One the reasons why the Republican Party looked to be demographically doomed after the last election is that young people voted overwhelmingly for Democrats. As several recent surveys have shown, the Millennial generation has generally progressive views on race, gay marriage, and the size of the state.
But the reality turns out to be more complicated. This generation is not just an army-in-waiting for big-government liberals. A closer look at their attitudes and actions reveals, in fact, that Millennials approach politics and government in ways that just might lead us out of today’s intractable gridlock.
For one thing, as the pollster Anna Greenberg has shown, Millennials actually have a skeptical and even cynical view of the biggest parts of big government: Social Security and Medicare. They don’t expect either entitlement to be there for them so they are surprisingly open to privatizing the programs and rewriting these core parts of the Great Society social contract.
Moreover, as both fans and critics of Ron and Rand Paul like to point out, college kids seem to be the most ardent supporters of the Libertarian Party’s don’t-tell-me-what-to-do politics. While on issues like marriage equality this can make them seem liberal, on issues of taxation and government regulation it doesn’t.
But even more significant than their attitudes is the fact that Millennials are growing up in a social and technological milieu that is dismissive of large top-down institutions and in many ways hostile to elite power concentration. This is the most networked generation in American history, digitally and temperamentally. They crowdfund charitable causes more readily than they go to fundraisers. They share illegally downloaded music and movies even if the labels and studios don’t want them to. They volunteer with friends and social peers more than they participate in traditional political action.
They are powering ventures like Airbnb, Car2Go and the emerging “sharing economy.” They are quick to use tools like SeeClickFix to alert both city government and their neighbors to a pothole — and they don’t care who fills it first. They prefer personalization, from their iPhones to their DVRs to their Scion cars, rather than general issue one-size-fits-all solutions. Education experts Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, in a forthcoming book, call this the app generation: they’ve been raised to expect an app for everything.
In short, Millennials bypass. They operate sideways and orthogonally rather than obey all the hierarchies and dichotomies of their elders. This means that the frame of big versus small government — which has imprisoned national political rhetoric since Reagan — may be about to break. Millennials are comfortable with big goals and even big spending. But they’re also happy to circumvent the state altogether and enlist anyone who can help achieve those goals.
What might seem like inconsistency is in fact the germ of a pragmatic, coherent philosophy: government should be big on the what and small on the how. Government can set great national goals — whether in early learning, health care, or clean energy — but then use its platform and funding power to catalyze bottom-up and peer-to-peer solutions that can come from outside government.
If Democrats want to maintain their electoral hold on Millennials they should start celebrating citizen-driven, non-governmental, networked ways to solve problems. And if Republicans hope to earn this generation’s vote they should start acknowledging that there are indeed great national endeavors that require the leadership and spark of an active state. Whichever party disrupts its orthodoxy fastest can win the core of the 21st century electorate. By setting off this kind of race to reimagine, Millennials might just save American democracy.