“Where do we go from here?” That is the overarching question of this project.
But, as good sense dictates, before we ask, “Where do we go from here?” we must first ask, “Where have we been?” and to an even greater extent, “Where are we now?”
- The current mood of American social politics is largely neoliberal;
- millennial politics are confused; and
- millennials are taking over the American political population.
These are the three premises upon which this thesis is based, which this thesis attempts to prove, and from which this thesis attempts to posit a cultural diagnosis on contemporary America. Subsequently, from this diagnosis it becomes possible to evaluate plausible cultural prognoses, thus begging the title question.
The current mood of American social politics is largely neoliberal.
“Neoliberalism,” first popularized as a term in the 1990s, describes an approach to economics which, while embracing the laissez faire utopian notions of classical liberalism, heavily favors corporate health, financialization, “and a cultural project of building consent for the upward redistributions of wealth and power.” In simpler terms, neoliberalism, in its purest form, seeks to shift control of economic factors from the public sector to the private sector and place the health of private enterprise over anything else in the political economy. Consequently, it strives to reconcile classical liberalism’s emphasis on economic freedom and rugged individualism with today’s highest form of private enterprise: corporate culture—a combination that is either obviously rational or immorally dissonant depending on the reviewer.
However, just like any other economic ideology in history, neoliberalism’s undercurrents have unapologetically metastasized into other aspects of American culture; for despite the modern’s affection for demarcation, there is no economy without political economy. “The distribution of wealth” commonly translates into “the distribution of power,” and in modernity questions over the distribution of power inevitably raise questions over any and all social relations. Gender roles, race relations, class conflict, religion, morality, philosophy: all of these things affect and are affected by the prominent economic ideology. The demographic breakdown of Forbes’ “Richest People in America” list when compared to census bureau data on diversity in the United States is undoubtedly telling of the placement of American political and social power.
Millennial politics are confused.
Because of its love affair with the basic moral principles of classical liberalism, its undeniable corporocentric tendencies, and its loathsome attitude toward Keynesian welfare capitalism, “neoliberalism has functioned historically less as a clearly defined set of ideas and theories and more as an internally contradictory mode of upward redistribution of wealth and power […]” It rests on the ideas of intellectuals like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, who rationalized radical deregulation and laissez faire, positing onto the political morality “freedom” as the ultimate good. However, in putting those ideas into practice after the economic boom of the 1960s, “freedom” came to primarily mean freedom of business practice for large corporations and the elite. During the eighties and nineties it was believable that applying these classical liberal policies principally to big business was good for the freedom and the economic well-being of the rest of society, as “trickle-down” talk was avant-garde; but as the years went on and the new millennium arrived, it became more and more apparent to the bottom two thirds of the population that economic freedom for the masses and corporate liberalism were contradictory notions. Benefits did not trickle down like they were supposed to, and while the rich got richer, the poor got comparatively poorer.
Enter millennials. The standard definition of a millennial is an American born between the years 1980 and 2000. Thus by that very definition millennials have come of age knowing (1) nothing but neoliberalism as the standard rhetoric of not only economic, but also social and political science; and (2) that the current top-down prioritization of economic advantage does not promote the kind of equality of economic freedom that it promises. Therefore, naturally, left to wrestle with the dissonance between these two pieces of knowledge, millennial politics are incredibly confused.
It is a common assumption among the rest of the American population that millennials “lean left.” That would make sense, for in order to combat the failures of corporate liberalism, which has come to be very much associated with the American political right, a push leftward would seem to be in order. However, the fact that millennials have been marinating in neoliberal rhetoric since they gained political consciousness—thusly resulting in a lack of credible alternative narratives in their field of vision—has made for a multifarious set of contradictory yet common and accepted political ideologies. Not only has neoliberalism assembled the contemporary American political spectrum in a fashion incongruous to most coherent social philosophies, but it has also caused a chaotic diaspora of ideological adherence. It is not obvious to all millennials that they are caught in a contradictory web of economics and politics, nor is it assumed that the current dominant ideology needs to be countered (and thus how to counter it is completely unknown). Right, left, Republican, Democrat, libertarian revivalist, socially liberal, fiscally conservative: these are all labels donned by millennials to describe their “views” on politics and social issues, most of them contradictory either in principle or when placed on the current American political spectrum. And since ideological selectivity rather than ideological malleability is the neoliberal norm, instead of searching out or creating alternative, extra-spectral ideological narratives, millennials who are dissatisfied with the current selection of narratives more often than not take up a position of being naïvely self-described as “non-political”.
Millennials are taking over the political population.
The possibility for the emergence of alternative narratives shrinks as those who have been exposed to any alternative narratives—i.e. generations older than millennials who were politically conscious at a time before the neoliberal monopoly on political economic notions—are overtaken by those who have only lived in neoliberal America—i.e. millennials. And it just so happens that, this very year, 2015, millennials have overtaken baby boomers (born roughly 1943-1964) as the most populous standardized generation in America.
According to the Pew Research Center, which used data from the U.S. Census Bureau to make generational population projections, millennials in 2015 “are projected to number 75.3 million, surpassing the projected 74.9 million boomers.” And the more baby boomer numbers start to dwindle, the more clearly the millennial generation becomes the dominant generation until the coming of age of the iGeneration (the most recent trendy name given to the generation after millennials). This surely makes millennials the most relevant defined generation in terms of political and social action, both because of their numbers and because the youngest adult generation (the twenty-somethings) are sociologically the most apt to engage in social and political theorizing.
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Thus the confused politics of millennials are the politics that are most often shoved into the mainstream dialogue. Millennials are at the forefront of the issues of the day because, as they are in the midst of the most permanently formative period of their lives in terms of entering the job market and starting families, future ramifications of economic, social, and political decisions assumedly affect them the most. Therefore, the American market-style political system must naturally cater to millennial concerns in one way or another, and millennial responses to the questions of the day are the most telling of the future of the American sociopolitical scene.
Keeping these premises in mind as well as the diagnostic and evaluative project of this thesis, it is now possible to explore the relationship between the millennial generation and contemporary neoliberalism in America. To begin, this thesis will outline some explorations of this topic already in existence, produced by expert political writers. The current prominent editorial dialogue will be framed using a little back-and-forth debate between two prominent political pundits.