Political Analysis: For Politicians, Millennials Prove Hard To Pin Down

This article appeared in Popular Resistance and Mint Press News 


By Trisha Marczak

The emerging generation of millennials is shifting into a political power unlike those who have gone before, representing a new wave of Americans who no longer fit neatly into either major political party and are instead growing in their distrust for government and their desire for across-the-board accountability.

Coming of age in the era of the NSA’s expanded surveillance operations, millennials are emerging as more distrustful of the government, presenting a difficult scenario for political parties aiming to capture the young vote.

Americans under 30 have emerged as the most united in the belief in civil liberties protection. According to a Pew Research poll, 60 percent of young respondents claimed their largest government concern stemmed from its anti-terrorism policies that have infringed on civil liberties.

This trend hasn’t always gone this way. In 2010, the same organization polled Americans and discovered that those ranging from 18 to 29 years old were not quite sold on the idea that the government had gone too far in restricting civil liberties. When asked, only 40 percent responded that it felt it had. In that same poll, 38 percent of young respondents claimed the government wasn’t doing enough.

In 2013, the tides have turned. The poll, released in July, indicated the 20-point jump, with only 29 percent of respondents claiming the government wasn’t rolling back enough civil liberties for the sake of national security.

The trend of government disillusionment comes as the entire population is notably moving in that direction. A Gallup poll released Sept. 23 indicates the same trend, with 60 percent of all Americans believing the federal government has too much power. That’s up from 2005, when roughly half held that view.

A TIME poll released in June, following Edward Snowden’s leak of secret NSA documents revealing the widespread surveillance program, indicated more than half of Americans believed Snowden’s actions were commendable.

Among respondents to the TIME poll, 54 percent indicated they considered Snowden’s actions to have reflected the “right thing” to do, indicating a shift away from trust in government.

Why the switch?

“To understand what constitutes a political generation, it makes more sense to follow the definition laid out by the early-20th-century sociologist Karl Mannheim,” Peter Beinart wrote.

The sociologist he refers to is one that first identified the concept behind political generations, indicating that a person’s generation is determined by historical events, particularly those that occur during a person’s “coming of age,” a time period between their late-teens and mid-20s.

“During that period — between the time they leave their parents’ home and the time they create a stable home of their own — individuals are most prone to change cities, religions, political parties, brands of toothpaste,” Beinart wrote. “After that, lifestyles and attitudes calcify.”

Based on that theory, the historical turning point events that define millennials would be based on a few major events: 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Great Recession.

Those who have emerged from that era recall the real threat posed by terrorism, potentially meaning they would be willing to sacrifice their civil liberties for the argument of national security — but they’re overwhelmingly not buying that argument.

This could stem from the longstanding wars their colleagues engaged in, and an economic collapse that left them with mounting debt and a growing dissatisfaction with the government’s handlings of economic and political events. According to a 2012 Public Religion Poll, millennials aged 18-24 indicated unemployment was a major factor persuading political decisions.

As noted by Beinart, this new generation is going to be one that defies the typical partisan party line.

“The deeper you look, the stronger the evidence that de Blasio’s victory is an omen of what may become the defining story of America’s next political era: the challenge, to both parties, from the left. It’s a challenge Hillary Clinton should start worrying about now,” Beinart wrote, referring to Bill de Blasio’s victory in the Democratic primary for mayoral race in New York City.

Tackling a new political generation

The changing shape of millennials’ political views presents a problem for the established American political system.

With the overwhelming majority of millennials indicating the government has gone too far in its abuse of civil liberties, there’s no clear answer in terms of political parties that appeal to that base.

“By pre-Reagan standards, the economic debate is taking place on the conservative end of the field. But — and this is the key point — there’s reason to believe that America’s next political generation will challenge those limits in ways that cause the leaders of both parties fits.”

We’re already seeing that right now, with Obama attempting to navigate a position that could be embraced by the millennials.

“If people can’t trust not only the executive branch, but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here,” Obama said in June, according to TIME.

At this point, both Republicans and Democrats have not fully presented a party that millennials concerned about civil liberties can fully embrace.

The Public Religion Poll indicated a plurality of millennial respondents considered themselves independents, ranking in with 45 percent. Just 33 percent considered themselves Democrats, while 23 percent claimed the Republican Party as their own.

In the 2012 elections, this created a window of opportunity for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who attempted to inject his anti-war, pro-civil liberties libertarian stance into the Republican presidential race.

There’s no question that Paul’s movement drew in young people from the left and right, yet the theories behind his growing popularity among millennials vary. His campaign secretary, Gary Howard, indicated it had to do with the politician’s honesty and overall character.

“They realize the mess that the establishment status quo politicians have put us in, and recognize that Ron Paul is the only candidate seriously challenging the status quo,” Howard said, according to PolicyMic.

Around the same time, David Sirota wrote in Salon that the Paul campaign gave young Americans what they were looking for a party that cared about the rollback of civil liberties and took a stand to end what younger generations see as a never-ending “War on Terror.”

“The younger generation’s rejection of hubris and hyper-militarism — and that generation’s willingness to support candidates in both parties who similarly reject that militarism — provides rare ray of hope in these political dark ages,” Sirota wrote.

A Public Religion Research Institute poll issued in 2012 among millennials indicated the new political generation’s dynamics that American politicians will have to pay attention to, in order to succeed.

Measuring those aged 18 to 24, the poll showed that those in that age group are “considerably more racially and ethnically diverse than the general population,” a point the Republican party has already struggled to deal with.

In the 2012 presidential elections, White voters were responsible for 72 percent of the votes cast, down from 87 percent of votes cast in the 1972 presidential elections. Prior to the 2012 presidential elections, polls indicated nearly no African-American support for Mitt Romney.

Millennials, in general, largely favored Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. In 2012, Obama took away 60 percent of the young vote — considered to be votes cast by those under 30 — according to the Pew Research Center. Romney obtained just 36 percent of that demographic’s vote.


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