Mass Shootings

'Gun Politics Is Where the Easy Caricature of America's Radicalized Youth Marching Toward Socialism Ends'

Young Americans don't fit into dying 20th-century culture-war tribes.



Politico has published a genuinely fascinating article about younger Americans and their willingness to confound establishment expectations when it comes to gun rights. [Note: The Politico story was published last October, two weeks after the Las Vegas shooting. I should have foregrounded that in the original post.]

The jumping-off point of the story is that millennials (variously defined as those between the ages of 18 to 29, or people under 40-years old) seem to be left-wing on such issues as marriage equality, more-open immigration, drug legalization, for instance. But they also seem to be pretty right-wing on guns, despite having come on age in the post-Columbine era of semi-regular school shootings.

From Ben Wofford's October 2017 account:

Gun politics is where the easy caricature of America's radicalized youth marching toward socialism ends. It remains one of the few arenas in which a younger generation's views are not emphatically moving leftward in any obvious way. And for those who would expect or hope otherwise, the data can disappoint.

Does it ever. Wofford notes that, among other things

Respondents aged 18-29 are the least likely in the country to support a renewed ban on assault weapons, at 49 percent…

Pew's data suggest that those falling in the youngest age range have dropped the furthest in support for "gun control" since 2000 (when the alternative is presented as "gun rights")….

According to Gallup…in 2004, the notion that concealed guns made for safer spaces polled at 25 percent; 11 years later, it registered at 55 percent nationally. The greatest support came from those ages 18-29, at 66 percent, a full 10 points greater than the next highest scoring demographic…

At the same, millennials lead the demographic pack in calling for broader restrictions on "mentally ill" people being allowed to own and carry guns, and they have no positive feelings for the National Rifle Association (NRA). That latter point should suprise no one. Whatever else you can say about it, the NRA is an old-man's outfit that is virtually indistinguishable from the Republican Party, which pulls just 27 percent of millennials in terms of voter identification.

Experts on gun control struggle to explain millennial attitudes to Wofford:

"It does appear that there is that increase in support for concealed carry, and also some of the highest support for other forms of gun control," says Adam Winkler, an expert on the Second Amendment and gun politics at UCLA whose bestselling book Gunfight has won acclaim from many readers on various sides of the gun debate. "It kind of reflects that sort of divided identity on guns—that guns can make you safer, and thus they support concealed carry. At the same time, they recognize there's a serious gun problem in America, and … they think that more should be done to keep guns out of the hands of people who can't be trusted."

Let me suggest that the struggle has nothing to do with millennials and everything to do with the zombified categories most of us in the culture-and-politics industry are still using to describe everyday reality.

This leads to all sorts of confusion, none more obvious and tiresome than the idea that millennials love "socialism." At the start of his (excellent) article, Wofford writes, "According to surveys last year, 43 percent of 18-29-year-olds now hold a favorable view of socialism. These are the millennials. Alex P. Keaton they are not." (Note to millennials: Google Alex P. Keaton if you don't get a reference to a TV character whose sitcom went off the air the year the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.) Back in 2014, when the Occupy movement was still a memory, Reason conducted a poll of 18-29 year-old Americans which found that 42 percent preferred "socialism" as a way of "organizing society." At the same time, just 16 percent could define socialism correctly as the state owning the means of production. And when Reason followed up to move past labels and discuss substance, we found:

When asked whether they want an economy managed by the free market or by the government, 64% want the former and just 32% want the latter. Scratch a millennial "socialist" and you are likely to find a budding entrepreneur (55% say they want to start their own business someday). Although they support a government-provided social safety net, two-thirds of millennials agree that "government is usually inefficient and wasteful," and they are highly skeptical toward government with regards to privacy and nanny-state regulations about e-cigarettes, soda sizes and the like.

The Reason poll found similar rhetorical misunderstandings in other areas too. Millennials are widely dismissed as a "coddled" and "entitled" generation (ironically, many critics of millennials are baby boomers, who were attacked in exactly the same terms by "the Greatest Generation" that survived the Depression and fought World War II). Consider this:

While large numbers of millennials care about government spending and the national debt—78 percent agree that both are a major problem—such values do not define their politics. Indeed, over two-thirds of millennials who describe themselves as liberal do so because of social and cultural issues, not economic ones. It's about gay marriage and pot legalization, not farm subsidies and food stamps. This is huge and demands attention….

[Reason asked] millennials if they would rather have a government that provided more services or fewer services: Fifty-four percent chose bigger government, with just 44 percent calling for a smaller government offering less services.

But when the same question is asked in the context of paying higher taxes for more government services, the results flip. Asked if they would prefer a "larger government with more services" that would require high taxes, just 41 percent of millennials want the larger government, with 57 percent preferring a smaller government and low taxes. This preference generally extends across income and ethnic groups; it's a generational attribute.

Younger Americans, then, are speaking a different language than those of us in older generations. Everyone only adds to the confusion to the extent we don't suss out the specific meanings of words and terms that all sides take for granted. (To his credit and the reader's benefit, Politico's Wofford talks to dozens of younger Americans and others to get beyond simplistic categories.) And it's not simply on gun rights that millennials are breaking the hearts of old folks.

As former Reason Polling Director Emily Ekins and I put it in an October 2014 Reason story, "Millennials Aren't Listening To You." They have no more interest in what Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Bernie Sanders, or Donald Trump thinks is a perfectly consistent world view than people coming of age in the 1980s cared about the various left-wing splits over the Spanish Civil War or internecine fights in America First movement. We can learn a lot from history, of course, but expecting younger generations to conform to situational political ideologies and partisan coalitions hammered out during the waning years of the Cold War is sadder than a presidential combover. Ekins and I found significant areas of continuity and disruption.

About six in 10 millennials say that most people can get ahead with hard work, a figure similar to that of older Americans. Also like older Americans, millennials hold individuals chiefly responsible for their own life outcomes. A majority define fairness not as splitting up society's wealth equally, but as making sure that the people who work the hardest get to keep their earnings, even if that means unequal outcomes.

They are also highly skeptical of government action. Fully two-thirds say that government is usually inefficient and wasteful. That's up from just 42 percent in 2009, at the dawning of the Age of Obama. Sixty-three percent of millennials say that regulators are in the hip pocket of special interests, and 58 percent agree that government agencies and bureaucrats generally abuse their power. Not occasionally, generally.

Such anti-government attitudes may warm libertarian hearts, but it would be a major mistake to think that millennials are the second coming of Murray Rothbard-style anarchism or even Reaganesque disdain for government solutions. While millennials clearly prefer free markets to state-managed ones, they are split on whether free markets are better at promoting economic mobility (37 percent) than are government programs (36 percent). Seven in 10 support government guarantees for housing, health care, education, and income for the truly needy. Yet almost as many—65 percent—think overall government spending should be reduced, and 58 percent favor cutting taxes.

Read more here.

So why might millennials (more precisely, younger Americans) break with progressive dogma when it comes to gun rights? Attempts to explain generational attributes are rife with overreach, but if there are characteristics that define younger Americans, they inlcude insistence on their autonomy and competence (both of which they often overestimate; such is the folly of youth). That would help account for belief in concealed carry. There is also a strong sentiment of "wokeness," of empathy toward the difficult experiences of others, and a generalized acceptance and embrace of mood-altering drugs from Adderall to SSRIs to Ecstasy, pot, and LSD. That, plus a regular parade of deranged gunmen (such as Nikolaus Cruz) that might explain support for restricting gun rights for emotionally unstable people. Millennials are nothing if not in touch with their emotions.

But the key takeaway is this: Younger Americans have grown up in a vastly different (and mostly richer, kinder, and more fair), world than older Americans. The 20th century is already ancient history to them and nothing is more dessicated than the categories of liberal and conservative or Democratic and Republican as they were hammered out in the wake of Vietnam, desegregation, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, and Gerald Ford's ineffectual Whip Inflation Now campaign. Election 2016 featured two major-party candidates who were collecting Medicare and Social Security retirement benefits, talked incessantly about 1970s' America (when they were young), and either didn't use email at all (Trump) or relied on devices less secure than a Jitterbug smart phone (Clinton). Expecting legacy parties, institutions, and ideologies to regiment younger Americans' ideas and policy preferences is a bigger dead end than progressive rock and will only perpetuate the current era of "unstable majorities" and hyper-polarized, dysfunctional government.

Read Reason's special web issue, featuring over a dozen articles, on millennials.

Watch Reason's interview with Stanford and Hoover Institution political scientist Morris P. Fiorina on how media and political activists are unrepresentative of Americans' views on the leading issues of the day: