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The Unanswered Question
If an entire generation thinks the system is broken, might that be a "you" problem?
Believers in American institutions, and the people who control those institutions, should know that they are forging a generation of Americans with no faith in them. I think many of them do get this on some level. They read the polls and the research on “voter sentiment.” But that almost makes it worse that, on this subject—as on so many others—they appear to have no articulable plan for what they will do about it.
It is a bit striking how rarely you see a comfortable member of the establishment explain how they might change a young malcontent’s mind about whether the system is capable of working. One strategy, popular in the center, is to glibly assert that things are fine, and will be fine, indefinitely, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a hysteric. Even if that is the case, it still seems a bit of a problem to create a generation of hysterics, unless you assume they will simply grow out of it.
Unfortunately, the research suggests they are growing into it. According to the Spring 2022 Harvard Youth Poll, a majority of Americans under 30 now believe “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing.” Harvard also reports “a sharp increase in youth believing that ‘political involvement rarely has tangible results.’” Joe Biden’s approval rating among under-30s has dropped 18 points, to 41 percent.
This is part of a broader trend of what is sometimes referred to as “Millennials” “losing faith” in “democracy,” which was the language used in most reporting on a global Cambridge study of people 18 to 34 released in 2020. According to their findings, “almost two-thirds (63%) of US millennials were satisfied with American democracy in their early 20s, but by their mid-30s it had fallen to just a half (50%). Whereas three-quarters (74%) of US baby boomers were satisfied with democracy by their mid-30s and over two-thirds (68%) have remained so throughout their lives.”
Researchers and pollsters typically claim to be measuring young people’s support for “democracy.” In the U.S. context especially, that is misleading. They are measuring support for our political order. By labeling what that is and what it does and for whom as “democracy,” that order likely serves, paradoxically, to undermine support for democratic values. Frustration with our anti-politics is channeled into disdain for “politics.” Politicians elected to solve problems by doing politics blame “politics” for why the problems cannot be solved. In that context, what do you expect people to embrace? What solutions might they turn to, once you have taught them that this system, which excludes them from any meaningful representation of their interests, which forecloses any possibility of their preferences from being enacted, is “democracy”?
Anyway, 19 little kids are dead, and I don’t expect anything meaningful will be done to prevent the next 19 little kids from getting killed. I know most of the complex logistical, legal, cultural, and political reasons why our system is incapable of preventing this. I leave those explanations to other authors. I ask instead what anyone with power in this country—a group that has intentionally excluded young people from its ranks—plans to do about those reasons. And I invite the reader to think about the implications of the fact that those people with power cannot answer my question with anything remotely credible. What are you going to do about the fact that we all know you can’t do anything?