Following the attacks of September 11, young Americans, like all Americans, were quick to display signs of patriotism. Military recruiters reported that inquiries and interviews rose, though there has been no discernible increase in the number of people actually joining the armed forces. Americorps administrators noted an upswing of interest in national service among young people, as Senators John McCain and Evan Bayh called for substantially expanding the program. In fact, young people’s feelings of patriotism, which are generally weaker than those of the older generation, rose in the aftermath of the tragedy. According to “Public Response to a National Tragedy,” a study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center in late September, young people’s pride in American democracy rose from 14 percent in 1996 to 48 percent post-September 11.
But what this newfound patriotism will mean in terms of a positive view of government and support for a progressive agenda remains to be seen. Prior to September 11, Generation Xers (born between 1964 and 1975) were the GOP’s most ardent supporters, if they paid attention to politics at all. If we look at the numbers among white voters, where we find the bulk of Republicans in the electorate, we see this pattern quite clearly. According to data collected by Democracy Corps last year, 44 percent of white voters age 25 to 36 called themselves Republicans, while only 27 percent called themselves Democrats. The Democratic Party fared about the same with Generation Y (born between 1976 and 1997), with 47 percent of white voters age 18 to 24 calling themselves Republican, nearly ten points higher than white voters over 55 years of age. President Clinton handily won voters under 30 in 1996, but Democrats only break even with young voters in off-year Congressional elections. At the moment, only Generation Y’s growing demographic diversity saves it from embracing the Republican Party as strongly as its immediate predecessor: According to Census Bureau projections, members of Generation Y are twice as likely as people over 55 to be either African-American or Latino.
Younger people’s conservatism rests upon a strong distrust of government. The decline in trust, of course, was initiated by members of the Baby Boom generation, who experienced the disappointments of Vietnam and Watergate. But continued distrust among young Americans should not surprise anyone paying attention to the nation’s dialogue about government since 1980. Both Generations X and Y were raised without national political leadership that clearly articulated a vision of government’s role in creating a better society. Instead, government has been cast as the problem. Generation X heard President Reagan’s attack on the federal government, personified in the “welfare queen” and other alleged abuses of government largesse, and it experienced the first President Bush’s neglect of domestic responsibilities in the last, traumatic recession. Generation Y saw a more muted undermining of government, ranging from President Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over” to the championing of ideas that call for devolving government responsibilities to private organizations, as we see now in George W. Bush’s “faith-based initiatives.” Generation Y’s feelings toward government and political leadership were further undermined by years of unrelenting attention to scandal in the media and popular culture.
To be fair, younger Americans accurately perceive that they do not get much positive benefit from government as it is currently configured. As Theda Skocpol argues persuasively in The Missing Middle, our current welfare state helps (though critics would say nowhere near enough) poor children, their parents and the elderly, and not too many people in between. But younger Americans do have deep concerns about issues in which government has some say. For instance, as every survey prior to September 11 showed, education is the top concern among young Americans. But rather than agonizing over vouchers, charter schools or teacher accountability, young people’s educational concerns revolve around their ability to afford higher education in a climate in which a high school diploma is a route to job insecurity and poor or nonexistent health benefits. They are acutely aware that it is expensive to get the skills they need to get ahead, but in the absence of affluent parents, they do not see any place to go to for help. They certainly do not see the government as assisting in reducing their dependence on loans or alleviating their debt burdens after graduation.