Election 2020

Millennials' Politically Uncertain Trumpet

Millennials may now represent the largest portion of the U.S. population, but as a millennial myself, I think William Handke and Ross Pomeroy prematurely telegraph what that means for the United States’ political future.

They argue millennials have more or less internalized John Stuart Mill’s harm principle that “the behaviors and preferences of any person, provided that they do no obvious harm to any other, are no business of anybody else.” And this, they say, leads to social liberalism on marijuana, immigration, marriage, and abortion, but some fiscal conservatism when it comes to new government programs with a demand for simpler, more efficient laws to govern our world in the model of Uber and Venmo. This strikes me as wrong for three reasons.

First, it’s not obvious that millennials believe in “live and let live” at all. In our interconnected world, we are more aware of how facile the public-private distinction is, especially with social media. We came of age in a surveillance state, after all. As my generation begins to have children, our newborns appear on Facebook so early that our own kids will never remember a time when the Internet is not a managed window into our world. In fact, we overall tend to believe in social responsibility like a religion. We know that our individual and collective conduct affects not only our entire community, but the whole human social fabric. As a socially liberal classmate of mine at University of Chicago put it, “what begins in the home ends on the street.” We’re more aware of that than ever.

Second, in many surprising ways, my generation is actually socially conservative. For one, we are the most pro-life generation since Roe v. Wade: “by 2010, 18-to-29-year-olds had become more pro-life than their parents — only 24 percent still wanted to keep abortion legal in all cases.” We are having fewer abortions. We’re less likely to get pregnant as teenagers. And there’s evidence that the generation that coined “hookup culture” is actually less promiscuous than the previous generation, as “one in three 20-somethings have never had sex at all.” Some have called us downright Victorian: the data shows we binge drink less, commit fewer crimes, and although we get married later, have more children within marriage.

Third, Handke and Pomeroy rightly point out our skepticism of fiscal irresponsibility and government solutions. We will inherit more public debt than any previous generation, and it’s up to us to make it right. That should point rightward politically, not leftward, over time.

But in the end, as we finish college and graduate school and enter the real world of bank accounts and home mortgages, marriages and child-rearing, our beliefs will likely change. As the regularly misattributed quip by French conservative François Guizot goes, “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.” While political views are often established young in life, millennials care a lot more about spending on experiences than previous generations. That might be because we trust that our experiences will inform and shape our views more than ideology, typically a conservative instinct.

It’s too early to know what we, the millennials, will do as we take our place in the ranks of “we the people.” There are reasons for me to hope we will be better at keeping our republic and our world than our parents, but as St. Paul asked long ago, “if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” Our trumpet remains uncertain about which way we will go when we join the fray, but not forever.