Generational Alienation: Good Reasons for Today's Young People to Be Apathetic

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

A year and a half ago, in a post here on Dorf on Law, I discussed some thoughts that my oldest nephew, Ross Buchanan, shared with me regarding what might be called "intramural thought policing" among movement conservatives.  Continuing with my minor dabbling in nepotism, today I will discuss some thoughts that were planted in my head by another nephew, Kevin Rigsbee, who is currently a Senior history major at the University of Cincinnati, and who also is interested in an academic career.  (One other nephew is also on the academic track, and I am sure that his Dorf on Law day will come soon enough.)

Early this past summer, I was talking with my nephews about a variety of topics, and I was particularly interested in the views of young policy/political junkies like them about our current political situation.  (My brother was also part of the conversation, but he is even older than I am, so his views don't count.)  As the conversation proceeded, we found ourselves focusing on the question of how younger Americans with political interests are responding to the emergence of the Tea Party movement and the attendant political stalemate and outright nastiness of the past four years.  Is all hope lost?  Do younger people simply think of the current parties as the only two choices that they could ever have, and that they will choose their poison in the way that people have for generations?  And within the current two-party alignment, do young people think that all hope is lost for any progress at all?

There is plenty of reason to believe that young people would unblinkingly accept the starting point that they face, and to view it as somehow natural and normal.  After all, history is so old!  Anything that happened before, say, 2008 might as well have happened during the Civil War.  Stories about a time when votes in Congress were not on pure party lines, when compromise was valued, when the filibuster was rarely used, and so on, are likely to sound like old codgers talking about the days when ice cream cones cost a nickel and the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn.

I certainly have met young conservatives whose policy views would be fully consonant with Reagan-era conservatism, which means that what they actually want to accomplish is not at all what Ted Cruz or Rand Paul wants to accomplish.  Even so, because "Republicans are conservative, and Democrats are liberal," many of these young people join up with the Republicans and snarl about the Democrats' mythical embrace of Big Government and all that.  And, as I noted in a recent post, there are always pure political hacks, young people who see for themselves a life in politics as operatives in one party or the other, who have no reason to know or care about policy but every reason to think about politics in binary, policy-vacant terms (other than slogans learned along the way about "government takeovers of health care" and other such nonsense).

This discussion then led us to make a comparison between generations.  Is it all more of the same, today as ever, with young people as a group merely going through the paces of losing their political innocence, and the drift of policy being orchestrated by forces beyond their control?  There are ample reasons for young people to be disgusted and amazed that things do not work in a logical or principled way.  But is there any difference in the broad reactions by current young people to their circumstances, compared to my generation?

After some spirited back and forth, Kevin Rigsbee captured a possible key difference in only a few words. "Your generation," he said, referring to the Baby Boomers, "became bitter, cynical, and angry, while mine has become bitter, cynical, and apathetic."  How much truth is there to that framing, and how much does it matter, if true?

Although I am on the younger end of the Baby Boom spectrum, and thus was too young to have marched on Washington against the war in Vietnam, or to have been involved in the Civil Rights movements for racial minorities or women, I have direct memories of the bitterness and cynicism to which Rigsbee refers.  The feeling was that "our parents" had screwed up the world, but that "we can change the world, rearrange the world."  (Interesting aside: The lyrics to that song include the following: "Rules and regulations, who needs them?  Open up the door."  Surely a topic for a future post.)

Partly as a matter of sheer numbers, and for many other reasons beyond the scope of this post, the anger of the young Baby Boomers quickly led to profound changes in the country.  The voting age was decreased from 21 to 18.  The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were passed, to say nothing of the legal and social changes regarding race and gender, and all of the other things that are captured by the label "the Sixties" (much of which happened in the seventies).  The Republicans have been running against these changes for more than a generation.

So, yes, my generation (without my help) turned bitterness and cynicism into anger, and then used that anger as a transformative force in politics.  Rigsbee's juxtaposition of that productive anger with his generation's throw-up-one's-hands apathy is instructive.  Again, his generation has plenty of reason to be bitter and cynical.  If young Baby Boomers could look at the environment and be horrified, what must today's twenty-somethings think?  Moreover, whereas my generation was looking at an economy that grew quickly and shared its benefits relatively widely, young people today see rising inequality and shrinking opportunity.  And once such an atmosphere exists, it is all too easy for political manipulators to start lying to young people about Social Security going bankrupt, or "law school scams," or any other destructive idea, and to gain some traction with a disillusioned generation.

One possibility is that today's young people became apathetic because candidate Obama over-promised, allowing them to think that he could lead us to a post-partisan world.  Maybe, but other generations have been betrayed by politicians, too, and they have responded not by becoming apathetic but by finding other politicians to do their bidding.  It is also possible that the world now seems so far gone, especially on climate change, that it is simply too late to do anything.  Better to make the best of life while we can, playing our minuets while the ship sinks into the ocean.

A third (non-mutually-exclusive) explanation is that the political system seems obviously broken, in a way that it never did before now.  When Baby Boomers wanted change, there were actually people in Congress who took up their cause, and other politicians did not invariably make change impossible.  By contrast, think about what a young person would think today, if he were told that there are still some "principled conservatives" in the Republican party who could, once Obama Derangement Syndrome has run its course, be counted on to get the country back to its can-do, problem-solving ways.  Who are they supposed to think about?

As Professor Dorf commented to me in conversation the other day, there are still people who are regarded as thoughtful or moderate conservatives, but these people increasingly sound like total nut-jobs.  It is not just that the crazy right has scared off the moderates so that many old-style reasonable conservatives now end up as Democrats or even liberals (along our distorted left-right continuum, compared to other countries), but that people who were previously moderates have come to toe the crazy line.  We are not talking about people who were never reasonable or thoughtful, but who were wrongly labeled as such.  Paul Ryan is not the model here.

Instead, the people who have been thought for good reason to be principled conservatives, and who could see ways to improve matters in a bipartisan manner, have either gone away (e.g., former Indiana Senator Dick Lugar, after his primary defeat to a Tea Party candidate) or ... how to say it ... gone away.  The well deserved mockery attending Senator Lindsey Graham's insane call to send ground troops into Syria, "before we all get killed back here at home," makes it hard to take his own website seriously when it calls him "Senator Lindsey Graham - A Conservative Problem Solver‎."  Despite having once earned respect as not purely partisan conservatives, people like Graham, John McCain, and even Chuck Grassley have recently gone off the deep end.

Faced with this, how is a young person to find reasons not to be apathetic?  The people who were once plausibly regarded as thoughtful moderates could fall into one of three categories: (1) They were actually deep-down crazies who were toeing the non-crazy line until they could come out of the closet.  (2) They were non-crazy, but by toeing the crazy line for a few years, they have become true crazy believers.  (3) They are non-crazy, but they are doing what they can to get along in a crazy world.  Hopeful people of all ages dearly want to believe that the third explanation is true, but the more we see of McCain, Graham, Grassley, and the others, the more #1 and #2 seem more likely.

In short, I think that, as a descriptive matter, Rigsbee is correct that the two generations in question each had good reasons to be cynical and bitter, and that the two generations differ in how they processed those emotions into productive anger (my people) or unproductive apathy (his people).  As a predictive matter, I do not see much reason for hope.  It is not, after all, that post-millenials (or whatever we are calling them this week) were born apathetic.  And it is not even that the problems are so much bigger now.  (Yes, climate change is huge, but the social changes wrought by the Sixties were rather enormous, too.)  The political system is broken, and it seems that every day the Supreme Court and other institutions do their best to make the system less democratic.  Who would not respond to all of that with cynicism, bitterness, and apathy?