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September 15, 2013 2:18 PM The kids are (mostly) alright: politics and the Millennials

By Kathleen Geier

Though at this point it’s a little old, in internet time, I felt compelled to weigh in on Peter Beinart’s long Daily Beast piece on what he calls the “New New Left.” Ed has already written about it here and here. He registers some very fair criticisms, but suffice it to say, I liked it a lot more than he did.

First, I’ll dispatch with what is easily the weakest part of Beinart’s analysis: that he uses Bill de Blasio’s primary victory in the New York City Democratic mayoral race as a hook for the piece. Beinart’s thesis is that young people — the Millennial generation — have moved way to left on nearly every major political issue, and that their political coming of age represents a serious challenge to both parties. I think he makes a strong case, but de Blasio’s victory is a weak peg to hang his argument on. It’s just one election, de Blasio hasn’t even taken office (the general election hasn’t taken place yet), and he actually earned a slightly higher share of votes from voters age 45 and up than from those under 30.

But I think the overriding theme of the piece is sound: that due their horrendous experience in our brave new economy, and also because of different demographics (they are significantly more racially diverse than older folks), the Millennial generation has a very different view of America and of politics than previous cohorts. They are significantly to left of previous generations on most economic and social issues. For example, Beinart says, “unlike older Americans, who favor capitalism over socialism by roughly 25 points, Millennials, narrowly, favor socialism.” Beinart doesn’t mention it, but I recently came across this fascinating factoid from a 2011 Pew poll (H/T Erik Loomis):

Just 32% of Millennials believe the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. That number progressively increases among the Gen X (48%), Boomer (50%) and Silent generations (64%).

In fact, says Beinart, the only the major culture war issue where the Millennials are not significantly more liberal is abortion, where, he says, “there is no significant generational divide.” That is worrisome, because it’s an indicator that gender inequality will remain a serious problem, even within this much more progressive cohort.

On the whole, though, I’m heartened by the data Beinart presents, and it gibes with my own observations of young people. The younger political types I know impress me with their passion, sophistication, and imagination. The world they grew up in is very different from the one we older folks (I’m a Gen Xer) inherited. The Cold War, for example, is about relevant to a lot of them as the War of the Roses. They’ll make political mistakes, for sure, but at least they’ll be different mistakes, bolder mistakes.

Those of us who are Gen Xers grew up in a country where the boundaries of acceptable politics were set by Ronald Reagan on the one hand and Bill Clinton on the other. That, I think, is tragic, because those limits enabled an economy that shattered many people’s dreams, and lives. But I think it’s mostly pointless to cast blame on Bill Clinton or whomever for not trying more, for not pushing things in a more progressive direction. Personalities don’t shape politics, movements and systems do, and I kind of think that if there had been a space for a more progressive politics in those years, we would have seen it. Generations of romanticizing biographers of presidents, who focus on heroic individual narratives and downplay systemic analyses and the role of institutions, have much to answer for here.

Which brings me to my final point. I think a major weakness of the piece is that Beinart focuses obsessively on electoral politics. He makes a strong case that Millennials are indeed a much more politically progressive cohort, and he persuasively explains why, but the next thing you know he’s off to the races, speculating about whether Elizabeth Warren will challenge Hillary Clinton in 2016.

He’s got the cart before the horse there. Activist presidents don’t arise ex nihilio; they are made by movements. FDR’s New Deal came into existence because the labor movement organized for it. Civil rights groups marched on Washington and pressured LBJ to sign civil rights legislation and create the Great Society. We got President Reagan and Reaganomics only after years of tireless organizing by the New Right. And so on. This is why liberals who believed Barack Obama would be some sort of bold progressive visionary were fooling themselves. He was always a centrist Democrat, and has never had to answer to a powerful mass movement pressuring him to move in a more progressive direction.

Absent the kind of strong mass movement of the type we haven’t seen in this country for many years, we’re unlikely to see Elizabeth Warren or any other real progressive elected president. If somehow she does make it to the White House, it’s unlikely she will get much done, absent a mass movement so strong that it would transform Congress.

Honestly, the progressive movement in this country would be far stronger if we stop wasting so much time speculating about presidential politics and focused on building a mass movement instead. Far easier said than done, I know! But the only way we will get a progressive president is if we get a movement first. I don’t know what form such a movement might take: an Occupy that has its act together, gives up the obsession with process, and focuses on programmatic demands? A revived labor movement developed from a new organizing model — or based on a different form of labor union? A left-wing takeover of the Democratic party similar to the right-wing takeover of the G.O.P that began in the 1960s? It might be any of those things, or none of them. How we might organize such a movement is a fascinating and vexing problem. I wish our pundits focused much more on those kinds of questions and much less on the horse race stuff.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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