May 19th, 2019


The old-school politics of millennials

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published August 17, 2016

There was a time, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when everything about the baby boomers — their cultural identity, their sex lives, their voting patterns — was chewed over in public print and on television. It became so dreary an exercise that Bob McGilvray, an I’ve-seen-everything news editor for The Wall Street Journal, grew impatient with this genre of reporting. “The only story on the baby boomers that I want to read,” he said, “is the one that says they are retiring.”

Well, the baby boomers now are retiring — Mr. McGilvray himself is long retired — but today the millennials have taken their place, with about as much generational chauvinism as the baby boomers. So if you’ve had your fill of the millennials, or if you think that a 60-something baby-boomer columnist who is a hopeless political moderate cannot have anything productive to say about them, now is the time to turn the page or click away. Cheerio.

But in the middle of an epic presidential campaign, a group as important as the millennials cannot be ignored, especially since they played such an important role in the Democratic nomination fight, siding in great numbers with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who, by the way, was born five years before the baby boom. Score this one for the millennials: Unlike the baby boomers, many of whom lived by the maxim that no one over the age of 30 should be trusted, they’re open to listening to 74-year-olds.

As we approach the election, two important studies give us insight into the mind and mettle of these millennials, though no group that big (75 million people, generally those between 18 and 34) is monolithic. They may share experiences, but they do not necessarily share perspectives.

The first is the most recent study by Harvard’s Institute of Politics of young voters (18 to 29), who, according to the data, side decisively with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton over businessman Donald J. Trump by a 61-25 margin.

But what may be far more significant in the long run for American politics is that a majority of these voters reject the labels “socialist” and capitalist.” Look deeper into the data, however, and you will see that a third of these young people, none of whom came of age during the Cold War, support socialism — a figure that goes to 41 percent among those born a half-dozen years after the fall of the Communist bloc.

The second important study is a new book by David and Jack Cahn, “When Millennials Rule: The Reshaping of America.” These twins claim to have conducted 10,000 conversations with millennials and are millennials themselves. They tell us some things we already know — the key to communicating with this group is through social media — and some things we didn’t know, such as, “The millennial generation is sick and tired of politics.” Maybe they’re not all that different after all.

The Cahns do have an important message for those seeking to understand the future of American politics. They say  the allegiance of millennials is up for grabs — it belongs neither to Republicans nor Democrats, even though many theorists, using the 2008 election as a touchstone, had forecasted the advent of an entire generation of Democrats. Not so. Millennials don’t see a conflict between red and blue but between the Washington elite and outsiders.

“Our thesis is that these pragmatic, resilient and optimistic young people will use their votes to wage a silent war against the Washington elite,” the Cahns argue. “By ousting ideologues and voting for politicians who share our values — namely, authenticity, optimism and tolerance — millennials will usher in a new age of reform. Using compromise to implement change, millennials will translate their political consensus into actual political policy and break the gridlock in Washington.”

That’s a very intriguing paragraph, worthy of serious examination. The word “pragmatic” is important; much of New Left strain of the baby boom lacked pragmatism — even as it shared millennials’ contempt for “the Washington elite.” Now look at perhaps the most striking word in that passage: “compromise.” This was not a leading attribute of the baby boom. In fact, the willingness to compromise is an attribute more generally assigned to Henry Clay (no millennial), Daniel Webster (also no millennial) and George H.W. Bush (ditto).

Many fogies of my persuasion yearn for a return to an era when compromise was valued more than absolutism, but then again the man who compromised on raising taxes, Mr. Bush, is 92 years old, and the greatest dealmaker in recent congressional history, former Sen. Robert J. Dole of Kansas, turned 93 last month.

I suspect both Mr. Bush and Mr. Dole would welcome that aspect of the millennial creed but would recoil from some of the advice the Cahns provide for members of the much-reviled political class. It is explained under the sub-headline, “Conclusion: Entertain Us, Please.”

This is the Cahns’ view: “In an age of connectivity, politicians need to realize they are competing with celebrities for attention. It doesn’t cut it to just be a boring public servant. The coolest politicians can build cult followings online — and the lame ones, well, we don’t even know their names.”

Pity. Some of those names were Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Then again, the 32nd, 35th and 40th presidents did connect with their respective publics through the social media of the time — radio, television, the movies.

The Harvard study tells us that Mr. Sanders was the only leading presidential candidate this year with a net-positive rating. (Mr. Trump checks in at minus 20 percentage points, Ms. Clinton at minus 16.) But it also tells us something quite astonishing, in a finding that would never show up in a similar study of the baby boom: The only institution in American life that has the trust of a majority of millennials is the military. Hooray for them.

I’m not so sure about some of their views. Which institution do you suppose wins the lowest level of trust? Yes, the media, with the support of only 9 percent. It isn’t only conventional politicians who have a lot to worry about. The millennials have met the enemy, and it is us.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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