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August 28, 2013 11:30 AM Ron Fournier, Omniscient Gentleman

By Ben Florsheim

Ron Fournier announced this week that Millennials, those scamps, hate politics and will not be getting involved in it. This may come as a surprise to Millennials, especially those of us who, like me, are already involved in politics, but no matter. Fournier hath spoken.

The proclamation was issued in The Atlantic, home to those whom Baffler writer Maureen Tkacik memorably referred to as “omniscient gentlemen,” whose “facility with community quotidiana is recognized as the stuff of highly effective persuaders, influencers, tastemakers, connectors, and miscellaneous other prophets of consumer trends.” Fournier, now bored with the consensus that Millennials are “narcissistic, coddled, and lazy” (his words), breaks new ground: they are also “goal-orientated,” “team-oriented,” “less prone to cast negative moral judgments on interracial marriages, single women raising children, unmarried couples living together and mothers of young children working outside the home,” and “entitled.” Furthermore, Fournier says, Millenials are much more interested in smartphones, volunteering for nonprofit organizations, and themselves to ever have any interest in ever engaging in the political process or holding elected office.

Yes, ever: “The trouble is that Millennials believe traditional politics and government (especially Washington) are the worst avenues to great things.” As evidence, Fournier references a Harvard Institute of Politics study that indicated majorities or pluralities of 18-to-29-year-olds have little faith in elected officials and believe that politics has gotten too partisan. One-third agreed that “political involvement rarely has any tangible results.”

Let’s check the historical record. The seminal political moments for Millennials have been some of the most important in the country’s history: September 11th and its bellicose aftermath, and the election of the first black president. Considering just these two events, we get a rough snapshot of the zeitgeist under which Millennials have matured and become politically aware. During childhood, they witnessed the nation attacked, and in response a nation unified. There was grief, to be sure, but hopes for America’s greatness ran high. Following that, of course, Millennials became politically mature while witnessing the catastrophic fiasco of the Bush administration. Millennials were exposed to a political establishment characterized by heavy-handed warmongering and, worse yet, the hapless inability to follow through.

The Iraq war and the rest of the Bush administration’s failures soured everyone on politics, but for Millennials, it was all they knew of politics. No wonder that they more than any other age group would latch onto a youthful, anti-war, “fresh start” figure in Barack Obama. No wonder that they, like every youth generation before them, were especially prone to reading more into a candidate than he ever promised or was capable of, and then reacting with disappointment when their hopes went unmet. No wonder that they, like everyone, have grown impatient with the historic dysfunction in Congress, on full display 24/7 for the first time thanks to the information age, and begun to look outside Washington for other avenues towards progress. From this, Fournier glibly surmises: “To Millennials, the world is filled with injustice and need, but government isn’t the solution. They have apps for that.”

Let’s ignore entirely for the moment the fact that data has consistently shown young people during any given generation including this one to be by far the most trusting in government institutions of any age group, in spite of all of the above. Let’s instead consider Fournier’s claim that disillusionment is somehow unique to Millennials as if it had any basis in reality. Even in that very generous paradigm the piece is shallow and unoriginal, yet in true omniscient form, is presented as bracing political/anthropological wisdom, the Explanation We Have Been Waiting For about the Defining Issue of Our Time. Conspicuously but unsurprisingly absent, in addition to the readily available data that directly contradicts the article’s trendy thesis, is any acknowledgement of the resiliency of political institutions, the inevitability of generational evolution and modernization within said institutions, and the obvious fact that ephemeral periods of political disillusionment are a constant and cyclical presence in our national history.

There is so much still unsaid about the impact of the internet and modern technology on government; about the origins and consequences of this generation’s political views; about how the world they have grown up in will influence how they shape the one they inherit. So much potential for worthy analysis. What is obvious, from his faux-contrarian “Forget what you’ve read about…” lede on down to his intelligence-insulting concluding paragraph where he characterizes the views of a generation as “It’s not the end of the world, old man—just the end of your world” based on the offhand remarks of a high school student, is that Fournier has no interest in providing his readers with anything of that sort. The evidenced goal, instead, is to produce an article that maximizes chatter while minimizing the need to engage one’s cognitive faculties. (Lest we forget, this is the same magazine that helped invent the garment-rending, self-indulgent youth bashing routine with this gem of a cover and accompanying story in 2011.)

In the sport of “Olympian free-associating,” as Tkacik describes the modus operandi of the omniscient gentleman, Ron Fournier will settle for no less than the gold.

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Ben Florsheim is an intern at the Washington Monthly.

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