We are at a low point in American politics.
That’s a pretty vague statement, so judge it how you will. It’s just my opinion. What is a fact, though, is that Congress is at a low point. Something like only 10% of people approve of our legislative branch. This is mostly due to the fact that they get little accomplished. As Jay-Z once aptly noted, I’ve got 99 problems and none of them are currently being solved because of irresponsible partisan bickering in Congress.
(Note: I swear those are the lyrics. If you don’t believe me, give me like 10 minutes and then check Wikipedia.)
I am inclined to agree with Jay-Z. In fact a lot of people agree with him. A lot of people think we need something better. For as long as I have been aware of the world outside my Nintendo 64 (i.e., around 2004), people have told me that (1) our political system is broken; (2) we need more bipartisanship; and (3) the best place to be on the political spectrum is right in the middle. 10 out of 10 kids my age would agree with this message because it has been beaten into us for most of our adult lives. So it goes.
Millennial Wars: A New Hope
Things will get better, they say, and my generation is going to be the one to make sure that happens. Desensitized by the fiscal cliffs and budget sequesters of our youth, we will rise above petty party politics to promote effective government and protect the future. And what gives people this impression that apathetic, baggy-panted, headphone-wearing Millennials are the political saviors of our broken nation? Why, the polls of course! Studies show that Millennials are more politically independent and/or moderate than previous generations. Other polls show that we are fairly disillusioned with institutions in general. It is these attitudes that are supposed to fix our deplorable political situation.
And maybe they will. Certainly we could do with a bit more bipartisanship. Certainly most people would love a more effective government. I am not here to argue about that stuff. What I am here to argue about is the polls. (Something Eric Cantor is probably doing a lot of this week.) I am here to dispute the theory that my generation is actually more moderate or bipartisan than previous generations. In fact, I claim we are just as partisan as ever, if not moreso.
Let’s look at the basis for this hypothesis. A recent Harvard study polled Millennials on their opinions of President Obama. The results? 86% of young Democrats approved of the President’s job performance, while only 10% of young Republicans approved. That is a 76-point differential–almost historic in its vastness. Does that sound like a generation of independents? Does that sound like a generation committed to rising above partisan politics? Overall, Obama’s approval rating among Democrats is 82%; among Republicans, 11%. Now this is only one narrow metric, but it is an important one. If we are to extrapolate broader generational trends, Millennials are perhaps even more partisan than the public at large.
If we are so divided, why does everyone say we are a less partisan generation? Yes, we are generally more progressive as a group, and yes we broadly support things like gay marriage and marijuana legalization. But even our overwhelming support of Obama in the 2008 election waned in 2012. At the end of the day, we will vote for who we want to vote for. And the polls show that we are just as divided as ever on that issue. Yet we are hailed as the generation to end partisanship.
I have two theories about why these studies on moderate Millennials are misleading (or perhaps flat-out wrong).
Theory One: The Cootie Syndrome
Guys, remember when you were a kid and you first realized you liked a girl? And someone would ask if you liked that girl? And you’d say no because you weren’t supposed to like girls? But you did like girls. Girls were, like, the coolest thing ever. Girls were awesome. But you couldn’t tell anyone that because then they would judge you. Millennials hate being judged.
Politics are the basically just the girls of adulthood: People judge you if you give them the wrong answers. We have been told all our adult lives that partisanship is bad, so we reject partisanship. “Of course I am not a Democrat/Republican!” we say. “I don’t vote on party lines–I vote for ideas and values!” But rejecting hardcore partisanship as an institution does nothing to actually change our political motivations. It simply reflects the indoctrination of what is “socially acceptable.” Since partisan politics has gotten a bad rap, we want to be (or at least feel) more moderate and/or reasonable.
In reality, though, we have only rejected partisanship superficially. What’s boiling under the surface is the potential for even greater partisanship and idealogical extremism. Under the surface, we see the truth: For a generation that is supposed to end partisan gridlock by talking to one another, we are extremely good at shutting people out. We pick the friends we like on Facebook. We follow the people we support on Twitter. We have taken our cliques into the Digital Age.
What it comes down to is that we are becoming increasingly adept at isolating the people with whom we disagree. Social media just makes it easier to surround ourselves with people who think like us and isolate (or altogether ignore) those who don’t. We have essentially supplanted racial segregation with social and digital segregation. And, as with everything else, it is bleeding into our politics.
That is a scary theory, I admit. But it is just one theory. And fortunately I think it is less likely than Theory Two.
Theory Two: The Ignorance Theory
I hate to play into stereotypes, but here it goes: I think Millennials are ignorant. I can say that, as an ignorant young person myself. We are, broadly speaking, an ignorant group of people. However, so are our older siblings. So are our parents. Americans are generally pretty ignorant. If you disagree, you are probably just ignorant of your own ignorance. (I believe that’s check-mate.)
I think that young people don’t actually know what they believe, so they tend to play the middle, assuming that will make everyone happy. You can ask any random college student about their political leaning, and odds are they will tell you: (1) “Oh, I’m pretty moderate”; (2) “I’m socially liberal but economically conservative”; or (3) “I don’t really like to talk about politics.” Maybe one out of every ten of these people know what they’re talking about. But I would venture to guess that very few of them are informed enough to understand whether they are actually politically moderate.
Moreover, if you claim to be a conservative or a liberal, you open yourself up to a barrage of questions: Why do you believe this? Why don’t you believe that? Saying you are a moderate places you in the safe zone. You are free to agree with whatever the other person says, no matter their political leanings.
We live in a world that is increasingly divided politically, a world in which the other side is no longer “wrong” or “naive” but is now “hateful” and “evil.” Pragmatism is a dirty word; debate is poison; and democracy is, as a result, weakened. It is no wonder that Millennials prefer to play it safe and say that they are moderate: The alternative is being branded an insensitive, racist Republican or an irresponsible, controlling Democrat. And neither of those options sound too attractive to me.
So what does this mean?
I predict that, barring some massive societal shift (e.g., Miley Cyrus putting some clothes on, the Cubs winning the World Series, etc.), Millennials will not actually vote much differently than the generations before us. I think that the gridlock of our current political landscape will certainly affect our desire to work through problems, but it will not change our views. Maybe that means things will be better. It might also mean things could get worse.
So that I don’t end this post on a low note, I want to make one thing clear: I don’t necessarily think it is bad that Millennials are not as independent as the polls say we are. What worries me is that we, as a group, feel pressured to conform to what is supposedly “good” and “right.” We hide our true beliefs under this veil of centrism, and that is a dangerous habit to form.
Whenever you ask someone what party they belong to, and they give you some vague, appeasing answer like “I’m a moderate,” don’t buy it for a minute. Press them on it. Dig for the truth. Have them explain their views. Odds are, they have never had to do that. Most importantly, let them know that you will respect their opinion, even if it differs from your own. That is how we can fix our political dialogue. That is how we can help Millennials feel comfortable admitting what they truly believe–because I would be willing to bet they are nowhere close to center.
As for me, I’m pretty moderate.
Edit: As an aspiring lawyer, I feel obligated to include this disclaimer: Although this post has (in my opinion) a wonderful title, I realized all too late that Paul Krugman wrote a NYT article of the same title in 2012. This post is not meant to be an emulation of that article, nor does it necessarily agree with the views of that author. Great minds sometimes do think alike.
David Postic is a second-year law student at the University of Oklahoma.