As a college professor I talk with the millennial generation on a daily basis. They sit in front of me in class and earnestly ask questions about where this country is going and where they fit into the post-9/11 America. Born after 1977, the millennial generation, or millennials for short, are certain to have their first impact on the political system of our nation in this fall’s presidential election. While pundits and pollsters are focusing on all those in the middle- middle age, middle class, middle America- the millennials have remained at the margins, in large part because historically young people have a poor voting turnout record.
If indeed the millennials turn out in large numbers, as the explosion of new registrants would suggest, they could hold the key to who gets the White House on November 4th and more importantly bring a far different set of political values and policy positions into the election and post-election process. Unlike the baby boomers who grew up during the Vietnam War and the greatest generation who know the America of the 40s and 50s, the millennials see America differently than those who have been around national politics a lot longer. Many of them are quite vocal in stating that the generations that came before them have really messed this country up and left them to clean up the mess.
Although making broad generalizations about young people is fraught with danger, there is enough evidence around to show that the millennials are a different breed of American. The millennials are first off much more tolerant of personal relationships and committed to privacy rights. A solid majority believe in keeping abortion legal, allowing gays to marry and and don’t see why race is still a major factor in American life. These young people are not “peace through strength” advocates and have little support for any long term commitment in Iraq. While they are attracted to private retirement accounts and slam Social Security and Medicare as bloated programs, they nevertheless have little problem with big government as the agent of change in this country. Most importantly, when asked to self-identify their political leanings, 52% claim to favor the Democrats to 37% who see themselves as Republicans. In terms of ideology the gap is even more pronounced as 42% define themselves as Liberals, while only 18% are Conservatives.
If the millennials remain true to their beliefs and their vision, and more importantly if they turn up at the polls in November, then Barack Obama just may get the electoral boost that he needs. Obama’s message of change resonates with young people who believe that it is time someone listened to them rather than to the people who had their chance and failed miserably. Obama also knows their lifestyle; their commitment to informality, their love of high tech gadgets and their obsession with popular culture. But most of all Obama knows that they are the future of this nation, and he wants to be their voice.
Of course all this emphasis on the millennials and a future of change could disappear into thin air if this group of traditional non-voters decide to listen to their Ipods, watch the Daily Show or surf the Net rather than cast their ballot on November 4th.