The cult of youth, identity politics, and the quest for enduring stability: A Romanian case study
By Georgiana Constantin-Parke, TES Contributor
Shortly after the 2014 Romanian presidential election, on a sunny autumn day, I was walking down the streets of Bucharest. Klaus Werner Iohannis had just won the election. In front of me, a middle- aged woman was holding the Romanian flag and smiling as if in a trance. She was pacing speedily as she headed in my direction. Walking past me she said: “I am so glad to be a part of this generation” (perhaps she meant event, or perhaps she was identifying with the younger generation, or perhaps she was happy to be the exception from her own generation’s voting patterns). She looked at me with hope, probably assuming that, because I was young, I had voted for Iohannis, the youth’s preferred candidate. Other members of the older generation did not look so kindly upon me as I strolled through the city that day. The young gazed at me with a sense of kingship, while the old stared at me either with anger or fear. It seemed as if they were all asking themselves the same questions: Which side was I on? Was I friend or foe? Should they greet me with a smile or a frown?
A Romanian perspective on age division
The background to which this scenario played out, the 2014 Romanian presidential elections, ushered in the beginning of a certain degree of imbalance and unrest in the country. Klaus Iohannis’ election campaign, the first Romanian presidential campaign to be run in great part on social media, resulted in such sites being bombarded with messages, memes, and zealous support for the PNL candidate. The internet dubbed his opponent, Victor Ponta, Mickey Mouse, while Iohannis was dubbed Santa Klaus. The most often heard slogan during this campaign was: “let’s take our country back”. The idea was to take it back from what everyone suddenly started calling “the red plague”, a reference to the communist past/ socialist ways of the Social Democrat Party (PSD) party. “Hang the mouse” was also a recurring theme. It appeared on Facebook as a picture of Mickey Mouse being hung by his neck.
The voices of those who would elect Iohannis were so loud and aggressive, that most who had a difference of opinion during the campaign, elected to stay quiet. The young generation was called upon, through social media, to go to protests against the PSD party, and if they did not go, they might not only be judged, but also ridiculed, or threatened by their peers. People would be talking at work or at the gym about what a rush it was to participate in those protests and how they felt they were part of something bigger, although, not all understood what that was. Anyone who was young must have voted for “Santa Klaus”, and anyone who was old must have voted for “Mickey Mouse”, the general narrative went. As such, the idea emphasized was that the young were voting for change, and the old were voting for stagnation, or even regression to the old communist ways.
The second presidential election insisted on the same age divide narrative. Memes circulating on social media were showing young people caging their older relatives so that they could not go vote “do your country a service, keep your grandma from voting”. The discourse revolved around the superiority of young people, the incompetence of the old, and the saving graces of the Romanian diaspora, who, having left the country because of poverty and corruption, were not only victims of the system, but had somehow acquired superior knowledge and morals compared to those left behind. Romania ‘s continued fascination with the ‘mythical abroad’, and, its propensity for blame placing, were having a direct effect on voting patterns.
Youth: the icon of the 21st century
The tendency towards “youth adoration” is present on a global scale. Young people are praised for their innovativeness, strength, speed, open mindedness, and opinions. We have seen this trend in many areas, from the entrepreneurial world to climate change activism. No doubt, youth drives society forward in numerous ways. The energy and effort needed to move research, innovation, and the economy in general, come more naturally, often times, to those of a younger age. Youth is strong. It is fast, energetic, playful, adaptive, and innovative. However, youth can also be inconstant, distracted, insufficiently educated, blinded by zeal, sententious, unempathetic, merciless, lacking in understanding of consequences, easily manipulated, and fragile. Most importantly however, youth is not eternal, it is a temporary state of being. The same is true of any age, as well as life itself. If society was to depend solely on the views of a certain generation, there could never be any progress. This is why there are traditions and laws in place, to ensure some sort of continuity between generations and that lessons learned of life and society are taught and retaught.
In Romania the young generation has recently started being treated, at least in public discourse, as the salvation of society, seen as doing away with methods and mentalities of old, and bringing in new and enlightened ideas. While this can sometimes be the case, great care must be taken, as lack of consideration, or even hatred, of the other can lead to dangerous outcomes.
Perhaps the most tragic mockery of an older generation was made by the Romanian liberal youth party leader when she made an appeal to the Y and Z generations to vote, and emphasized how they are the ones who can save the country and how the “little children of the decree” (those born under Ceausescu’s Decree no 770 from October 1st 1966 which lasted until the end of his reign in 1989, that banned abortions) would not be able to do this. She referred to the “children of the decree” as unfunny and incapable of improving their country. These same ‘children’, however, were the ones who eventually ended the communist regime through the ’89 revolution.
The youth party leader’s messages not only ridiculed the suffering of people during the communist regime, but also brought to light a situation which should be treated with empathy, respect and kindness. These are people whose mothers suffered sad and traumatic abortions. Some of these children were wanted, some of them were not, some were abandoned in orphanages, while others simply had to live with the knowledge that they were not wanted or that they barely survived an illegal abortion attempt. These people were victims of communism, they are not enemies of the state or a cause to fight against.
Although apologies were made in the wake of the election messages, the slippery slope of identity politics was obvious. Her statement of apology came with a note that censorship is not an option, as a way to underline freedom of speech, perhaps. It was not the term that caused the problem, however, but rather the derogatory way in which it was used. Implying that the “children of the decree” were useless in the working of the country was simply not a good way to reach out to people. All this did was to make it seem as if a whole generation was blamed not just for being born under communism, but for simply being born.
Perhaps the most important reason for the voting generational divide, however, was fear of austerity under a government run by PNL, as liberal rule in Romania has shown such tendencies in the past. In a country that is still developing, where wages are small, corruption and tax evasion are still present, and people still ask themselves what they will be able to afford to put on the table the next morning, it is not difficult to see why PSD’s raising of salaries and pensions eases the collective angst. Even though inflation follows most such raises, the cutting of salaries and pensions is still seen as the greater evil in terms of the effects it has on the general populace.
As well, in Romania, ideology is not really seen as well-established or engrained in its political party members’ outlook. In fact, PSD is seen by many as more nationalistic, whereas PNL is associated with a “Europe first” mindset, where the interests of the EU take precedence over those of Romania. This perceived allegiance to the interests of Brussels first leaves some Romanians with the same feeling of hopelessness as had communism’s cry for the ‘greater good before the individual”.
These were the sentiments tapped into during the election campaigns of Iohannis. The young generation wanted a “country like the abroad”, while the older one was looking for the preservation of national and personal interests. The associations made by the old were that the abroad’ s issues would be too foreign and difficult for Romanians to bear, and that the country was already being plundered by foreign interests, while the young believed that because of its riches and the well- being of its middle class, the abroad held the key to Romania’s future success.
First steps forward
The first concrete step for the cause of enduring freedom is for all generations is to stop fantasizing about the “abroad” and either its mythical perfection of dystopian character. Any foreign country’s situation should be analyzed with its good and bad traits. Lessons can be learned from the good and the bad and they can be adapted to Romanian culture to help it progress or at least keep it from regressing.
In terms of the generational divide, Romania must try to reconcile its age groups, which have been so divided since the election of President Iohannis. The desire to embrace everything and anything modern must be tempered by balance and observation. An adoration of either the young or old generation must not be a trap Romania should fall into. With these new age divisions being so vehement from 2014 onwards, many have suspected a ‘divide and conquer’ attitude form the government, but it truly is up to the people to understand that they need each other in order for democracy and healthy economics to work.
Disunion continuously finds its way into the lives of people all over the world, and it is used to the advantage of one political class or another. An important step for freedom, especially in Romania, is to ensure that people are prepared enough to not allow discord to continue. In the communist days, social class was a great divider of people and a danger to their lives in many ways. Modern manipulation should be identified and resisted. If liberty is to continue, if progress is to be truly achieved, then Romanians need to stop looking at each other as enemies.
Only when the energy and passion of youth are guided by the wisdom and experience of old age can society truly move forward in a harmonious way. For as much as youth has energy, it lacks focus, as much as it has strength it lacks temperance, as much as it has thirst for knowledge, it lacks experience. If this balance were not important, we would all have to learn everything on our own powers, not listening to the experience and discoveries of the past. This would mean no real progress in spirit, technology or personal development would be achieved. Political parties need to be wary of playing with hatred and propaganda, for as history has shown, no good can come of it. However, in the end it is up to the individual, no matter the age, to understand the dangers of such exaggerations and to take a firm and educated stance against them.
Georgiana Constantin-Parke earned her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Bucharest; she studied European and International Law at the Nicolae Titulescu University and writes for several online publications; she also teaches for Liberty University’s Online Program.