Speaking Politics phrase of the week: 'A new generation of leadership'

The phrase, invoked by candidates from Justin Trudeau to Evan McMullin, has been used 408 times in media coverage so far this year – almost 100 times more than four years ago.

AP
U.S President John F. Kennedy, 1963.

“A new generation of leadership”: An assertive, yet overused, catchphrase that younger candidates invoke to associate themselves with new ideas and fresh thinking. 

Accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, John F. Kennedy lamented “a change, a slippage” in the country’s intellectual and moral fiber. “Too many Americans have lost their way, their will and their sense of historic purpose,” he said. “It is a time, in short, for a new generation of leadership – new men to cope with new problems and new opportunities.” 

If you substitute “people” for “men,” that sentiment hasn’t aged one bit. So it’s remained in continuous use. 

Back in 2008, Kennedy’s brother, the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, used it in endorsing Barack Obama. Before becoming House Speaker, Paul Ryan joined Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Eric Cantor in writing the 2010 book “Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders.” 

More recently, “new generation of leadership” was the theme of Marco Rubio’s and Martin O’Malley’s unsuccessful campaigns. (In Canada, Justin Trudeau had considerably more luck with it in becoming prime minister.) Independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin is now using the line.

In these remaining campaign weeks, countless other candidates of both parties who are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s also are frequently invoking it. They include Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, New York GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik, Louisiana Democratic Senate candidate Caroline Fayard, Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Jason Kander, North Carolina House Democratic candidate Tim Barnsback and Maine Democratic state Rep. Justin Chenette. 

The Nexis database turns up 408 mentions of the phrase between January and mid-October – almost 100 more than the same period four years ago. 

Why is it so popular? It’s “a succinct way to highlight differences between political insiders and outsiders, people who have been around for a long time and haven’t managed to solve the pressing problems of the day and those who could bring a fresh perspective to governing,” said American University political scientist Jennifer Lawless, co-author of a recent book on why more young people aren’t entering politics.

“It’s also an implicit way to call attention to youthful energy and juxtapose it to more of the same.” she said. “While the phrase is cliché, it’s hard to figure out a more efficient phrase to make the same point.” 

Erec Smith, a professor of rhetoric and composition at York College of Pennsylvania, agreed that the expression is a handy way to tap into the public demand for something potentially transformative.

“ ‘A new generation’ is one that will redefine politics in a way that, presumably, will fix the flaws of the current generation,” Prof. Smith said. “This plays on the tropes of hope and heroism that, like fear, are tried and true motivators for change.” 

Chuck McCutcheon writes his “Speaking Politics” blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

Interested in decoding what candidates are saying? Pick up Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark’s latest book, “Doubletalk: The Language, Code, and Jargon of a Presidential Election."

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