Millennials, Awake! (Part I)

Millennials forced into an unnatural habitat: the polling place

The attention millennial America devotes to the congressional midterm elections has typically been slight, glancing, and reserved for campaign season. The cult of personality that surrounds the office of Commander in Chief has always (at least as far as my generation is concerned) served as a massive center of gravity in the political universe, allowing little if any light to escape and illuminate congressional, state and local elections. From time to time we do delight in a juicy scandal — a jilted and emboldened prostitute speaks out to a journalist, a drunken domestic row wakes the neighbors and makes headlines, or a particularly wide stance in a public restroom brings a senator’s sexuality into question — but when it comes to the substantive matters of policy and politics, we’ve only ever had eyes for the White House. There’s always been precisely one spotlight in the political theater of the millennial generation, and that spotlight has always been trained on the rise, administration and fall of the President of the United States.

But things have changed. The 2016 election brought with it a legion of lessons for a lethargic and largely apathetic generation; and while many of those lessons are being refused and rejected as incompatible with the millennial worldview (a fascinating phenomenon of cognitive dissonance to which I devote time elsewhere), the importance of congressional, state and local elections has I think been indelibly impressed upon my generation’s collective consciousness. The era has passed when fervent devotion to presidential candidates and quadrennial democratic participation were enough to qualify an individual as “politically aware.” It is finally important (and even fashionable) for millennials to know their congressmen, vote for their state legislatures and even run for city council. And so we see a number of articles now surfacing, written by fresh, young, millennial journalists, describing the upcoming midterm elections; and we hear already the marching feet of protesters mobilizing for and against the congressional candidates of 2018.

Now one may pose the infinitely repeatable and eternally unanswerable question: what about the 2016 election triggered the millennial generation? What was it that plugged them in, got them buzzing, and tuned their dials so finely as to begin broadcasting all manner of national, state and local politics onto a wavelength that was only accustomed to interrupting its 24-hour entertainment cycle once every four years? What, to put the question succinctly, woke the political consciousness of the millennial generation?

Well for starters, this is the wrong question to ask. The millennials were, by virtue of age alone, due to become politically conscious at any moment. Many of them already had — let’s not forget that the term “millennial” encompasses 36-year-olds as well as the barely-legal, and one would be hard-pressed to argue that most Americans in their mid-to-late thirties were politically unconscious. But for those in the middle of the age bracket, 2016 was the first real frustration of their political sensibilities. Older millennials were able to vote in the 2000 presidential election between George W. and Veep Gore, and were disillusioned by democracy at an early age with the Florida recount fiasco; but for everyone under the age of 34, the democratic process has slid smoothely from the duck’s ass (the duck here being the mainstream media) since they had become legal participants, unfolding in typical, if sometimes undesirable, ways. The conservative Bush presidency was systematically lampooned on late-night television; and this lampooning, coupled with the nascent but burgeoning empire of political satire on Comedy Central (the Bush era saw the rise of both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report), served as a strong narcotic to an overwhelmingly liberal generation. The virtus dormitiva of Barak Obama’s 2008 election was an especially fortuitous moment for the vast majority of millennials; and while some stirring of their political consciousness was seen during the 2012 election, Tina Fey’s expert impressions of Sarah Palin served as a powerful antidote to the unsettling possibility of a conservative administration. Lulled by partisan comedians and two landmark Democratic victories (by no less than a black man), the political consciousness of the millennial generation slept soundly through the first fifteen years of the 2000s.

And then 2016 happened. The millennial dream, bathing soundly in a warm soup of nocturnal emissions inspired by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, was shattered by the freight train that brought racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and apparently germophobia to the White House. For the first time in their politically eligible lives, they saw their candidates of choice defeated — and not just defeated! The incredible political upset that the Trump campaign accomplished was more than just a defeat for Clinton supporters — it changed the very nature of politics. It shattered every ounce of faith the Bernie and Hillary base had in the democratic process, and drove home the lesson — right up to the hilt — that putting all of one’s eggs in one basket (the basket here being the Oval Office) is bound utterly to utterly disappoint.

Millennials grieve after the 2016 election

And so consciousness has awoke. The full spectrum of political involvement, from letters to representatives to actual participation in local government, has come into the view of the errant generation. It is sometimes clouded and muddied in the millennial mind by the persistent influence of the entertainment industry, whose refusal to let go of the millennial cash cow continues to inject frivolity and commodification into the political process; but more and more members of the despondent demographic are putting entertainment and consumerism aside and taking themselves seriously. The late-night variety shows, political satire and increasingly poor impersonations of detested political figures have all failed to deliver. For all the bumper stickers they bought, and all the Trevor Noah rants they posted to Facebook, Donald Trump still managed to ride the glistening steed of alternative media straight through the front doors of the White House, and is now presiding over a nation that my generation believed to be securely theirs and theirs alone. And the resistance, who would like for itself to be capitalized (I refuse to do it that honor), has taken to the streets and the campaign trail in an attempt to take back the country the millennials lost.

This is the story — at least as it appears to my mind — of the awakening of the millennial political consciousness. But it is not the whole story. It describes the awakening, but doesn’t begin to assess the rapid inflammation and uncontrollable hemorrhaging of political awareness in today’s youth. It briefly diagnoses the political apathy that prevailed among my generation until very recently; but it doesn’t account for the sudden eruption of vitriol, ire, belligerence and bellicosity from a demographic whose primary interests included selfies, dog parks and Adult Swim only weeks before the Donald descended that escalator, waving. This latter story is a story of social media, viral videos, trending articles and homogenized Weltanschauung; it is a critique of contemporary education, and the lack of historical awareness that it fosters in today’s youth; and it would constitute a visceral and sustained attack on the self-centered, self-righteous, morally vacuous and intellectually vapid generation that thinks more highly of itself than any other in recorded history. A generation that calls itself “woke” by simple virtue of having voted for a black president; that insists that it’s “cultured” because it tolerates the intolerance of other cultures; and that praises itself for being “global citizens” after having trotted through fifteen European nations over a summer’s time with a selfie stick and a smart-phone translator — this is the generation for whom politics has become, not merely an important matter to consider when going about planning one’s life, but the most important factor in the day-to-day lives of every single citizen in the country.

We are currently witnessing the over-saturation of American life with politics. It is a particularly American phenomenon, one that even Europe has managed to avoid (the French still understand how important a sandwich and a glass of wine are); and I would dare say that it could be restricted to being a purely millennial phenomenon. It’s millennials who have the appropriate mental constitution, technical prowess and spiritual desolation to spread misinformation and slander across multiple platforms quickly enough to spark widespread outrage; and it’s millennials who have enough time on their hands to organize protests, demonstrations and “movements” in reaction to each and every instance of outrage that inflames them. It is this political saturation, the perpetual search for a political cause and political solution to each and every problem, and the overshadowing of legitimate social issues by their political manifestations, that I would like to address in my next article.

Until that time, I encourage you all to take time for intimate moments; appreciate the beauty of a landscape, natural or man-made; and to settle, if only for a moment, into the solid and reassuring ground that constitutes your own subjective experience. There will be time aplenty for objectivity, facts and the never-ending rat-race of public discourse and debate; but we would all do well, for our own sake and that of the world, to take a moment for ourselves, breathe deeply and refresh before entering the public forum.