Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Why Millennials Have Come to Distrust Government

I found this post from Ryan Cooper over at Washington Monthly so interesting that I wanted to share it in its entirety:
Speaking of young people, Kevin Drum has a question:
Over the years, most of us have retained roughly the same view of whether the government is wasteful and inefficient. The postwar (“Silent”) and Boomer generations hover around 65% and Gen X hovers around 55% — with very little change as members of those generations get older. But Millennials are different. In 2003 they were pretty optimistic about government-run programs, with only about 30% saying they were wasteful. Today, though, nearly 50% think that. In the course of only a decade, they’ve become far, far more cynical about government programs.
Why? Is this related to the Iraq War? To the Bush/Rove administration more generally? To the stimulus bill? (The numbers went way up between 2009 and 2011.) Or were they just unnaturally optimistic during their 20s and are now catching up to everyone else? Any guesses?
As a card-carrying “Millennial” (Lord, what an atrocious name for a generation) I can tell you my experience of this, because it tracks the line on his graph fairly closely.
So when I was a kid in the 90s, times were good. I can remember when gas was less than a dollar a gallon. (Not to say that was a good thing per se, it’s just emblematic of the times.) People had jobs, the economy was good, computers were amazing and getting more amazing at a blistering pace, and the government seemed generally competent. Not that I paid a whole lot of attention to it, but I remember thinking watching the l’affaire Lewinksy go down that, though the whole thing was utterly preposterous, it seemed to indicate that we had the deeper questions of governance figured out. If the entire country was captivated for years by a minor sex scandal, then surely we must not have had any actual pressing problems. After all, if we did, wouldn’t the media be paying attention to those? (Please, stifle your laughter, I was only a kid.)
Then we had an entire decade of catastrophic failures, one after the next. First Bush stole the election in a banana-republic fiasco that badly tarnished our highest court. Then our massive security apparatus missed 9/11. Then we invaded Afghanistan, ostensibly in part to get bin Laden, but dawdled and let him escape so we could invade Iraq, based on a pack of lies. While that country was fast turning into a dystopian, bloodstained nightmare and sucking chest wound in the nation’s treasury and military, a hurricane destroyed one of our largest, most original cities, and the government stood there helpless for months, mouth agape. It turned out the very top of the government, up to and including the president, instituted a torture regime in blatant violation of constitutionally-binding treaties. They later brag about this fact on national television.
Then what turns out to be the biggest financial bubble in eighty years popped, and the government swooped in with incredible speed and force to shovel money into the gaping maw of the banks, pulling back the moment the immediate crisis was over. Though President Obama has been better than his predecessor, he still didn’t manage to alleviate the foreclosure crisis, or punish banks for committing systematic fraud. His efforts to police the financial sector have been laughable. The biggest banks are bigger than ever, and with Citizens United, the political system is awash with cash from the ultra-rich.
It has been, as Chris Hayes says in his new book, a “fail decade.”
Now, I don’t think that good government is impossible, and I think a lot of government programs are great, especially if you look overseas to, say, Scandanavia. I support Obamacare, and I think the stimulus did save us from another Great Depression, though it obviously wasn’t enough. But I don’t think it’s possible to honestly look at this country and not conclude that we have an enormous governance problem.
UPDATE: I should include President Obama’s extraordinarily disturbing civil liberties record in this list. Four years ago I never would have thought the executive branch would be killing American citizens via drone strike, on its word alone, cynically re-defining the term “militant,” or killing those whose identities are not even known.
Even though I really consider myself to be one of the last Gen-Xers rather than a Millennial, I think Ryan's reflection is pretty spot-on. I grew up and largely matured in the 1990s, and it was indeed a great time - and the 2000s were a terrible time, for all the reasons above. I had hoped things would change under Obama - unfortunately, things haven't been changing nearly as fast as I would like, largely thanks to a Republican Congress hell-bent on preventing Obama from doing ANYTHING while in office, but also because Obama has turned out to be far more of a centrist than most of his 2008 supporters would have thought - all right-wing hysterics about "socialism" notwithstanding.

However, my guess is that Millennials would have greatly different opinions about WHICH PARTS of government are so wasteful - my guess is that anything having to do with military or the state security apparatus would be viewed as obscenely wasteful (which is accurate, I'll note), but that other parts of government (environmental protections, food stamps, research, etc.) would be viewed as far less wasteful.


  1. My perspective as a baby boomer, coming of age in a era of strong government distrust, is this: your analysis is right on.

    The survey data on the millennials is clearly shaped by the 1990s. Interesting how it is trending up and perhaps near alignment with earlier generations.

    But the environmental chart in that survey is unsettling.

    How, in this age, can indifference to the environment accelerate?

    This chart may be the last gasp of denial before reality proves inescapable.

    1. kob: I agree, the environmental chart is particularly disturbing, given that about 99% of scientists say that the environmental consequences of our pollution will be somewhere between extreme and catastrophic.

      I wonder if the indifference is less about actual indifference and more about feeling utterly helpless. I mean, I do my best to minimize the harm I cause the environment, but in the face of such dire predictions and the massive change to our economic systems required in order to avert catastrophe, I must say that I don't have a lot of hope that we're going to change course until catastrophe is upon us. I can understand that, for many people, they'd rather feel indifferent than hopeless and powerless.

      -The Angry Bureaucrat