Elite consensus alone may not be able to spur political realignments, but it can shape how we perceive them as they’re happening. That’s precisely what’s happening to the popular image of the so-called Millennials, right as that generation flowers into the full bloom of its electoral relevance.
Millennial voting preferences will end the culture war and dissipate high partisanship, Democratic strategist Carrie Wofford tells us in a U.S. News & World Report column. Millennials are less ideological than their parents, and they’re “tired of government’s inability to get things done,” according to the National Journal.
They’re independent, entrepreneurial, socially liberal moderates. And so on. They’re also the most racially diverse age bracket this country has ever seen, although that isn’t reflected in the stock photography that hilariously accompanies 99 percent of articles about Millennial politics. The quintessential news media caricature of the Millennial looks like this TIME magazine cover. (If you want the Boomer elite’s vision of a Millennial future, imagine an affluent white woman taking a selfie—forever.)
By this point it should be clear that Pew is not measuring the Next Generation Left per se, but the next generation of the well-heeled progressive donor class. Understanding that helps us interpret certain quirks of the prevailing Millennial ideology, as it’s conceived by their politically influential elders. How else, for example, do you make sense of the puzzling assertion that the demographic group which “characterizes the liberal leanings of the Millennial” is made up of people who “say that Wall Street does more to help the economy than hurt it” and “balk at the costs of expanding the social safety net.” (Who are these people?)
In other words, the ideology of Pew’s “Next Generation Left” is the ideology of economically prosperous left-neoliberalism. Millennials didn’t invent that set of beliefs; neoliberalism has been popular among well-off whites for decades. When older neoliberals project their political leanings onto the young (I’m looking at you, Ron Fournier), it’s mainly to flatter their own self-image as independent-minded futurists.
That’s not to say what Pew calls the “Next Generation Left” doesn’t exist—only that it’s poorly labeled. There is certainly a coterie of Millennials within the broader population who subscribe to the tenets of post-Clintonian New Labourism. It is also true that these young Friedmans-in-training wield outsized political influence relative to their numbers. Partially that’s because the older generation’s repeated invocations of a “Next Generation Left” amount to a self-fulfilling prophecy, reproducing ideology through incessant repetition. Partially it’s because centrist left-neoliberalism is already the prevailing worldview in mainline Democratic politics. But it’s also because Pew’s “Next Generation Left” cohort is, as previously mentioned, relatively loaded. Money buys influence, and it starts buying influence even before it hits the legal drinking age.
As a result, there’s good reason to believe that the “Next Generation Left” will indeed come to dominate the liberal politics of the future—not because of a generational shift, but because of the remarkable endurance of privilege. And the result won’t be a new kind of post-partisan politics; it will be Andrew Cuomo.
So if you’re praying for the emergence of a genuinely new “left” in American politics, maybe try and locate your hopes elsewhere. History teaches us that the perpetually affluent classes aren’t where political alignments tend to come from anyway. Radical change is the child of radical action, and political actors usually only commit themselves to radical action when external circumstances threaten their ability to flourish. The “Next Generation Left” isn’t going to want to change an arrangement that has already blessed it with so much abundance.
If the Millennial generation ends up shifting American politics to the left, that shift is going to begin in less privileged segments of the cohort. There are already faint glimmerings of possibility there: the young leaders coming up in low-wage worker movements, the DREAM immigrant justice campaign, and so on. Note that the participants in these movements tend to be economically insecure people of color—they’re also more likely to be women than men. What they represent is not genteel post-partisanship, but confrontational social movement politics born out of necessity.
Yet in popular narratives of Millennial politics, these progressive forces are often rendered completely invisible. The “Next Generation” turns into a benign, moderating force—a symbol of a political future without politics.