Practically since the day after Barack Obama won the Presidential election in 2008—largely on the strength of Millennial voters—Beltway pundits have claimed that those same Millennials have become disillusioned with Obama and the Democratic Party, and will therefore forever be up for grabs in American elections.
In the run-up to the 2012 election, a flurry of news items and analysis seized on poll results like this one from the Harvard Institute of Politics and this one from Pew to signal a collapse of support for the president among Millennials, and a blinking-red danger sign to his prospects for reelection. While Obama’s margin among 18-to-29-year-old voters did decrease slightly from 66-32 in 2008 to 60-37 in 2012, a majority of every segment of Millennial voters except white males supported his reelection.
Soon, however, the irresistible meme of Millennials’ evaporating support for Obama returned. In March, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank attempted to explain “Why millennials have abandoned Obama,” suggesting the result could be “fatal” for the Affordable Care Act and with it, Obama’s entire presidency. A similar CNN piece, “Why Obama is losing Millennials,” rested its entire premise on the lack of Millennial signups for Obamacare, ignoring young people's tendency to procrastinate with everything. After Millennials did in fact sign up in the expected proportions, CNN failed to retract or correct its report.
The latest such story, however, comes not from Beltway pundits but a think tank, Third Way, which should know better. Armed with survey data measuring Millennial attitudes on today's top policy questions (spoiler: Millennials are progressive on every single one), author Michelle Diggles goes to great lengths to shoehorn the findings into a preordained conclusion—that freelancing Millennials are a perpetual wildcard in American politics, and amazingly, the centrist policies of Third Way are the answer to both parties' prayers!
In describing Millennial attitudes on marriage equality, abortion, family structure, marijuana legalization, immigration and foreign policy, the study practically spells out the modern Democratic Party platform. Yet it concludes, inexplicably, that “as Millennials eschew partisan labels, they are much more likely to switch the party they support from election to election…”
Third Way's theory is that in today's world of unlimited consumer choice, Millennials will reject the two-party system, instead taking an à la carte approach to politics. This sounds reasonable—clever even. But it is premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of how generational change drives political realignments in America.
The study declares, “Millennial voters are unlikely to align with a political party that expects blind faith in large institutions—either governmental or nongovernmental.” The flaw inherent in this interpretation, though, is the assumption that Millennial voters will continue to react passively to a static political environment constructed by their Boomer parents. When members of older generations learn that Millennials are less trustful of big institutions, including political parties, they interpret the meaning through their own prism, based on their reactions when they came of age. But we Millennials—like our GI grandparents—are a civic generation. So after losing faith in institutions as they currently exist, we will seize the reigns of leadership and rebuild them in a form that suits our own needs and worldview.
Of course Millennials are not about to embrace the “traditional liberalism” of the New Deal, or view racial and ethnic struggles through the lens of the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Those Democratic programs flowed from coalitions of voters long since disintegrated. With fresh perspective, new technology and a bold sense of civic purpose, Millennials are poised to reshape the party of Barack Obama to our liking over the next several decades. In the process, we will transpose the conversation of America’s civic ethos on our own progressive terms.
Ryan Casey is a J.D. candidate at the University of Washington School of Law. He is a 2001 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and holds a Master of Public Policy from Georgetown University. A native of Sioux Falls, SD, he previously served as Chairman of South Dakota's delegation to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, as well as as Chairman of the Lincoln County Democratic Party. He is currently a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve. You can follow him on Twitter @RyanCaseyWA.