Millennial Civics

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It seems as if student protest have settled down a bit since the results of the election came in on November 9th, though we do see demonstrations among high schoolers happening this week here and here and here.  Still, though undergraduates at UCLA, Wesleyan, and other sites of outburst in the days after the vote may feel just as fearful and indignant over the rise of Mr. Trump, they’re quieter about it. You won’t see much patriotism among them, no calm recognition that this is how representative democracy works, but the loud outrage has dissipated for the moment, at least.

You have to wonder, though, what the students who went crazy in the aftermath thought they were doing.  All season long, of course, they had been juiced up by strong voices in youth culture that cast Mr. Trump as the bearer of the mortal sins they have been taught in school and out to avoid—racism, sexism, xenophobia.  They know what their idols Mark Zuckerberg, Lena Dunham, Stephen Colbert, and Beyonce think of him, and it gives them authority to denounce him.

And the word avoid doesn’t really capture the intense taboo these –isms and –phobias constitute among college students today.  These are not merely incorrect or distasteful traits.  They are disqualifying.  They exile you from the company of good, enlightened human beings.  They brand you as pernicious, a modern Cain.  And so young Americans can barely talk about them without growing furtive or emotional. It’s not enough to avoid racism etc.  You better show how much you despise them.

Mr. Trump, then, was presented to Millennials in America as a violation of sacred norms.  He wasn’t a political figure, not to them.  He was inappropriate, stupid, mean.  When he spoke of “walls,” knowledgeable observers understood it as a policy of economic nationalism, but to Millennials, the build-a-wall mantra was a nasty contravention of what is right and good in human relations.  He’s bad!

That’s about as far as their political analysis went.

But when they hit the streets and stormed the quad, what did they think they were accomplishing?  A vote was held, Mr. Trump had won.  Ten thousand signs saying “NOT MY PRESIDENT” wouldn’t change that fact.  They would only irritate all the people who did vote for Mr. Trump and embarrass the ones who didn’t but who nonetheless respect democratic processes.

It was all ridiculous.  I can’t imagine anyone who voted Republican watching those videos of and reading reports on shrieking youths and deciding that they had, indeed, gone the wrong way.  No, the outcry only hardened their choice.

At the same time, this miscalculation calls out for understanding.  After all, if you are an educator, you care about the intellectual and moral condition of the young.  You have to ask about the formation that led otherwise intelligent 20-year-olds (they are in college, remember) to act like masses protesting an election rigged by a cruel and venal dictator.

The first thing to realize about college-age voters who were upset on November 9th is not that they are snowflakes or crybullies.  It is that they have no real memory of anyone in the White House but Barack Obama.  Those who are 21 today were 13 when George W. Bush left office.  For them, this campaign was not one in a long line of battles from the past and in the future.  It was the end of the sole political reality they have ever known.  The only thing that could soften the transition was the election of his appointed successor.

If you are my age (57), you’ve seen five new Chief Executives inaugurated, and four of those substitutions involved a party switch as well.  You remember the Florida recount of 2000, the Clinton impeachment and Iran Contra hearings, George H. W. Bush’s whopping 89 percent approval rating the year before he lost to Mr. Clinton, third-party candidates John Anderson, Ross Perot, and Ralph Nader, all of them shaky episodes for the presidency.  You understand the tenuousness of the White House occupant.

Younger Millennials have experienced but one figure.  They’ve been blessed, too, to live under the man more in tune with youth than anyone since JFK.  Their older friends and siblings claimed President Obama for themselves as no other youth cohort had before.  In 2008, the under-30 vote went Democrat by 66 percent, the highest rate for anyone since exit polling began in 1972.  In 2012, the rate dropped to 60 percent, but Obama still beat Mitt Romney by 23 points.  The presumed advent of a permanent Democratic majority gave them a key role, too.  It made rising Millennials assume that the president will always be a reflection of their interests, of them.

Of course, every new generation is liable to the same misunderstanding.  How could they avoid it when they haven’t experienced the turns of political fortune, especially a Commander-in-Chief who doesn’t seem to be their representative?

That question has an answer, and it points to a grave failing in our preparation of young Americans for responsible citizenship.  In our country, presidential politics are unpredictable.  There’s always the chance that your party and your candidate will lose.  You’re old enough to have seen it happen.

If you’re not old enough, you realize it because you’ve studied U.S. civics and history in high school and college.  You’ve heard  what political thinkers from Madison forward have said about rival factions, regions, guilds, and industries—and how our structure of government manages them. You accept that rivalries are never fully resolved, nor are the political clashes that follow from them.  The wheel of political fortune never stops turning, so you should always be ready for the other side to vanquish you and take its turn in power.

The leaders of the early Republic appointed public schools to do this very job.  Noah Webster wanted a school in every district run by “the most reputable and well-informed man” who shall teach children “the moral and social duties; the history and transactions of their country; the principles of liberty and government.” Schooling was to develop the Three Rs, and also to produce responsible citizens.  Young Americans reached their authentic majority by studying the examples of George Washington (the model of civic virtue) and Ben Franklin (the model self-made man).  They understood American politics by reading about the peaceful succession of presidencies, no matter how bitter the campaigns (such as 1800, Adams vs. Jefferson, and 1828, the rise of Andrew Jackson).

The emotional response to the outcome this time indicates that the civics lesson isn’t being learned.  National data say the same thing.  On the last test of 12th-graders in U.S. history on the National Assessment of Education Progress, only 12 percent of the students reached “Proficient.”  On the Civics exam, only 24 percent of them reached “Proficient.”  The curriculum at the post-secondary level doesn’t help these deficiencies, either.  According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 81 percent of 1,100 schools profiled in its What Will They Learn? report do not require a basic course in U.S. history or government.

College students fare poorly, too, on measures of critical thinking, which requires people to acknowledge beliefs and opinions contrary to their own.  Critical thinking would have saved Millennials from demonizing social conservatives and economic nationalists.  When Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reviewed Collegiate Learning Assessment data, however, they found that 45 percent of college students showed no significant gains in critical thinking in their first two years of college, and 36 percent over their entire undergraduate career.  Most of those who did advance didn’t do so by much.  The “limited learning” Arum and Roksa diagnosed in American higher education applies to their juvenile understanding of the American political system.

Certainly, the shock and dismay of college students is partly due to the individual traits of President Trump, specifically, his disregard for political correctness and identity politics, which his partisans savored.  But it is also due to the failure of schools to teach youths the first fact of democratic politics: You’re gonna lose sometimes.  And that’s not an injustice.  It’s the price of freedom.

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