American historian Rick Perlstein offers another side to Beinart’s new new left argument. In an article in The Nation magazine, he confronts Beinart’s typical pundit assumptions of the nature of shifting political attitudes, posing the most basic question, “Is Peter Beinart Right About a ‘New New Left’?”
Perlstein primarily attributes his skepticism of Beinart’s argument to his own point of view as a historian. “I’m a historian,” he says. “The act of predicting the future discomforts me, in any event—and the bigger the prediction, the more distrusting I am.” And even though the emergence of a new new left seems logical given the current trajectory of American politics and generational shifting, it is indeed a big prediction.
For one, as Perlstein points out, “political generations are not defined by a common ideology but a common ideological argument.” The events of its plastic years undoubtedly have an effect on a generation’s views of certain issues, but it is ignorant to think that the common experiences of a generation push all of its members toward consensus regarding how they interpret them. Such a view would be, as Perlstein describes, socially “deterministic,” leaving no room for the dialogue and debate that make politics unpredictable. “Young people’s ideological outlook seems [to Beinart] already settled—leftward. That’s far too simple and optimistic.”
Instead of how they react collectively to the emergence of new issues, millennials as a political generation should be more properly defined by what dialogues and debates they are engaged in. Thus, defining the millennial generation per Beinart based on its political traits—political confusion, distrust of both the government and the private sector, high priority on individual liberty, etc.—becomes defining the generation based on the issues with which it wrestles—the role of government in relation to the private financial sector, issues of social freedom, the question of justice regarding wealth distribution, etc. And when it so happens that the generation reaches the point of overwhelming majority support of one side of a certain issue, e.g. in the case of marriage equality, then it just so happens that that particular issue has worked itself out in that way; but such a circumstance does not necessitate the embodiment of generational values. In other words, the fact that millennials are so overwhelmingly pro-marriage equality is due just as much to the fact that (à la Perlstein) millennials more than any other generation engage actively in the marriage equality debate as it is to the fact that (à la Beinart) millennials may possess some common experience that dispose them to judge in favor of marriage equality. Thus, Beinart’s framework for assessing millennial political attitudes is only half complete.
The other major flaw that Perlstein sees in Beinart’s new new left argument is the all but complete disregard for the top-heavy power of conservativism in the United States and the relentless political will of the American right, be it a minority or otherwise.
The past decade has shown the endurance of the conservative political agenda on the national stage despite a popular movement leftward on many key social and fiscal issues. “Thanks to partisan gerrymandering by power-hungry Republicans,” Perlstein points out, “(remember the counsel to a Texas representative who bragged in a 2003 email to colleagues that they’d fixed it for Republicans to ‘assure that Republicans keep the House no matter the national mood’), our House of Representatives is, in fact, far from representative.” He then goes on to point out that, although Obama won the state of Pennsylvania by five points in the 2012 presidential election, “the delegation Pennsylvania return[ed] to the House of Representatives contain[ed] thirteen Republicans and only five Democrats.” Perlstein’s assertion is also supported by national trends. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center on October 19, 2014, only two weeks before that year’s midterm elections, 50 percent of respondents claimed that they were inclined to “lean” more toward the Democratic party, whereas only 37 percent of respondents answered in favor of the Republicans. Yet the elections yielded a Congress of 245 Republicans and 188 Democrats.
By this evaluation, the American left and the American right are playing the same game, but by different rules. It is, of course, not to be assumed that Republicans rely on merely gerrymandering to win elections, however whereas the left is playing to popular politics and democratic ideals (and within that play struggling to define itself for the population to which it is appealing), the conservative right has lifted its battle off of the streets and mapped it out in the situation room, navigating the ins and outs of political bureaucracy while carefully resting on the support of a very vocal minority.
This from-the-top power play of the right is compounded by the involvement of the private sector in the election process, to what Perlstein refers as the “dark money problem,” However, the “darkness” of the private money infiltrating politics no longer seems to be so pronounced, as one need only turn on the television or glance at a newspaper to see stories about huge campaign donation efforts coming from billionaires and large corporations. In January of this year, for example, Charles and David Koch revealed that their combined estates planned on funneling almost $900 million into conservative presidential and congressional campaign efforts for the 2016 elections, a number that is on par with the spending power of both major political parties.
So, the moral is, although popular opinion may make a political movement leftward sound logical, conservative interests in American politics are still very, very powerful. And the potent lingering of political conservatism in the national political scene is fermenting millennial attitudes in a way that works to a great disadvantage to the left.
The fact that the left is not as coherent as Beinart hopes combined with the fact that the right is far more powerful than Beinart gives it credit for creates two very real alternatives to Beinart’s new new left. The first and bolder of the two is the possible rightward shift of millennials.
So let’s assume Beinart is right in his generational diagnosis: kids who came to their maturity during the “Age of Fail,” whose formative experience of American exceptionalism is that America is exceptionally crappy, are pissed, and are willing to work hard for politicians who are willing to do something about it.
An unlikely scenario, as this piece will explore in further chapters, but an idea to be entertained nonetheless.
If that is so, another scenario looks like this: young citizens motivated by left-leaning passions run into a brick wall again and again and again trying to turn their convictions into power.
So what do they do? They allow themselves to get swept up by the movement that has its act together; the movement that has mobilized and organized itself to get things done. The Tea Party may be acting contrary to new wave liberalism, but at least it knows what it stands for and acts based on those beliefs. And if conservative factions like the Tea Party were able to shift their focus to issues that appeal more to millennials—those issues of which the confused millennial political attitudes lean rightward—then maybe, just maybe, a new new right could be born amidst the chaos of millennial politics.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s let Perlstein finish:
If that is so, another scenario looks like this: young citizens motivated by left-leaning passions run into a brick wall again and again and again trying to turn their convictions into power. The defining story of our next political era becomes not a New New Left but a corrosive disillusionment that drives the country into ever deeper sloughs of apathy.
Disillusionment and apathy is the real alternative that Perlstein poses. If we take Beinart’s original observation—the millennial coming of age during the “Decade of Fail”—and view it through a more skeptical yet more realistic lens in terms of generational behavior, something along the lines of disillusionment starts to make more sense than anything involving political action. What would make us think that a system that has so aptly demonstrated its ability to avoid radical change would all of a sudden drastically shift its values? And why are we to assume that the millennial generation is coherent enough, or even “generational” enough to act in the collective manner necessary to fulfill Beinart’s predictions?
In another paragraph, Perlstein cynically writes, “Apathy and social misery might make fertile ground for some charismatic demagogue, preaching scapegoating and a narrative of violent redemption…” However, with the 2016 presidential campaigns underway with a real possibility of both the Democratic and Republic nominees being immediate family of former presidential office-holders, Perlstein’s language does not seem so radically cynical. But again, that is a big prediction, and historians like Perlstein tend to avoid big predictions.