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Turn, Turn, Turn

Why would a political junkie sit out an election? Maybe it was time for a new perspective.

David Plunkert

By Bryan Keefer

When I graduated from Stanford in 2000, I moved to Washington, D.C., full of the conviction that I could change the world. (Like love, it’s only a cliché when it happens to other people.) I went to work for the AFL-CIO. Anti-sweatshop fervor was at its height, and my roommate’s senior thesis about union organizing had convinced me activism was, well, cool.

After spending the last month of the presidential election knocking on the doors of union members in New Jersey and then following the election overtime in Florida, I was so fired up about politics that two friends and I started a website devoted to debunking political spin. Thinking that our aim was true, we thought we could help stop deception in politics.

I spent the next four years fact-checking politicians and trying to keep pundits honest. (Tilting at windmills, some might say.) Eventually I switched from activism to journalism, going to work for the Columbia Journalism Review in 2004 on a project devoted to keeping the political media honest. Those two friends and I wrote a book about spin that got me on The Daily Show.

In 2008, however, I watched the election merely as an interested civilian.

So what happened?

Like many in my generation, I’ve become ambivalent about change. While that theme dominated the political campaign, it was hard for me to see that mantra as anything more than an advertising slogan.

I may be a bit cynical, but change just doesn’t mean what it did a generation ago. My father studied at Stanford in France during the student protests in May 1968, so perhaps I expect too much romance with my revolution. But where my parents’ generation had Vietnam, the draft and Watergate, my generation has Iraq, Facebook and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

That represents a pretty epochal shift. I’ve come of age in an era of mass customization, rather than mass movements. Our affiliations are broad and loose, rather than narrow and deep—we identify with brands, not institutions. Everyone has his or her own playlist now; we don’t need the radio. And what politicians, activists and concerned citizens (like me) are all struggling with is: how do you bring people together to accomplish something when they don’t need togetherness the way they did only 20 years ago?

Even as someone who’s not much of a joiner, I find this trend slightly scary. How is anything supposed to change, any injustice be righted? What I’ve concluded is that change for my generation really happens on the individual level, as an individual experience.

It’s tempting to write this trend off as self-centeredness, but it isn’t necessarily. The individual urge to change things can often be outward-directed: a 2006 survey of 13- to 25-year-olds found that 81 percent volunteered at some point during the previous year. It also manifests itself in what I’d call a profound generational willingness to take risks. We—Stanford grads, having spent our formative years in Silicon Valley, perhaps especially—no longer expect to stay in one career, let alone one job, for more than a few years. Rather than wanting to be a part of things, my generation feels that those things are just a part of ourselves.

So, as we inaugurate a new president, I’m starting what’s essentially my third career in eight years. At a media start-up, I’ve moved from the editorial side to the product team, working on such mysterious-sounding things as content management systems and search engine optimization. As I tell my friends now, “I do everything except write the words.”

Like our new president, I think I know what I’m doing, but the test will be in learning what I don’t know and then reacting to it sensibly. This doesn’t mean I’ve given up on changing the world. It just means I’ve changed my mind about how much time, diligence, flexibility and humility it will take to figure out how to actually do it.


BRYAN KEEFER, ’00, is a product manager at thedailybeast.com. With Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan, he wrote the 2004 bestseller All the President’s Spin: George W. Bush, the Media, and the Truth.

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