America Takes a Giant Step into the Millennial Era

As America approaches the 239th celebration of its independence, the events that began with the horrific shooting of innocent churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17th and culminated in an eloquent eulogy to their grace, and God’s, ten days later by President Obama, seemed to signal a shift in the nation’s direction to a more tolerant, inclusive and confident nation. Those three traits are themselves a reflection of the attitudes and beliefs of the increasingly omnipresent Millennial generation. They form the basis for a new civic ethos that will come to characterize American government in the rest of this decade during which all 95 million members of the generation will enter adulthood. The cohort’s demographic dominance is an inexorable force increasing the chances that the startling changes the country witnessed in the span of less than two weeks are just a foretaste of what America will be like for decades to come.  

The first unexpected event that suggested something different was happening occurred when the African-American families of those slain by a white man filled with hate forgave him based on their deep religious beliefs. In a courtroom in Charleston the voice of Vaclav Havel, the charismatic leader of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, could be heard through the anguished testimonies of the victim’s families. “Those who have for many years engaged in a violent and bloody vengefulness against their opponents are now afraid of us. They should rest easy. We are not like them,” Havel said at the moment of his triumph over Communism. Similarly, the families foreswore revenge on those who had oppressed their race for generations in order to lay the foundation for a national reconciliation far beyond the confines of the Deep South. The families’ reactions were so unlike the polarizing behavior that has come to characterize American politics that the country stopped and took notice.

The family’s courage and grace was followed by an equally unexpected statement from the Republican Indian-American, female Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley. Whereas her more timid colleagues, including the state’s African-American Republican U.S. Senator, Tim Scott , suggested it might be time to talk through the issue of removing the most hated symbol of state’s rights and segregation, the Confederate battle flag, from its honored place on the State Capitol grounds after the victims had been buried, the Governor instead urged the state’s legislature to immediately consider its removal to begin a badly needed process of healing and reconciliation.

But, remarkable as Governor Haley’s words were, nothing could better symbolize the generational import of remarks by two white Southerners of impeccable “Old South” lineage. In response to the Governor’s comments Republican State Senator Paul Thurmond, explained why he would vote to remove the flag. “Our ancestors were literally fighting to keep human beings as slaves, and to continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will. I am not proud of this heritage.” This from the son of Strom Thurmond, the former South Carolina governor and U. S. Senator, a segregationist candidate for president in 1948 and leader in efforts to defy the nation’s civil rights laws in the 1960’s, including raising the confederate flag in state capitols as a symbol of that defiance.

Equally remarkable was the statement of Reverend Robert Wright Lee IV, a descendant of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and a scion of an old aristocratic Virginia family. A 22 year old Millennial, Lee is a pastor in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group that has broken with the conservative Southern Baptist Convention on issues such as women in the pulpit. When asked what he would say if he had an opportunity to speak with the accused murderer, Reverend Lee replied that he would tell him, “You crucified Jesus yet again on the cross of white supremacy.”

But the debate over the battle flag of the Confederacy and its place in the Millennial Era was just one of a series of transformative events that swept the country in what many observers called the most historic week in Obama’s presidency. On the following Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, surprised liberals and conservatives alike by upholding the doctrine of disparate impact as a way to measure violations of the nation’s Fair Housing Act. So sure were liberals that the Court would instead begin to require proof of an overt intention to discriminate that they had quietly pushed for settling two earlier cases, expecting the Court to knock out the legal underpinnings for much of the jurisprudence surrounding the country’s anti-discrimination laws. Instead the Court made it clear that statistics and other evidence can be used to show decisions and practices have discriminatory effects without proving they are the result of direct discriminatory intentions.

As we documented in our book, Millennial Momentum, the Supreme Court, as the only branch of the federal government whose members enjoy lifetime employment, is usually behind the times initially when it comes to shifts in public opinion as the country moves from one era to another. Most famously, the “nine old men”, in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words, struck down much of the initial New Deal legislation as being unconstitutional in the reach and scope that those laws gave the federal government to interfere in the operation of the nation’s economy. But in FDR’s second term, with clear evidence from the President’s landslide victory in 1936 of where popular opinion stood on these issues, the Court had a change of heart and found no reason to doubt the constitutionality of Social Security or the Wagner Act’s rules for collective bargaining, or for that matter any of the myriad New Deal laws that came to its attention in later years. So too, in the Fair Housing decision, a 5-4 majority of the court decided that the country was best served after all by a vigorous prosecution of those actions leading to the social inequalities that so trouble members of the Millennial Generation.

That decision was merely a prelude to the 5-4 majority decision making same sex marriage the law of the land that was announced on Friday of the same remarkable week. This time it was clear to everyone that the Court was “following the election returns” as Mr. Dooley, Finley Peter Dunne’s wise and witty Irish bartender so famously pointed out more than a century ago. Thanks to the 73 percent of Millennials who support for gay marriage, the country’s opinion on this controversial topic had shifted at lightning speed from hostility to endorsement during the decade when a majority of the generation became eligible to vote. Even 59% of Millennial Republicans favor the legalization of gay marriage. Using the positive values of love and marriage rather than scolding opponents for their bigotry, allowed the “win-win” Millennial way of making decisions to transform public opinion. In the words of conservative columnist George Will, “whether someone was gay or not became as irrelevant as whether they were right or left handed.” All that remained was for the Supreme Court to find a way to embed that new consensus in constitutional principles, which Justice Kennedy did over the loud and even rude objections of his Boomer conservative colleagues.

A day before this decision was announced, the Court also put its final imprimatur on the validity of the Affordable Care Act, a law that is not only President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, but an excellent example of the Millennial civic ethos that will dominate public policy in the future. As complex as the Act’s provisions may be, when taken as a whole, as the Justices did in this particular decision, it does set up a new structure for how government can use its power to shape markets. ObamaCare’s strategy was completely different than the New Deal approach to federal regulation. It did not, despite the hysterical posturing of its opponents, impose the heavy hand of bureaucracy on health care markets, as it might have done by creating a “public option” for the direct provision of health care as many liberals wanted it to do. In this new civic ethos, the roles of the federal government and state governments are separately defined and the responsibilities for behaving properly are placed squarely on the individual. The Act sets the rules for the nation’s health care markets, but doesn’t dictate who is allowed to play in the game. It uses the power of the federal government to make the game fairer by offering subsidies to those least able to pay for health insurance. But it also uses the federal government’s taxing authority to impose penalties on anyone who seeks to avoid their responsibility to buy health insurance and not play at all. States were seen as the best place for individuals to learn more about their options and to provide solutions tailored to local needs. Some states stepped up to do just that. In others, Republican governors raised ideological objections. This ironically, forced their citizens to interact directly with the federal government despite their loud calls for defending states’ rights. All these new roles and responsibilities proved to be confusing at times to the drafters of the detailed legislations, but the Court was correct in deciding by a decisive 6-3 majority that what the Congress intended, a more inclusive and equitable health insurance market, should not be put asunder by judicial intervention.

But all of the signs of an emerging consensus didn’t just come from a meeting of the judicial and executive minds. In the middle of the eventful week that was, Republicans in Congress decided to hand their arch political enemy, President Obama, a victory on trade authority that only one week before had been sabotaged by leaders of the President’s own party. The trade negotiating authority he was granted by Congress is the linchpin in Obama’s strategy to confront America’s largest economic and military rival, China, through economic and diplomatic moves, rather than war.

As evidenced by the generation’s attitudes toward free trade, this approach is classically Millennial. A June, 2015 Pew survey found that 69 percent of Millennials say that free trade agreements are “a good thing for the United States,” while 56% believe that such treaties have helped them personally. Unlike those who represent economic structures and constituencies of America’s past, Millennials have always lived in a time of global competitiveness and are optimistic that they can win any such contest. They lead America in supporting the continued expansion of global trade using the mechanisms of multi-lateral treaties and due process, while providing aid to those who might be hurt by such competition. Whether President Obama, Senator Mitch McConnell, and Speaker John Boehner were listening to the voices of their Millennial constituencies when they cut their deal or not, the political fallout from having done so will be much less because of the confidence and optimism Millennials bring to their economic endeavors.

All of these momentous events were only the prelude to the remarkable conclusion to the country’s giant step into the Millennial Era. When President Obama addressed those assembled to mourn the shooting, ten days earlier, of Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston’s historic Mother Emanuel AME Church before a racially-mixed congregation that reflected the diversity and tolerance of the Millennial generation, the President turned to his Christian faith and its notion of grace to explain the actions of the victim’s families in forgiving the person who had harmed them, culminating in an act that will be memorialized in every historical account of his presidency. He began singing “Amazing Grace,” all alone and in acapella style, until the congregation and the organist joined in, inviting everyone in the country to do so as well.

He also spoke of the way forward to a better America. He dismissed the typical Boomer generation call for additional conversations about race and instead pushed for immediate action to address some of the wrongs society has visited upon its most vulnerable and discriminated against minorities. “We talk a lot about race,” he said “There’s no shortcut. We don’t need more talk.” Mindful, as he said in a podcast interview earlier in the week, that real racial progress has been made in America on racial issues, he outlined additional actions that could be taken to improve race relations in both the political and economic spheres. He did not recommend new federal legislation. Instead his suggestions reflected the Millennial generation’s belief in thinking globally, but acting locally and individually to solve the big problems confronting the nation. He suggested that employers call back “Jamal and not just Johnny” for job interviews, that local government work to improve community/police relations, and that states stop trying to restrict voting rights.

History is best seen in a rear view mirror. The passage of time helps clarify which events and decisions turn out to have lasting impact and which do not. Many observers were sure that the 9/11 terrorist attacks would set America on a new course of unity and strength or that the Great Recession would lead to a more populist approach to economic policy. But as important as those events have been in shaping the beliefs of the Millennial Generation, neither led to any new national consensus on how to address the nation’s challenges. Instead, even after 9/11 and the Great Recession, the country’s politics remained on a continuing course of retribution and resistance, reflecting the deep ideological divisions of America’s previously largest generation, Baby Boomers. Consequently, it can’t be said with certainty that the sudden alignment of the nation’s Supreme Court with the priorities of its chief executive and the willingness of previously hostile political forces to join in an atmosphere of comity and reconciliation will turn out to be as propitious as it appears at the moment. But there are plenty of signs to suggest that America became a more tolerant, inclusive, confident, and pragmatic country in this amazingly short period of time.

We can only hope, as the President suggested in his eulogy to Reverend Pinckney , that not only will God continue to shed his grace on America, but that the final lines of the revered patriotic hymn, , “America the Beautiful,” will also become true, thanks in large part to the continued acceptance of the values of the Millennial Generation. If America follows the generation’s lead, it will be more completely crowned “with brotherhood from sea to shining sea,” then it has ever been before.

Happy Fourth of July to all Americans and especially the members of America’s next great generation, Millennials.