This week the Reason Foundation released the results of a poll showing that Millennials’ political views are all over the map. The news was picked up by The Atlantic and Vox, where the findings were treated as yet another joke. Spoiler alert: The punchline is that Millennials are delusional and uninformed. Our views are incoherent, we don’t know what socialism is, and we have not even the most cursory understanding of how economics work. But really what can you expect from a narcissistic generation of selfie-snappers?
I’ll admit to getting my feathers ruffled when I read both of these articles. How can you not when reading the tongue-in-cheek way in which Millennials at large are once again used as a punching bag based on a poll with a sample size of 2000? Contradictory positions are presented as the naive views of the younger generation, indicative of Millennials’ lack of attention span and overall lack of interest in anything outside their own immediate sphere.
My complaint isn’t just that this is condescending, but rather that it’s too reductionist. Millennials are an easy target. We aren’t in positions of power, we aren’t well-organized, and we aren’t likely to overcome either of those obstacles and challenge this kind of narrative. But what neither article addresses is that we’re the product of a system that devalues political education and places a higher premium on pandering than on actual policy. If Millennials are as clueless as these polls suggest, we’re a Frankenstein’s monster created by the highly dysfunctional political culture in which we came of age.
Think back to U.S. Government in high school or Civics in junior high. Did you have to reason through the material, or vaguely remember it so you could pass a mostly multiple choice test and meet minimum graduation requirements? Maybe you had to identify what number corresponds to each major amendment or identify what composed the Bill of Rights. My guess is it didn’t go much further than that, though, in terms of what those rights mean in a practical sense. That treatment of the Constitution—as a locked-in-time checkbox you can tick off once you can recite the preamble, rather than a complex document meant for constant reinterpretation—and our larger political system is how we wound up in this situation.
The portrayal education gives of our relationship to the government doesn’t encourage in-depth reflection. Consider how it differed from English and literature classes, where each piece of the sentence or story is picked apart to show how it fits into a whole. Comprehension is a goal, not just memorization. And yet we don’t encourage comprehension of the Constitution or the system it created, and in doing so fail to provide basic tools people need to engage with their government in a meaningful way.
With that foundation we’re sent out into a world that values soundbites over substance, considers politics a dirty topic not to be discussed in casual conversation, and treats the government as something simultaneously below and alien to the general population. When politicians are trying to eke out votes from the influential Millennial base they rely on promising it all—we’re told you can have low taxes and effective social services—because they assume we don’t know any better. And it’s not just Millennials who fall for this. We’re a country that wants our cake and to eat it, too, but we don’t want to chip in the taxes required to pay for the cake in the first place.
Toss into that already delightful democratic nightmare the all-American idea that opinion is synonymous with fact and you have the makings of a generation unable to navigate the political waters. Granted, not all of us having fallen victim to the political passivity required to fit the bill of these latest poll findings and not all of those who do are Millennials. But what these findings say about the health of our electorate is far too important to just turn it into a dig at Millennials.
How many times do we tell young people to always vote? Voting is marketed to young students as Priority Number One in terms of civic duties, while what we should be encouraging is an understanding of the issues and giving students the tools needed to do so. “Don’t just vote, but vote smart,” is the message we need to pass down. Sadly, that’s the last thing we the masses are told.
There is already a lot of baffling Millennial behavior to joke around about and pick apart as emblematic of our generational failings. But the problems plaguing our political system and the inevitable crises that will arise aren’t funny. Rather than making these findings about Millennials, we should be looking at the system that produced these “incoherent” views and find a way to engage everyone in making U.S. politics function again.
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