Prediction-making is a risky business. Nevertheless, here I go: The next wave of American populism will be oriented towards youth. Bernie Sanders may be a part of it, or perhaps not. Either way, this new movement will present itself as a warm, springy wind, sweeping away its geriatric predecessor and embracing a bright, wrinkle-free future.
Donald Trump’s personality cult appealed to anxious and nostalgic older Americans. He was an older-generation icon with an unapologetically backward-looking message. Let’s make America great “again.” Smash multiculturalism and the “cult of PC.” Bring back our jobs.
Four months into Trump’s presidency, Americans are already exhausted by the never-ending uproar and the obvious, transparent lies. Sometime soon, a gust of new wind will sweep away the stale air of Trumpism, and millions will stand by and cheer. Who will create that gust? I suspect it will be the young.
Some might ask: haven’t we done youth populism quite recently? The cult of Barack Obama had plenty of youthful faces to be sure. Obama’s platform, though, was fairly staid by contemporary populist standards. His promises were vague, and his follow-through was lackluster. Bernie Sanders made far more interesting promises: free college, free health care, massive wealth redistribution. Sanders caught a bit of the Occupy Wall Street ethos, giving a foretaste of what may come. A real American youth movement could leave “hope and change” looking like an adorable paper tiger.
Having made this prediction, I would now like to work towards proving myself wrong. Youth populism could get dangerous and crazy. Let’s head it off before it happens.
There are plenty of reasons to worry about young adults today. Many obviously prefer unhealthy activities (like rioting) to healthy ones (like marrying one another). They are having trouble finding steady jobs, paying college loans, and positioning themselves to start families. Conservatives typically respond by preaching responsibility and solid bourgeoisie values. “Yes, millennials, it’s a bruising world, but when the going gets tough, the tough focus on making good life choices. Work hard! Stop whining! Get back to us about your financial woes when you’ve stopped drinking those five-dollar lattes.”
Most of this advice is good as far as it goes. For particular young people eyeing incipient adulthood, it might be helpful to consult Charles Murray’s Guide to Getting Ahead, or one of many excellent columns that no-nonsense conservative writers have offered on this subject. As these writers acknowledge, there’s no foolproof formula for a happy life. Some methods clearly work better than others, however. Live frugally, develop some discipline, and keep yourself healthy. That’s a best-odds life plan that will probably serve you well.
As sensible as that may sound, however, I doubt it will be sufficient to forestall the coming radicalism. Modest expectations and good life choices can help almost anyone, which is why conservatives have spent years extolling their charms. Have other disgruntled, marginalized groups been appeased by this steady diet of curmudgeonly straight talk? It’s hard to see why the young should be any different.
If you want to break out in a cold sweat, consider that we have literally millions of disgruntled, under-employed, not-married-or-settled under-35’s in this nation, many of whom have found adulthood to be a bruising disappointment. Angsty, unemployed youngsters have in every age been likely instigators of political unrest, and stiff-upper-lip platitudes are unlikely to defuse this problem. It’s possible that pornography, addictive substances, and glowing screens will settle it by wooing the young into the sterile-but-bearable existence of state-supported lotus-eaters. We shouldn’t count on that, though. Unless we can generate a more satisfying alternative, there’s a very real chance that our disappointed juniors will eventually get organized and start demanding their pound of flesh.
When that day comes, dreadful things may be said and done. If I were now nearing retirement, I would be extremely concerned, especially about the retaliation the young might devise once the Baby Boomers start dwindling (thus losing their ability to vote their interests to the top of the national agenda). Before we reach that point, however, this much at least should be said for our disgruntled young. Previous generations really have dropped the ball in a significant way. We forgot to plan a future for them.
Our nation has been trapped in a nostalgic funk for years. During the Obama years, the political right briefly flirted with pension and entitlement reform. Fairly soon we gave up on that and returned to the old status quo of running up large debts and leaving them to future generations. Today, the left and the right both chatter a great deal about jobs, but their focus is mainly on stabilizing a labor model that caters more to the already-established. Minimum wage, industrial policy and the like may save some heartache for the long-employed, but they aren’t the answer to our building jobs crisis. Economists know this, but Trumpian populists don’t seem interested. Expect tomorrow’s sprightlier and fresher-faced populists to discuss this at great length.
Fiscal sustainability is only one part of the problem though. On cultural fronts too, our political parties seem frozen in a defensive crouch. Their diagnoses differ, but almost no one is optimistic about the long-term prospects of our civic culture. Most social and political commentators devote considerable time to casting blame, making harrowing predictions, and snatching at whatever shreds we still hope to save. How can young people plan for their futures, when no one seems confident that there will be any?
When the old dispense life advice to the young, they typically emphasize the benefits of delayed gratification. Work hard and live modestly! Shun debauchery and special-snowflake fantasies! Discipline and sacrifice are ostensibly the high road to a bright future.
Why bother with that kind of self-restraint in a world where people of means are buying escape-islands and building doomsday bunkers? If there’s no payoff for hard work or discipline, we might as well just eat, drink, and be merry.
The good news is that millennials still seem radically unsure about what they want. There might still be time to persuade them. Isn’t it worth a shot?
We need to talk more about policy ideas that might reassure young people that they still have a future. Already, there are a number of ideas on the table that might plausibly fit the bill such as child tax credits and efforts to stimulate a “gig economy.” Why are these ideas promising? Each one responds to unsustainable features of our present economy, labor market, or demographic situation. Older voters warm to nostalgic themes, but younger voters have different interests. They need to hear that our social and economic malaise is not truly terminal. They want leaders with an ability and willingness to reckon with past mistakes. They want to hear how their children can also have a future.
Many of the aforementioned policy ideas will seem too radical or disruptive to present Republican leaders. Today’s Republicans clearly don’t see see the young as a top voting priority. Our calculations might be different, though, if we consider how a youth-driven, populist movement might affect our national politics. It’s always better to get the cool heads working before the hot ones take the stage.
Youthful energy can be a wonderful thing. Without proper guidance, though, it can also wreak terrible havoc. Let’s give age and wisdom a chance, before it’s too late.
Rachel Lu is a Senior Contributor at The Federalist and a Robert Novak Fellow.