The first side of the debate is American political pundit Peter Beinart, who provides a very well thought-out and common sense approach to the question of the future of millennial political attitudes. In a rousing piece published in The Daily Beast in September 2013, Beinart posed a theory in which millennials combat a neoliberal slump with a renewed leftism, what he refers to as “The Rise of the New New Left”.
Central to Beinart’s theory is his conceptualization of millennials as a generation. He invokes the writings of early-twentieth-century sociologist Karl Mannheim, who argued that the generation as a sociopolitical phenomenon is something that is forged as a result of collective experience. Specifically, Mannheim argues, there is a period in a person’s life—between his or her late teens and mid-twenties, a period which Beinart dubs the “plastic years”—in which he or she is most prone to change lifestyles, philosophies of the world, and, most important in the context of this thesis, political and social ideologies. “For Mannheim,” Beinart explains, “what defined a generation was the particular slice of history people experienced during those plastic years. […] What mattered was whether the events people experienced while at their most malleable were sufficiently different from those experienced by people older or younger than themselves.”
In other words, history shapes generations, not the other way around. Political, social, cultural, and economic themes that define periods define the generations that are forged during those periods. For example, the generation commonly known as the “GI Generation”, born approximately between 1900 and 1925, was shaped by the historical events, attitudes, and themes that were results of the Great Depression and World War II. The generation’s collective character, according to Mannheim and Beinart, reflected its members’ experiences living their most impressionable stage of life during these formative events.
Millennials, then, having been born between 1980 and 2000, lived most of their plastic years through what leftist political commentator Chris Hayes refers to as the American “Fail Decade,” so called because of the drastic failure of both government and private sector powers to provide for the common good in multiple facets of civic life.
Economically, between the years 2001 and 2012, the United States knew little outside of recession. Unemployment between 2001 and 2007 never fell below recession levels, and the poor economic decade was capped off properly with the 2008 financial crisis. For millennials especially, their futures entering the job market as lively, young, educated additions to the workforce looked (and still looks) decidedly bleak. “Between 2000 and 2012 […],” Beinart points out, “inflation-adjusted wages dropped 13 percent among recent high school graduates and 8 percent among recent graduates of college.” Similarly, “the percentage of recent college graduates with employer-provided health care […] dropped by half between 1989 and 2011.” Thus, to the average middle-to-working class American citizen, the first part of the twenty-first century revealed the present-day irresponsibility of the private financial sector as well as the ineffectiveness and/or unwillingness of the government to properly regulate it.
Perhaps even more important economically than recession is the fact of economic inequality, which in the United States in the past fifteen years has ballooned to Dickensian proportions. A very popular study conducted by the Harvard Institute of Politics shows that, in late 2011, the top 20 percent of the population held more than 80 percent of the wealth in the United States. Meanwhile, the bottom 40 percent held only 0.3 percent.
Politically, the Bush-era Global War on Terror was an unequivocal disaster which opened up Pandora’s box in relation to America’s foreign policy, especially as it related to the Middle East. As the decade wore on, more and more American military, Iraqi civilian, and Afghani civilian lives were lost, and the United States’ federal budget was consumed by American military spending. “Mission accomplished” became a political joke, and Iraq and Afghanistan were viewed as shameful military escapades reminiscent of Vietnam. Add on to that decade of political hiccups the calamitous year 2013 that saw the Edward Snowden scandal, the government shutdown, and the beginnings of the Obama drone debate, and what results is a waning trust in the actions of the federal government as an independently acting entity, especially among millennials whose first experiences of the federal government after reaching the age of civic participation was and is congressional gridlock and unjust, ineffective, pluralizing war.
These civil events and themes, plunged into the arena of the twenty-first century and its rapid spread of information and ideas, are the reasons why many political commentators have pointed out an undeniable confusion in millennial political attitudes. Survey results “on the political views of young Americans [have] left commentators perplexed.” But according to Beinart, this phenomenon is entirely natural, a part of the evolution of the political process. The free market of the millennial generation provides much less economic security than it did for its parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and the government has not proved itself willing to take over in a New Deal-esque way to fix the problem. The current standard American left-right political spectrum no longer adequately confronts the issues at the forefront of millennial concern, and thus millennials “are unlikely to play out their political conflicts between the yard lines Reagan and Clinton set out.”
Beinart points out how, in the early nineties, after Reagan’s lifting to glory the spirit of American conservatism, Bill Clinton brought the Democrats back to power with a new liberalism (neoliberalism) that played by the rules Reagan set. He calls it Clinton’s “third way”, “located somewhere between Reagan’s anti-government conservatism and the pro-government liberalism that preceded it”: “inclined toward market solutions, not government bureaucracy, focused on economic growth, not economic redistribution, and dedicated to equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.” This ideological narrative should sound familiar to most millennials, because it is the one that both Bush and Obama inherited, and thus have been tugging in opposite directions as far as implementation is concerned throughout both of their presidencies: Bush to the right, Obama to the left.
So if the Fail Decade has prompted the need for a new “third way” to satisfy millennials, something to make up for neoliberalism’s shortcomings, what does that new way look like this time around?
Beinart makes it clear in another article, “The End of American Exceptionalism” from the National Journal magazine, that he believes that millennials are definitely not looking to the conservative right for answers. The tagline of the piece says it all: “The very attributes conservatives say make America special—religiosity, patriotism, and mobility—are ones they’ve inadvertently undermined. Is it any wonder millennials are less impressed with their country?” Millennials, he describes, are exceptionally anticlerical, rejecting the social implications that accompany the marriage of church and state values, a concept that seems to drive conservative agendas; non-interventionalist, rejecting the largely Republican idea that America stands on a significantly higher moral ground than the rest of the world and thus has a duty to intervene in the rest of the world’s political affairs; and class-conscious, rejecting the conservative mantra of socioeconomic mobility as a justification of laissez faire economic policies. Thus American conservatism driven by the idea of American exceptionalism, even with its recent deliberate push against moderation, is not getting to millennials.
The springboard for the millennial third way must then come from the left. Citing recent economic hardship and resistance against the culture of the right wing, Beinart notes that, according to many recent studies, millennials have warmed up significantly to the idea of big government. “In 2010, Pew found that two-thirds of millennials favored a big government with more services over a cheaper one with fewer services, a margin 25 points above the rest of the population. While large majorities of older and middle-aged Americans favored repealing Obamacare in late 2012, millennials favored expanding it, by 17 points.” One study conducted by the Reason Foundation, a right-wing think tank, and reported on by Malcolm Harris of Al Jazeera America, noted that millennials could even be turning skeptical of the capitalist ideal. “Under-30s,” the report noted, “had an overall negative impression of capitalism […]. Even the Reason poll found 43 percent of respondents favoring socialism to capitalism.”
Yet still, millennial attitudes regarding the current job of the federal government are hostile. Armed with the knowledge of the NSA’s privacy woes, the Bush administration’s “dishonesty,” the obvious crisis of special interest infiltration, etc., young people have few reasons to trust the government at it currently operates. Thus the idea of millennial leftism does not refer to a larger government in principle, but rather a government that provides more services to ensure economic fairness and prosperity. The ideal also extends to social issues, putting millennials somewhere near the libertarian school of social thought in that, on the whole, they would prefer the government to stay out of their personal lives, as evidenced by, among other things, the overwhelming millennial support for marriage equality.
And that is what Beinart’s millennial third way looks like: more government services with less government interference in social and political life, something that makes sense only outside of the current American political spectrum. “Caught between the market and the state, millennials might look ‘totally incoherent’ when you ask them to pick one. But life isn’t a poll, and civic participation isn’t a multiple-choice test. These libertarian socialists don’t make any sense to party partisans or the elderly, but there are more of them every day. If they reject the choice between door No. 1 and door No. 2, they’ll need to create some more options.”
But how will those options arise, and will millennials take what action is necessary to ensure that their new way is forged? Beinart may believe that the new new left is the next natural step in American politics, but millennial civic participation, the privatized consumer culture, and the engrained status quo of the American political system seem to be working against it.