The majority of Millennials are overwhelming in favor of a broad variety of “progressive” policies, most of which involve the expansion of government. They are more likely than Generation X to support government policies that penalize people who make seemingly offensive comments, such as using the wrong gender-pronouns, criticizing ethnic minorities, or saying anything that can even remotely be construed as “insensitive“. Clearly, this reflects their collective belief that the government is a force for good, which puts them at odds with older Americans who have an instinctive distrust of centralized authority.
One may ask why this is so, and the answer seems simple: they were raised in a way that instilled a positive view of adults in their lives. While many Boomers and Gen Xers sought independence from their parents, Millennials have been much less likely to do so. One reason this may be so is that they were born at a time that one may describe as the “moral panic over children”. Starting with the 1980s, American cars began displaying “baby on board” stickers and adults started taking an increased interest in the lives of youngsters. This pro-youth mentality stands in sharp contrast with the upbringing that Gen X received, which were known as the “latchkey kids” and the most aborted generation in American history.
The older age cohort of Gen X who were born in the 60s and early 70s have been steadfastly Republican, while the tail-end of Gen X are more receptive to moderate or even progressive views. By contrast, all age cohorts within the Millennial generation tend to be progressive. The connection between the nature of one’s upbringing and political leanings seems intuitive and straightforward: people who grew up with authoritarian or absentee parents are more likely to be conservative or libertarian. By contrast, people who have always enjoyed a warm relationship with their parents and other adults are more likely to see authority figures as a force for good.
In “Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think”, George Lakoff argued that one’s conception of family life shapes their view of politics. In light of this, it is clear how the student activists who cheered at Mario Savio’s famous Sprout Hall speech about “bodies upon the gears” were rebelling against repressive and controlling adults. They saw adult authority as an infringement upon their inalienable right to develop their personalities and cultivate the capacity to make autonomous decisions. By contrast, today’s student activists are advocating for precisely the opposite cause: they demand free speech to be limited. The explanation is as simple as it is straightforward, their early life experiences led them to develop a beatific view of authority.
In “On Liberty“, John Stuart Mill famously argued that healthy skepticism of authority is necessary for liberty to thrive. He believed that political discourse should be modeled on scientific inquiry where participants freely exercise their prerogative to challenge the views of one another, as nobody can be certain that they have the last word on any given issue. However, Millennials are skeptical of liberty because of their sheltered upbringing, which makes them also mistrust democracy.
The explanation is simple and plausible: they have grown up in a culture where they have always expected adults to protect them from even the most trivial of setbacks, which is why they see democracy as a source of chaos. Their view of liberty is necessarily negative, as they have little to no experience with genuine abuse of adult authority. At any rate, they tend to see the risk of enduring the abuse of authority as less severe than the risk of accepting the responsibility that comes with living in a free society. By its nature, freedom comes with responsibility, and people who expect their caretakers to shield them from it cannot see the positive value of freedom. In light of this point of view, what reason do they have to prefer democracy to a technocracy?
Another fundamental reason why Millennials are wary of liberal democracy is that their understanding of history tends to be deficient. In “Defense of Politics”, Bernard Crick advanced a compelling case in favor of the necessity of politics, showing that this is the only alternative to autocracy. However, in order to participate in a political process, one must have a fairly nuanced understanding of history, social science, and civics, which Millennials lack. As a result, they find themselves hopelessly bamboozled by an incessant onslaught of vague, confusing, and often incoherent streams of information. Because they lack a basic understanding of history, they are not aware of the atrocities that have been committed by authoritarian regimes as recently as 30-40 years ago. As far as they are concerned, politics is merely a vulgar spectacle, on par with Jerry Springer or the American Idol, which is why they see no compelling reason to vote. After all, if voting is a waste of time, what’s wrong with a dictatorship?
It’s not a coincidence that the world has seen a rash of authoritarian neo-populist regimes in the early 2010s, right around the time when the last age cohort of the Millennials entered young adulthood. Even if they did not vote, they unwittingly created a cultural milieu receptive to authoritarian ideas; this clearly has been the case in the USA, Mexico, Brazil, Hungary, and the Philippines, all of which have been governed by demagogues of this sort in the last decade.
The follow-up question that comes charging in is what can one expect when the Millennial generation enters the next stage of life? By the 2030s, the Baby Boomers will be either deceased or retired from politics, and Gen X is too small to countervail the political influence of Millennials, who are the largest living generation today. Gen Z will also be too small to put up any resistance to the collective will of their next-elders. We now live in a world where free speech, free markets, personal liberty, and democracy are increasingly becoming an older person’s point of view. It is inevitable that the congress and the presidency will be controlled by Millennials, and how will such a generation wield their power? Clearly, they share none of their elder’s skepticism of centralized power, the due process of law, individual freedom, and democracy. Far from seeing free speech as a resource that empowers a healthy exchange of ideas, they see it as a distraction that prevents authorities from safeguarding their feelings. So, why would they not repeal the First Amendment? Why not abolish the free markets and criminalize private property? Today, such insinuations appear ludicrous because half of the Millennials still live with their parents, so their hands are tied: they are not in the position to turn their vision into a reality. Yet, it’s inevitable that the nation’s circumstances will change: they will inherit their parents’ money and emerge as the dominant generation that will mold the country into their own image.