The Kids Are All Right?

Misapprehending millennial politics


Ah, kids today. Just when it seemed that every possible form of youthful rebellion had been tamed, absorbed, and turned into a jeans commercial, they find one sure to shock their Boomer parents: become conservatives.

Such, at any rate, is the impression you might get from following the news. A May article in The New York Times Magazine—one whose author will doubtless burn in one of hell's warmer and more feces-filled concentric circles for coining the term "Young Hipublicans"—claimed that conservatism is becoming mainstream on American college campuses. In a recent American Conservative editorial, Gavin McInnis, right-leaning editor of the painfully cool magazine Vice, spotted the same trend even among his core audience of Williamsburg hipsters. A study by the Harvard Institute of Politics found that undergraduates supported the war in Iraq by a ratio of two to one—a lower level of support than among the general public, but high for the college set—and were about as likely to identify as Republicans as they were to call themselves Democrats. Jim Eltringham of the Leadership Institute, a group which aids conservative campus groups, offers anecdotal confirmation of the trend, reporting strong recent growth in student organizations on the right. At the same time, these young conservatives seem not to be plagued by the disdain for homosexuals or immigrants that sometimes cause libertarians to shrink from association with their adult counterparts.

In short, it seems as though Millennials—the post-Gen X cohort born after 1981—are leaning to the right, with a strong libertarian streak. Alas, it's not true.

In politics as in science, our ability to interpret observed phenomena depends upon our models. Since our central political metaphor is the left-right spectrum, a relic of the 18th century French Assembly that has been growing less relevant since the close of the Cold War, political trends that don't fit well into binary categories tend to be misidentified. Libertarians have long been accustomed to being labeled flaming liberals by conservatives and hardcore right-wingers by those on the left. A similar mistake is now being made with respect to the Millennials. But as William Strauss, generational studies guru and co-author of Millennials Rising, emphatically notes, "this is not a libertarian generation."

It's not clear that even self-identified young conservatives really fit their own pigeonhole. Eltringham attributes the growth of campus conservatism to a backlash against the hegemony of the left in university faculties. Today's students bridle against the academic left's assault on America and American institutions—but this is reactive nationalism, not conservatism.

To understand the political attitudes of Millennials, it's useful to look at their upbringing. The early 80s saw the beginning of a sea change in parenting philosophy: Gone were the days when parents were encouraged to seek personal fulfillment, assured that their kids would turn out fine so long as they were given plenty of latitude for their own development. The phrase "latchkey kid," a media buzzword two decades ago, has all but vanished from the media landscape. University of Michigan researchers have noted a dramatic drop in children's "free" or "unstructured" time in recent decades: Millennials are the most doted upon, fussed over, and scheduled generation in living memory.

While this has had some unambiguously positive results, including precipitous declines in youth violence and teen pregnancy, it has also had some less salutary effects. In an article in Sweden's Axess Magazine, Strauss and frequent collaborator Neil Howe call Millennials "America's new conformists," observing that they "believe in security rather than radicalism, political order rather than social emancipation, collective responsibility rather than personal expression"

In a dramatic departure from the cynicism of their Xer forebears, Millennials harbor a great deal of trust in government, hardly indicative of a conservative sensibility. Scott Beale, author of Millennial Manifesto, attributes this in part to the political scandals that shaped Xers and Millennials respectively. While the children of the 60s and 70s recall Watergate and Iran-Contra—scandals involving institutional abuse of power—say "scandal" to 80s babies and they're likely to think of the furor over an intern's position on the presidential staff. "Millennials," says Beale, "might look at politics and say 'these people suck,' whereas Gen Xers were more likely to say 'Man, these people suck and the system sucks.'" The new attitude makes Millennials dangerously susceptible to that old utopian mantra: "If only we had the right people in charge…"

Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, whose works have earned him a following on the countercultural left, has observed a new mindset in his visits to American colleges. "I've done talks at the University of Texas at Austin pretty much every year," says Rushkoff, "and I've found that every year they'd be more crunchy and paranoid and anti-establishment than I am." Until recently, that is. Now, he says, he is attacked for rocking the boat when he dares to question the policies of the Bush administration. Rushkoff even characterizes this new "hypercommunitarianism" as "fascism in youth culture."

If that sounds hyperbolic, take a brief look at that culture. The early 90s saw the paradox of the alienated loner, whose paradigm was Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, elevated to the status of pop icon. Now, the airwaves are dominated by synchronized, interchangeable boy bands and Gap ads featuring khaki-clad clones. Standing out is out; fitting in is in. Can we expect a passion for autonomy and civil liberties from a generation that's spent years in schools that look like airport security lines? As Strauss observes, Boomers and Gen Xers were "raised not to follow Hitler or Stalin; Millennials were a post-consciousness raising generation." As those cautionary examples begin to fade, so does the skepticism of power that they engendered.

Gen Xers were stereotyped as politically "apathetic," but as a character in the archetypal Gen X film Slacker notes, withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy. Millennials do not withdraw in disgust: They are politically engaged in a way not seen since the Greatest Generation born in the early decades of the last century. If that engagement is shaped by the collectivist attitudes that are already becoming apparent, many of us may soon be nostalgic for apathy.