Millennials will shake up political future

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The American millennial has arrived. Born after 1980 and active over the last 15 years, millennials have gone to college in record numbers and piled up more student loan debt than either of the last two generations of Americans. In the wake of 9/11, they fought in the longest war in American history against Afghanistan, as well as in another incomprehensible war in Iraq. In the wake of the Great Recession, they are struggling to enter the workforce. Millennials voted en masse for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, drawn by his post-racial and post-partisan message. Six years into Obama’s presidency, they constitute 27 percent of the adult American population, and are still growing fully into their place in American society. It is imperative that we understand the formative qualities of this generation if we are to forecast the shape of American society in the 21st century.

The millennial is pragmatic. Millennials were raised in an Information Age, and they expect immediate and objective answers to their questions. Privileging information or giving it an ideological slant irritates them, and they seek to flatten, if not obliterate, traditional hierarchies of knowledge. The rise of massive online open courses (MOOCs) in the last five years speaks to this strain in millennial culture. The priest, the businessman, and the representative — these three institutional figures, and the alleged truths that they are privy to — neither impress millennials nor command their allegiance. Only the facts can do that, and in this Information Age, the facts are at their fingertips.

The millennial craves peer-to-peer contact. Having eschewed the communities encoded in the church and the boardroom, millennials invented digital social networks. On platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Skype, they exist in a web of rich and genuine connectivity with their friends, colleagues, and like-minded groups.

These digital natives abhor the artificiality of traditional politicians. They have no automatic respect for the hierarchical nature of American politics. They seek authenticity from their elected officials and from the political process in general. Because we live in a democracy, the chambers of our government have been marginally more responsive than the church and the boardroom to this desire for authenticity.

Barack Obama went from obscurity to presidency in the space of four years because he transcended the usual tribal din of American politics. He spoke of government beyond partisanship. He did not drum up votes by pitting blue against red, urban against rural, white against black. He did not use the color of his skin to seek the White House as a redress for the historical injustice perpetrated upon African-Americans by its white power structure. Many political professionals thought his refusal to indulge either of these impulses bordered on criminal malpractice.

But Barack Obama had correctly perceived one thing: the pragmatic millennial wanted to hear how government would better discharge the duties of governance in a democratic society. Furthermore, the millennial wanted to hear a sound case for how these duties would be discharged. They wanted facts and figures and logical reasoning. To tell them anything else was to step outside the dominion of a man seeking the presidency. The millennial does not see politics as an arena for waging battles for the soul of a nation. Politicians who distort the political process to wage such battles will, if millennials continue exerting their electoral influence, become obsolete creatures.

Roughly half of all millennials today identify themselves as politically independent. Toughened by the ravages of the Great Recession and hardened by the War on Terror, these millennials do not much care for the merits of the free market or the myth of American exceptionalism. However, following the messy rollout of Obamacare, they are also aware of government’s inefficacy in discharging its duties.

Millennials will not be reliably Democratic voters, even though they voted in record numbers for Barack Obama. Future candidates, at every level of government, will be well served by recognizing the pragmatic personality of the millennial generation, and appealing to it at the expense of every other trick in the political playbook. The American millennial has come of age. It is time American politics made room for them at the table.