Why Millennials’ Disgust With The Political System Is Not A Virtue

Millennial voters

One of the bedrock conclusions in Ron Fournier’s new essay in The Atlantic may raise eyebrows: “[Millennials] don’t see politics or government as a way to improve their communities, their country, or the world.” Fournier documents how Millennials have a high enthusiasm for creative destruction, community and technology, but put little hope for change in a political system that they perceive as sclerotic.

Fournier quotes one Harvard grad student in the Kennedy School of Government: “I want to change the world … I can’t do that in elective office.” Instead, the talent pool from which the political system usually draws is now filled with Millennials who are much more likely to start businesses, volunteer for charitable causes or work for non-profits. He writes that 47 percent of young Americans agree that “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges out country is facing.” Only 16 percent disagree. Nearly one-third agree that “political involvement rarely has any tangible results.”

On multiple issues, Washington is more polarized than any time since the Reconstruction Era. Its not hard to see why an unbelief in the efficacy of politics is so popular. But Millennials are making a profound mistake if they disregard the importance of our political institutions to shape the world.

Philosophically, American government is the greatest experiment in freedom in human history. To ignore, or deny, that we have something great on our hands is a denial of an inheritance that was blood-bought at Antietam, Normandy and Fallujah. A casual unbelief in goodness or importance of the political system leads to apathy in participating in it. And a citizenry’s lack of participation allows the selfishness and largesse that has driven away Millennials in the first place.

     Millennials are making a profound mistake if they disregard the importance of our political institutions to shape the world.

Part of the Millennial agnosticism toward politics, says Fournier, is the stain of ideology: Republicans and Democrats are pushing an agenda that doesn’t mirror the concerns of ordinary people. But this claim fails to recognize that the very social causes that Millennials are so passionate about are themselves rooted in forms of ideology, for right or wrong. Worldviews like the inherent dignity of the human person, a right to clean drinking water or the need to preserve free markets, are ideologies that work toward the social good. Ideology isn’t a bad word.

Another Harvard grad student told Fournier, “Politics just doesn’t seem relative to a lot of us and our world. Since the Great Society, tell me one big thing that has come out of Washington. Results are important to us, and sadly, politics isn’t a place for results.” Granted, the government didn’t invent the Internet (well, maybe Al Gore helped) or develop the fracking process, but federal and state laws on issues like healthcare, government pensions and tax reform dictate multiple aspects of American life. Politics is a place for results, they just happen to be technocratic and unsexy.

And there are limits to the most ambitious, extra-governmental reform agendas. One of the most passionate causes of Millennials is education reform. In the past two decades, forces outside the education establishment have adopted instruments of reform that would have been unthinkable in previous generations. Teach for America, homeschooling, charter schools, magnet schools and digital learning are world-class instances of disruptive innovation that have done worlds of good.

But the pace of change is still very slow in education, largely because of the conflicting political interests of labor unions, parents groups, educational publishers and so on. Results have been slow to materialize. Today, American 8th graders rank 32nd in the world in advanced math proficiency. Despite adopting a number of ideas that started outside of the educational bureaucracy, it is clear that the education reform agenda has been alternately expedited and hamstrung by the political process. No cause, no matter how benevolent, can thrive apart from a political framework that allows its germination and growth. Millennials should take note.

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