positive ripple effect that is still only beginning and a push for more economic equality as well as other kinds. And when you talk about the RFK assassination and the Martin Luther King assassination, if there's one year that rivals 2020, it's probably 1968 with those assassinations and student protests and the election of Richard Nixon, for heaven's sake, and the Vietnam War. 1968 and 2020, may be the historical tentpoles through which we view the lifetimes of people alive today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We both belong to the boomer generation. Here's a clip from a caller called Nick.
CALLER We've failed the World in so many ways we've helped to propagate climate change. We are learning about our racist history that we should have sought out decades ago. The list goes on and on, and the selfishness is stunning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Here's Trudy in her seventies.
CALLER What has happened to all my boomer buddies? I am so frustrated. I still love all the things I've always loved rock music. I love social media. I love current events. And I'm a lot more radical than I was when I was younger. And this has caused a great divide between me and my fellow boomers, in my humble opinion.
BRIAN LEHRER I was glad to hear those calls. Anything that makes a generation or any other group look critically at themselves. But one thing I knew about our generation is that the baby boomer generation was never all idealistic hippie college students. It was a generation divided along the socioeconomic and demographic lines that we still largely see today. Reagan did very well among baby boomers. Trump won by a few points among boomers, at least in 2016. So if you are a boomer from Brooklyn or a boomer from Wyoming, pretty different experiences. So I'd say generation is not the most defining demographic in terms of what our generation has succeeded at or failed at in setting up future generations. It may be that some people were fighting for one set of things and other baby boomers were fighting for other sets of things. And it's been a divided generation, just like the country is divided today in every generation. And so left—right might be much more relevant than old—young to tell that story on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Brian, thank you very much.
BRIAN LEHRER My pleasure, Brooke. Keep up the great work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You, too.
Brian Lehrer is the host of The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC's daily call-in program covering politics and life.
And that's the show! On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang and Suzanne Gaber with help from Temi George. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Nerviano, Sham Sundra and Jason Isaac. Katye Rodgers is our executive producer. On the Media, is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.