Depending on one’s partisan leanings, the desire of House Republicans to shut down the federal government if the Democrats don’t agree to repeal ObamaCare may seem to be either a courageous ideological stand or a kamikaze mission sure to destroy its proponents, if not the country. However, from a generational perspective it is not only a predictable but a necessary step in the country’s search for a new consensus on the role and size of government.
Nor is it coincidental that the current confrontation is coming to a head just as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is about to be implemented nationwde. The roles that the legislation assigns to the federal government, states and individuals in securing every citizen access to medical insurance is such a departure from the existing civic ethos it has become the touchstone for the debate about the nation’s civic ethos in the Millennial Era. Yet, ironically, the law everyone wants to argue about actually provides a blueprint to any politician willing to go beyond their current ideological comfort zone and solve a range of challenges in ways that respond to the beliefs and behaviors of the emerging Millennial Majority in the electorate.
As finally passed by a Democratic Congress in 2010, ACA creates a relationship between the federal government and the nation’s adult population similar to the role Millennials’ parents have played in their young children’s lives. Parents pronounced rules to guide their children’s behavior with consequences (“time outs”) if the rules were broken. Similarly, the ACA requires each individual to purchase health insurance and provides penalties (taxes) for failing to do so, an approach the Supreme Court ruled lawful under Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution. And, just as parents and other members of the extended community helped Millennials succeed within the boundaries of the rules they established, ACA envisioned a series of state by state health insurance exchanges that would help each state’s residents find the type of insurance they wanted at a cost they could afford. As those exchanges open for business in about half of the states this week, this new configuration of American democracy will be put to a practical test, but the fundamental concept is likely to be recognized in the future as the basis for a new civic ethos as distinct from the Reagan era of limited government as was the New Deal from its laissez faire predecessor.
History suggests, however, that the country must go through a crisis as bad as the one it is facing today before this happens. The New Deal was born out of the perils of the Great Depression. Reagan’s tough love solution of lower taxes and less government regulation required years of economic stagflation before it became conventional political wisdom. Today, neither of those ideas has proven equal to the task of breaking the country out of the economic doldrums of the Great Recession.
Older politicians will have to get beyond their ideological blinders to recognize the opportunity waiting for any candidate or political party that can embrace both halves of the Millennial era civic ethos paradox. Members of the Millennial generation are as suspicious of large government bureaucracies as any libertarian but as dedicated to economic equality and social justice as any liberal. To resolve the crisis, the GOP should embrace ObamaCare as a great example of how government can encourage individual responsibility and accountability and Democrats should sign up for President Obama’s commitment to creating a smarter, smaller less bureaucratic government. Only when the crisis becomes so bad that a few brave leaders break out of their ideological bunkers and discover a new civic ethos that embodies both collective action and individual responsibility will the Millennial Era civic ethos emerge from the chaos created by a Congress so out of step with the beliefs and behaviors of the future leaders of the country.
Millennials Think Globally, Act Locally
ObamaCare is the model for how Millennials will change
the role and size of government at all levels in the future.
Video from Mike and Morley
America is about to enter a presidential campaign that promises to be filled with divisive rhetoric and sharp differences over which direction the nominees want to take the country. This will be the fourth time in American history that the country has been sharply divided over the question of what the size and scope of government should be. Each time the issue was propelled by vast differences in beliefs between generations that caused the country to experience long periods of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD), before ultimately resolving the issue in accord with the ideas and beliefs of a new generation.
Every eighty years America engages in this rancorous, sometimes violent, debate about our civic ethos.
The first occurred during and after the Revolutionary War and resulted in the most fundamental documents of our democracy: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
The second took place during the Civil War. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments codified the outcome of that debate —- this time in favor of the federal government asserting its power over state laws when it came to fundamental questions of personal liberty and civil rights. It took the Civil War and a massive increase in Washington’s power to accomplish the end of slavery, although it would be another century until the rights of freedom and equality were fully extended to African-Americans.
And in the 1930s, the economic deprivations experienced by most Americans from the excesses of the Industrial Revolution, and the collapse of corporate capitalism, led to support for a “New Deal” for the forgotten man that placed the responsibility for economic growth and opportunity squarely on the federal government. The government demanded by the GI Generation (born 1901-1924) greatly surpassed the conventional views of earlier generations.
In each case, the resolution of these debates depended on the emergence of a rising, young civic-oriented generation that thought the nation’s dominant political belief system should contain a strong role for government, overturning the more conservative and limited-government views of the older generations then in power.
Now, as previously, the highly charged ideological arguments on both sides of the issue generate great agitation and anger among older generations, especially Baby Boomers, who have driven our political life towards ever wider polarization. As a result, the resolution of today’s debate over the nation’s civic ethos is not likely to come from older Americans who seem incapable of and unwilling to compromise their deeply held values and beliefs.
This time around, the largest generation in American history, Millennials, (born 1982- 2003), that will comprise more than one in three adult Americans by the end of this decade, are destined to play a decisive role in finding a consensus answer to this critical question. If the United States is to emerge from this most recent period of FUD, it will have to look to the newest civic-oriented generation, Millennials, for both the behavior and the ideas that will bridge the current ideological divide and spur the country into making the changes necessary to succeed in the future.
Millennials believe that collective action, most often at the local level, is the best way to solve national problems. Using social media, Millennials are organizing groups like the Roosevelt Institute’s Campus Network, to present a very different vision of America’s future. In this Millennialist future, the idea of top down solutions developed by experts in closed discussions will give way to bottom up, action-oriented movements. This will topple institutions as dramatically as Napster upended the recording industry, or the Arab Spring changed the Middle East. Just as their parents set the rules within which Millennials were free to exercise their creative energies when they were growing up, the new generation will continue to look to the federal government to set national goals or guidelines, as has long been the view of Boomer progressives. However, the way in which these guidelines are implemented will not be determined in remote and opaque bureaucracies, but by individuals in local communities across the country. In this way, Millennials will embrace progressive values, but with approaches that may be welcomed by many conservatives.
In the midst of the country’s current period of FUD, it is easy to despair that the nation will be unable to resolve its divisions and come to consensus about a new civic ethos. But throughout its history, when America has been equally fearful of the future, a new civic generation has risen to foster the necessary transition. In the end, this emerging generation served both itself and the country well. Now it is the Millennial Generation’s turn to serve the nation and move America to a less fearful and less divided future.