The Spectacle Blog

Individualist Millennials and Communitarian Conservatives

By on 3.17.14 | 4:38PM

Millennials: those most confounding of social science data points. Ross Douthat is the latest to stare into the polling numbers about my generation. He concludes:

The common denominator is individualism, not left-wing politics: it explains both the personal optimism and the social mistrust, the passion about causes like gay marriage and the declining interest in collective-action crusades like environmentalism, even the fact that religious affiliation has declined but personal belief is still widespread.

So the really interesting question about the millennials isn’t whether they’ll all be voting Democratic when Chelsea Clinton runs for president. It’s whether this level of individualism — postpatriotic, postfamilial, disaffiliated — is actually sustainable across the life cycle, and whether it can become a culture’s dominant way of life.

Rod Dreher agrees and hails Douthat’s “classic social conservative point: the idea that mediating institutions – family, church, and other associations – are what guarantee our liberties, and protect us from totalitarian control.” Millennials reject patriotism, God, traditional family structures. By shirking these institutional commitments, they're cutting against conservatism, which is communitarian in nature and requires strong institutions to sculpt strong individuals. It’s a good point and mostly correct. I’ll add only a few things.

First, like most bad things in life, this can be blamed in part on the Baby Boomers. Wall Street is awash in decadence and blamed for the 2008 financial collapse. Religious authorities like the Catholic Church have been rocked by scandal. Millennials often distrust institutions because they feel those institutions haven't earned their trust.

Second, the average Millennial isn’t Bubble Boy, walking around in complete self-absorption. Generation Y has its Tocquevillian voluntary associations too. Charity organizations, kickball leagues, gym groups, and even happy hours are communities in their own ways and are popular among young professionals. The Gen Y conception of community tends to be both local (as in not answerable to a centralized authority) and egalitarian (as in stripped of any sort of authority or hierarchy). It’s not exactly the Boy Scouts, but it’s something.

Still, the overall argument stands. Too many in my generation have succumbed to what Peter Hitchens calls “selfism”—the worship of self over God or any other authority. One of the most red-handed culprits is technology. Millennials have been exposed to relentless advertising that lets you listen to your music, watch your TV, do your work, on your schedule because you are a unique individual. And tech companies deliver. Young people increasingly have the power to do whatever they want whenever they want. Throw in weak-kneed parents, undisciplined schools, and anemic church attendance, and Millennials can navigate life unmoored from any limitations or societal guideposts other than their own preferences.

Douthat concludes by citing Robert Nisbet, who worried that “it was precisely the emancipation of the individual in modernity — from clan, church and guild — that had enabled the rise of fascism and Communism.” He doesn’t see brown or red flags flying anytime soon, and neither do I. But it’s worth noting that despite my generation’s vaunted individualism, polling finds we assign higher approval ratings to socialism than capitalism, and prefer a bigger government to a smaller one. The one institution we trust—the federal state—is the one capable of the most oppression. That’s a mighty hypocrisy for such a proudly emancipated generation.

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