President Barack Obama has told his supporters that the 2012 presidential election will be about two contrasting visions of the nation’s future. In his vision, “everyone pays their fair share,” so that there is “shared sacrifice and shared opportunities” and the government plays a big part in helping the private sector prosper.
By contrast, the newest Republican candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, pledged to those listening to his announcement speech to free the nation from “the grips of central planners who would control our healthcare, who would spend our treasure, who downgrade our future and micromanage our lives” and to “make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential as possible.”
These starkly different messages make it clear that America is now engaged in the fourth debate in its history about the size and scope of government and doing it with all the rancor and heated rhetoric that have characterized each of the previous debates.
The issue was at the heart of the debate over the ratification of the U.S. Constitution when newspaper printing presses were destroyed by those who disagreed with editorials on the issue. Eighty years later, it caused the nation to be torn apart during the Civil War. And 80 years after that, the Supreme Court declared minimum wage laws unconstitutional until a political consensus was framed around FDR’s New Deal that not even the court could resist.
Each time the issue of what the nation’s civic ethos should be has exposed vast differences in beliefs between generations. And, each time the country experienced a long period of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt before the debate was resolved in favor of a new generation’s ideas and beliefs. This historical pattern suggests that the best way to predict the outcome of today’s debate is to examine the beliefs and attitudes of America’s newest generation of young adults, millennials, born 1982-2003.
In 2012, one out of every four eligible voters will be members of this generation. More than 40 percent of millennials are nonwhite, creating the greatest racial and ethnic diversity in the nation’s history. Twenty-five percent of them have an immigrant parent.
The generation was raised on messages of inclusion and equity and has translated those teachings into their political beliefs. A majority of millennials (54 percent) favor bigger government with more services, over a smaller government with fewer services (39 percent), almost the exact opposite of older generations’ opinions on that choice. Sixty-nine percent of the generation is accepting of homosexuality and believe that a growing number of immigrants strengthen American society, in stark contrast to the beliefs of their elders.
While older generations are split on the question of government regulation of business, millennials come down squarely on the side of regulation by 51 percent to 43 percent.
While these attitudes suggest which way the debate over the country’s civic ethos will ultimately turn out, it is the millennial generation’s belief in consensus decision-making and pragmatic solutions to problems that hold out the most hope that the tone of today’s political rhetoric will also change.
Millennials believe that collective action at the local level is the best way to solve national problems. Just as their parents set the rules within which millennials were free to exercise their creative energies, millennials look to the federal government to set national goals, even to establish mandates for required behavior. However, in the millennial era, the choice of how to comply with these requirements will not be determined in remote bureaucracies, but by individuals in local communities throughout the country.
In the middle of the vitriol of the current debate, it is easy to lose sight of the possibility of the dispute being resolved in favor of some larger and different national consensus. The millennial generation offers the country that hope. If America is to emerge from its current period of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, it will have to look to its newest generation, for both the behavior and the ideas that can bring the debate to a conclusion that the country can support.
To hear more about FUD and its political implications, watch this video with Morley Winograd presenting his ideas to a gathering of USC students.