Millennials’ lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton is causing major heartburn in Democratic circles and in all us who fear the Trumpacalypse. There is reason to worry. In a recent study by the University of Massachusetts, nearly one in four millennials would rather have the Earth annihilated by a giant meteor than have either Clinton or Trump win the election (but don’t worry, 61 percent said they would vote for Clinton anyway, with only 21 percent for Trump).
Tomorrow, we will find out if this enthusiasm gap for Hillary Clinton costs her the election. But Millennials’ tepid support for Clinton is more than just a problem for those of us terrified to see Trump win. It’s emblematic of a much larger, and in many ways, scarier issue. Millennials aren’t just rejecting her, but the fundamentals of our democratic system.
A study conducted by a Harvard political scientist and an investigator from the World Values survey found that more than two thirds of the millennials they surveyed did not think it is essential to live in a democratically ruled society. In the UMass study cited above, nearly 40 percent of respondents said they would rather have Obama become President-for-Life than deal with four years of Trump or Clinton.
There has been much speculation about what drives this change — cynicism about a system dominated by big money, distrust in institutions, social media, and this generation getting completely screwed economically with wages, tuition hikes and more. I thought, probably like Clinton and her advisers, that this trust could be restored with good policy. But after dozens of conversations with college students and recent graduates, I’ve come to believe it is a culture clash that policy cannot solve.
Last spring, I asked my students if, hypothetically, Congress and the President got together today and gave everyone free college, comprehensive LGBT rights, and instituted public financing of all elections, would they trust government?
Their answer was a unanimous no, not really. They said that the government would still be full of corrupt politicians, and doesn’t work.
One of my students spoke about a school board meeting she attended with a group of activists. They wanted to voice their support for a certain proposed policy change, but after getting there and seeing that they had to wait for an interminable amount of time for their turn to talk, and a bunch of “older” folks sitting behind a podium, they decided to interrupt the meeting, perform guerrilla theatre, and left. As an afterthought she noted that the board actually voted the way that they wanted — a major victory — but she still didn’t see it that way because the process was so contrary to her experiences and value system.
Think about what millennials experience in their day-to-day lives. They can order a pizza, find a date, get a ride, communicate globally, and access media with a swipe of their finger. Companies design algorithms to anticipate their needs so that products, services, and information arrive before they even know they want it. This is a generation that views phoning someone or checking voice messages as an unnecessary burden.
Contrast that technology-enabled frictionless life with the realities of policy-making in even the best of circumstances. Making any incremental change takes years of policy papers, committee hearings, slowly building coalitions, and navigating bureaucratic barriers. Obamacare took 60 years and tens of thousands of meetings, endless wrangling over details, and many, many unpalatable compromises. My students wouldn’t dedicate a year of their life to get such an incremental outcome, much less a lifetime.
Clinton is the embodiment of what governing takes in a democracy. She believes in white papers and task forces, in compromises and incremental victories. I say this as a compliment and with much admiration. But these beliefs don’t shine in a Twitter world.
Barack Obama may have framed it best at the 2016 White House Correspondent’s Dinner when he complimented Sanders’ slogan: “Feel the Bern,” and compared it to Clinton’s imagined, Sisyphean slogan: “Trudge up the Hill.”
With 75.4 million of the U.S. population now between the ages of 18 to 35, millennials should be the largest force turning the gears of government. But even a glance at voter turnout rates in recent years shows that they only seem to participate in politics when presidential candidates promise quick, revolutionary reforms (or one party nominates a woman-hating, race-baiting quasi-fascist), then stay home for midterm, state and local elections.
It’s not that millennials are apathetic. It’s actually quite the opposite. They are charged by their opinions and beliefs, but have a hard time connecting with a political process that is fraught with friction, where any change, large or small, takes years of patient effort, confrontation, compromise, and their constant vigilance.
In the end, either the millennials continue to opt out of the political system, save for supporting presidential candidates who promise revolutions, and leave us with a political system that doesn’t work. Or, the existing political system is changed to accommodate their need for instant reform, which means modifying the country’s political structures, processes, and constitutional makeup — something that, ironically, would take considerable, slow, and painful effort.