The Oddity of Ideology & Why It Turns Millennials Off

I'll admit it: I don't get doctrinaire conservatives or liberals (or libertarians, socialists, or adherents to any other ideology). To me, the notion of an overarching ideology that shapes one's issue positions seems foreign. I go issue by issue and adopt whichever position makes the most sense based upon what I know about the policy issue in question.  

This is especially true because our political ideologies are anything but coherent. Most (though certainly fewer than a decade ago) conservatives tend to favor less government intervention into the economy, but more government intervention on cultural issues such as abortion and gay rights.

By contrast, liberals favor far more government intervention into the economy, and less— or at least different sorts of— cultural interventions, especially when one person's cultural freedoms come into tension with another person's cultural freedoms (for example when gay rights conflict with the rights of religious people). 

Many of today's ideologues also do not seem to understand that one can remain principled while still compromising. Compromise can be the key to getting some favored policy stances enacted into law (for example, the sort of legislation that includes provisions that liberals hate and conservatives love and provisions that conservatives hate and liberals love). It also can be the key to improving legislation that is likely to pass one way or another. 

While I understand that for conservatives, creating gridlock is a positive, because it leads to less government and less functional government, today's ideologues truly fail to understand the art of the possible. 

A political system dominated by ideologues may also offer us a clue as to why young people are so alienated from the political process. A new Pew survey shows that more millennials (44%) have mixed political values than any other age group (Generation Xers are close at 42%, before a big drop off among older Americans). 

Additionally, young Republicans are dramatically less ideological than their elders (51% have mixed political values, as opposed to 27% of silent generation Republicans, 30% of Boomer Republicans, and 38% of Generation X Republicans).

Their ideological eclecticism leaves young Americans disgusted at a political system dominated by ideologues and zero sum game thinking (a Harvard Institute of Politics poll found declining trust among millennials in government and the political process—58% said that elected officials didn't share their priorities, 49% found politics too partisan, and 48% said politics were no longer able to meet the challenges facing the country). Millennials have been raised to be creative and to look for solutions to problems—indeed their world leaves them little choice given the changes brought about by technology and globalization.

Millennials' world is incredibly diverse (a Pew Poll shows that 43% of millennials are not white, as opposed to less than 3 in 10 baby boomers & members of the silent generation), which has bred incredible tolerance, and less willingness to reflexively brand things. 

After five years of teaching college students, my read is that most millennials are fairly culturally liberal, verging almost on libertarian, and opposed to nanny state regulations. Even many of those who have 0 interest in smoking marijuana find it stupid that the government would not allow people to make this choice for themselves (a Reason poll found that 57% of millennials wanted government to allow, or mostly allow, marijuana consumption, and the Harvard IOP poll found a 44% plurality favored marijuana legalization). 

Economically, the views of millennials are more complex. Most are in favor of doing something about climate change (one poll found that 69% of millennials wanted government more involved in addressing climate change), and more favor some form of comprehensive immigration reform than do older Americans. In general, millennials are far more open to government intervention in the economy and government spending than they are given credit for being. 

Where millennials are more conservative than traditional Democrats is in being less supportive of welfare programs and social spending, and more skeptical that government operates efficiently. They also care more about debt and overspending (though, again, not nearly as much as their elders— the Reason poll found that 65% of millennials favored cutting government spending by 5%, and 78% found the federal budget deficit and national debt to be major problems. Yet, only 49% of respondents said that the debt/deficit were major problems that needed to be addressed now). 

If someone proposed a trillion dollars in new spending on infrastructure, education, technological infrastructure, and science, technology, and medical research, my hunch is that millennials would support it (again, polling data supports this hypothesis— The Reason poll found that 58% of millennials surveyed favored increased government spending on infrastructure and a Harstad Poll found that 82% of millennials favored increased education spending).

If, however, a politician proposed a trillion dollars in new social welfare programs aimed to help the less fortunate in society, I suspect that millennials would have real questions about the cost. Could the money be produced by cutting other programs? What metrics would be used to test the effectiveness of the programs? Are there alternative options? (Indeed the Reason poll found that 59% of millennials who paid for their own health insurance were unwilling to pay more in order to provide health insurance for the uninsured). 

I also think that millenials are less wedded to many traditional constituencies than their elders are. Things like farm subsidies, the current high levels of military spending, and teacher tenure would likely draw skepticism from many of them. 

I suspect that millenials are the key as to whether and when government becomes functional again. If and when they become substantially more engaged politically, politicians will be forced to consider their views instead of ignoring them as they do today. Politicians will lose the ability to hew closely to the wishes of base voters without courting electoral danger.