By Jonathan Jacobs, New Leaders Council Rhode Island
An October 14 opinion column in the New York Times asked the question, “Why are millennials wary of freedom?” Written by Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, the headline asks a leading question. This piece starts from a bad premise and builds a house on top of this shaky foundation. The idea that a majority of millennials eschew freedom because they do not believe it is absolutely essential to live in a democratic country speaks less about their approval or disapproval of freedom, and more about their level of faith in government accountability. That is the question requiring examination. Why are younger generations in Western democracies suspicious of the ability of the vox populi to hold power accountable?
Routledge opened with:
“According to the World Values Survey, only about 30 percent of Americans born after 1980 believe it is absolutely essential to live in a democratic country, compared with 72 percent of Americans born before World War II.”
Debunking the Data
Routledge referenced a World Values Survey, spread virally in a November 29, 2016 New York Times article, including a graphic representation of the data. Yet, that graph is, itself, flawed. The survey, which was conducted throughout multiple Western democratic nations, contained highly questionable interpretation of the responses. Those polled were asked to rank the importance of living in a democracy on a one-to-ten scale, with ten being “absolutely essential.” The data was then weighed in the graph as “ten” and “not ten.” So, those who ranked living in a democracy as “one” and those who ranked living in a democracy as “nine” were weighed equally as “absolutely essential,” and “not,” respectively.
Those familiar with Nate Silver and his team of data-journalists at FiveThirtyEight know they play a game called “Good Use of Polling or Bad Use of Polling,” in which they analyze and determine whether or not selected polls are fairly conducted and accurately reported in the media. I wonder if the folks over at FiveThirtyEight would pin a “bad use of polling” ribbon on this one.
The technical errors underpinning Routledge’s opening paragraph notwithstanding, the fundamental tenet established by that opening statement demonstrates fractured logic. Here is a documented example of the bogus use of language in modern, political conversation. Democracy is not synonymous with freedom. The democratic republic known as the United States of America practices representative democracy functioning by leveraging accountability, not bargaining the premise of freedom. Freedom is a byproduct of holding those who speak and act on our behalf accountable for their decisions.
If those who we elect, in good faith to uphold the Constitution, choose to bend words and phrases into shapes re-framing the conversation to the advantage of their own interests, then they are no longer debating issues. Instead, they are playing power games. Millennials are, perhaps, demonstrating insight by hesitating to swear unquestioning allegiance to a system of government that appears either unable or unwilling to effectively call out this form of gaslighting.
Such distortion is not limited to combining and conflating definitions. For example of selectively restricting definitions is found in the misusing of the term “taxpayers,” Public sector employees, e.g.: teachers, firefighters, state and municipal employees are often described in diametric opposition to taxpayers. This is a convenient tactic to ignore the fact that these people are also taxpayers.
Additionally, over time, entire paradigms can devolve based on the swapping of terms. For example, the highest priority for voters in the 2016 election cycle was the economy in which Americans live. But, people do not live in an economy. People live in a society. Furthermore, the evolution of society benefits from working toward living in community. The monetary market economy is simply a tool established to make society more manageable.
A few more fallacious synonyms to consider include:
- flag and country
- nationalism and patriotism
- corporations and people
- laws and ethics
- illegals and undocumented immigrants
- establishment and enemy
- management and leadership
When Americans can longer confidently hold truths to be self-evident, then it becomes necessary to question whether the United States can hold democracy to its definition. The most common cause of automobile accidents is not manufacturing defects or faulty design. The most common cause of automobile accidents is user error. And, operating a motor vehicle is far less complex than operating a democratic republic, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. More so, when that nation has so spectacularly failed to live up to its own core values. Therefore, while Millennials are as much a part of the user error of our republic on a day to day basis, they are no more responsible for it than any other generation. And, millennials are less culpable for the historic deficiencies that led the US to the brink of Constitutional crisis. Yet, it is they who bear much of the responsibility of taking the wheel and steering the United States back on course toward a future that empowers We the People.
Jonathan Jacobs is an Adjudicator for the State of Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, and a government relations / political campaign consultant. A 2014 New Leaders Council — Rhode Island fellow, he is a member of the Rhode Island chapter’s Advisory Board. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JJacobs_RI.