Last night I started reading Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. I don’t have a whole lot to say about the book yet, but one thing that stuck out to me was that as Obama was talking about the polarization of politics, he mentioned Bush v Gore as one of the starting points of that polarization. When referring to his early days as a senator, he mentioned that the older senators felt that things were getting less and less productive, and that the aisle was getting wider and wider, starting at around 2000.
The first election that I remember is Bush v Gore. I was about 10 at the time, and we had a mock election in my 4th grade classroom. I decided to vote for Gore because he liked The Beatles. Afterwards, I went home and talked to my parents and they explained some of the issues that the election was about. I started to have an inkling that I was probably a Democrat. Even in that classroom there was heated passion about which candidate should win, and some anger towards people who disagreed.
My first memories of politics and the electoral system are remembered by older people as the time when politics started going to shit. The only politics I have ever known is a politics that is sharply divided, one in which there is no middle ground, one in which Republicans and Democrats have become more and more radical in their opinions. My whole generation has grown up in the midst of politics that looks like this. Is this unlike any other generation? What will that mean for us as we grow up? Have we all become cynical and tired? I don’t have hard and fast answers to these questions, but as a Millennial myself, I can speak to some of my own feelings about politics, and make some predictions about how my generation may change what’s happening right now.
I do think that to some extent Millennials are cynical of the political system, and that’s because they’ve never seen it functioning. They don’t trust it to function because it never has. When we hear people talking about how bad politics is now, and how it used to be so much better, it sounds like misty-eyed nostalgia to us. There’s no evidence in our minds that there ever was a good time or that now is worse than it used to be. This is all we have known and it appears to be the norm. Because of that, I doubt many of us will see a long term use for the traditional methods of politics. We are willing to vote, we’re willing to be activists, we’re willing to work on campaigns, but few of us think it will actually do much. I see many millennials who want to take things into their own hands. I see many, many young people who are blogging and writing their own opinions about politics, signing petitions, getting in touch with their congresspeople, engaging in civic hacking, volunteering, and generally finding other ways to improve their communities that aren’t through the traditional means.
One of the things that I see among a lot of my friends and peers is that we’re sick of arguing. We want to make the world better, yes. But we want people to stop being jerks on our facebook pages, we want a little peace and quiet. We’d rather go volunteer at that Humane Society down the street than have people bitch at us and bitch right back, because that’s all that ever happens on the internet. We don’t see that as progress. We do however see education as intensely important, particularly the more liberal-minded among us. We feel like we need to explain ourselves and our opinions to others, but we don’t want to piss people off anymore. Of course there are always more or less argumentative people among us, but I see lots of friends who view politics as something that just gets in the way and makes everyone sad.
Oddly enough, one of the consequences of this kind of radio silence is that we all seem to be a little more certain that we’re Very Right and that people who disagree are The Enemy. That’s because we rarely allow ourselves to hear opposing arguments unless we absolutely can’t avoid it, and when we can’t avoid it it’s often said by the craziest version of that opinion (e.g. Rush Limbaugh). If the only people talking are the ones who don’t care about offending others, we get a fairly skewed view of our opposition. I know that I rarely hear logical, calm, and intelligent presentations of the conservative viewpoints. This makes it incredibly easy for us to straw-man those who disagree with us and assume that they’re horrible individuals.
An additional element of this is that because we have so many possible sources of information, we can pick and choose what we hear so as to create an echo chamber. Then we assume everyone thinks like us because those are the only people we hear. I see many people who are completely set in their ways, but who are not interested in talking to others about their opinions. It’s an odd combination, and is not a good situation for positive movement. We are distant from people who think differently from ourselves. We don’t understand them, and many of us don’t want to because it sounds terrifying.
And so we’re angry. We’re angry that things aren’t working out, that our country appears to be falling apart, that our systems are ineffective, that we don’t have jobs, that we don’t have healthcare, that people like to say shitty things about us all the time. But we’re also hopeless. We don’t know how to talk to each other, we don’t know how to fix the system, we can barely even support ourselves and we wonder how people think we should have the time to fix the country.
The place that I see many Millennials is a place in which we want a complete overhaul. We want to give up on Congress (would you keep putting your faith in a group that can’t do their basic job description for two weeks straight?), and we want a new system that is not motivated by money, but is motivated by our needs. We don’t give a fuck about the pres, cause the pres never gets shit done. Supreme court who? We’re not uninformed. We know about these things, we just don’t see them as worth our time.We just have no idea how to make it because we’ve never seen something that functions.
So when you see Millennials who are frustrated, cynical, and hopeless, remember that they aren’t being whiny and petulant: they’ve never seen a political system that works better than this one. They’ve never had the system function. They’ve been told over and over that things are supposed to be ok, but they’re just not. Wouldn’t you be pissed too?