Originally published at Forbes
A perfect storm is brewing on the horizon of American politics. Older Millennials, who came of age during the tumultuous Bush years and were inspired by the rise of Barack Obama, are questioning the validity of the President’s promises at record rates.
Younger Millennials, who weren’t as politically aware when youth yearned for Anybody-But-Bush, are increasingly part of an emerging counterculture. This combination of sobering disappointment and youthful rebellion has the potential to change the political landscape—if politicians seize the moment.
Rebellion, regardless of the form it takes, will always be en vogue. This adage goes a long way in explaining the appeal of Barack Obama circa 2008. Obama was the perfect David to the establishment’s Goliath. After all, he defeated standard-issue Democratic and Republican choices in Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
What was less obvious at the time was how shallow that narrative would quickly become as the President doubled down on the cronyism and civil liberties violations young voters roundly rejected under Bush.
In recent months, polls have captured this dissatisfaction. Youth approval of Obama has largely tracked with that of the country overall. To the extent that it’s diverged, the President barely cracks 50% with the cohort that swept him into office.
This bipartisan disappointment helps shed light on why Millennials are much more politically independent than older Americans. 50% of 18-29 year olds choose not to identify with any party, whereas political independence of this nature ranges from only 34-39% among other generations.
As Nick Gillespie of Reason Magazine aptly puts it, “After growing up under the Bush and Obama administrations, the Millennials are overwhelmingly skeptical of government’s ability to do anything well.” Enter the new rebellion.
Although young people are far from dedicated Republicans as a result of this disillusionment, poll after poll shows that Millennials aren’t as loyal to Democrats as is often assumed. If this generation is anything cohesive, it’s as a recent Pew survey found: Fiercely independent, driven by technology, and unimpressed with traditional ideology.
In the same vein, a new Reason-Rupe poll shows that those between 18 and 29 are largely non-partisan and quite socially liberal, yet lean fiscally conservative. This ideological mix provides free market advocates with both an opportunity and a major challenge.
The basic struggle for conservatives rests with the fact that to the extent Millennials identify as liberal, it’s because of traditionally defined “social issues.” As Tyler Koteskey at Reason explains, “When we investigate liberal Millennials, the report shows that only about a third of respondents describe their own liberalism in both social and economic terms.”
This means that even if Millennials value liberty overall, economic freedom has taken a backseat to personal freedom in the minds of youth—a fact that speaks to an unfortunate disconnect.
Perhaps it’s not immediately obvious to all advocates of personal liberty that economic freedom is a prerequisite necessary for their vision to flourish. After all, progressives have done a good job of erroneously separating the two and placing a superficial focus on the social absent the economic.
Government-run economies, which only 32% of young people support, are a huge impediment to social mobility in both the economic and personal sense. Ultimately, that authoritarianism inherently produces cronyism and corruption – something 66% of Millennials recognize.
After all, when economic incentives force a company to lobby politicians (when government is too large) rather than focus on the needs of consumers (when the market is free), what else can one expect? Absent the autonomy to transact with others in a reasonably free setting, social liberty will, by definition, be restricted or at least subordinated to established interests.
Ever heard of the developing sharing economy and the government’s Luddite reaction to it? Think Uber, AirBnb, and other innovative markets that big corporations and their politician buddies are trying to squash. God forbid you create economic value while exercising social freedom without the government’s permission.
If politicians want to reach a generation that sees Republicans and Democrats as similar appendages of a corrupt system (only 31% see a major difference between the two parties), they need to start with first principles. If freedom is the cause of Millennials – as it seems to be in many facets – it must be said at every turn that true social freedom is impossible to achieve without economic liberty.
An entire generation disillusioned with traditional institutions is open to this message. Will any politicians be brave enough to break the mold and emerge as defenders of a new choice-minded paradigm? If so, they might just earn the backing of Millennials, party labels aside.