Replaces Organized Protest with Personal Passion
by Maha Atal, Student, Brown University
My father recently asked me to explain the word "indie" – a term he keeps seeing in magazines but can't attach a definition to. I played him a selection of my iTunes library – everything from The Smiths to The Strokes – and saw him frown. “It's so mild! Where's the protest rock? You can't dance to this!” I tried to explain that at the concerts I attend, people wave lighters and sing along, rather than shout in a socialist rage. I tried to explain that most of my friends aren't too concerned with “sticking it to the man.” This only compounded my father's disillusionment.
My mother and I have had similar conversations about politics. Reading newspaper articles about how increasing numbers of female college graduates want to be stay-at-home mothers, my working mother wonders what the women's movement was fighting for when they burned their bras thirty years ago.
Our generation, my parents complain, doesn't seem to be fighting for anything. We are apathetic, cynical and artistically barren. How, they ask, can the older generation be more radical than the rising youth?
Indeed, the logic of setting established traditionalism against a youth counterculture has collapsed with our generation. Adult observers seem to think it's because we have no will to make change.
But our lack of countercultural radicalism is not a sign of unoriginality. It's an act of radical non-commitment.
Youth movements from the 1950s to the 1990s, though always championing the rhetoric of individualism against an impersonal “system,” were also always about group identity – young people have traditionally banded together against a clearly identified “establishment” consisting of the government and their parents.
Though most of my friends aren't sure if they are Democrats or Republicans, they have clear ideas about abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, gun control, the war in Iraq, immigration and universal health care. The problem is that our views so rarely fit neatly into the platforms of either party. As a result we gravitate towards centrist leaders who take the best from all sides or renegades who appear outside the system altogether. Our politics is about the search for candidates who are individuals and, like us, disregard organizing categories.
Some of my parents' fears are legitimate. With our emphasis on individual beliefs, we're unlikely to vote on the broad platforms of mainstream parties. A Gen Y voter, raised on the Internet fast track, has views that change quickly with the rapid speed of new information. With views so individualized and patience so limited, how can Gen Y voters find a candidate whose views match theirs on every issue or a candidate who keeps pace with Gen Y? The result is that we've grown alienated from the political process, and young voter turnout is at a historic low.
A more positive approach is to see Gen Y and American politics in transition. The current political process is alienating to voters of all ages, but Gen Y is a particularly frustrated group. As we grow older and become the largest voting block, the system itself will change around us. With our hyper-speed, we'll be less likely to produce lifetime politicians who occupy the same Senate seat unchallenged for six terms. Like their constituents, Gen Y politicians will live in the world of rapid career changes and have to produce real results in their first term to stay in office.
With our individualized, policy-specific approach, we'll expect leaders to engage us as individuals and share policy-making, rather than values and platitudes, with us. We'll expect them to engage with us in our own world, on blogs and social networks. Politicians will have to adopt the open-source approach already in use in the corporate world. Computer companies let consumers decide which new models actually go into production by revealing prototypes to online pollsters. Instead of simply asking voters to help choose a campaign song, like Hillary Clinton did, the next generation of politicians will have to let voters sound off on legislation and see bills in their draft phases.
Of course, American politics is not going to rely on online referendums. The biggest change Gen Y will bring to politics as we mature is a restructuring of the main parties.
A good indication of the new landscape is the recent debate over New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg's potential run for the presidency. Bloomberg does not fit neatly into either of the old categories, which is why he has vacillated between the old parties and now become an Independent. On the new playing field, he is decidedly left of center and the number of Gen Y liberals I know who wish he'd run as a Democrat is astounding. Pro-education, pro-gay rights, pro-civil rights, pro-environment, but also pro-business, pro-globalization and tough on unions and other pet old-Democrat causes – this is the stance of the new Left. It's a classic liberal position – government should be active in shaping society – but with a Gen Y individualized twist: ally with whomever you need to, or go it alone, so long as the job gets done.
The new Right will be the party of a broadly defined middle class: social conservatives who are pro-local and skeptical of authority, whether corporate, federal or international. This is a classic conservative small government position, but it's one that's been forgotten in the heavy spending, preemptive approach of the neoconservatives.
Technology, by giving Generation Y this fast-paced, individualized culture, is also restructuring the political arena. By disengaging from the current system and flocking to occasional renegades like Bloomberg, we are forcing the system to change on our watch. That transformation is the cause we are fighting for, even if it's anathema to us to rally behind an official banner. Since the idea of radical youth is no longer revolutionary, I wonder if our rejection of such countercultural labels is its own brand of nonconformity.
Maha Atal is a graduate of The Nightingale-Bamford School in New York City. She is currently a senior at Brown University, where she is a contributing writer to The Brown Daily Herald.
This article first appeared in the 2008 Parents League Review
. It is copyrighted and may only be reprinted with written permission by The Parents League of New York.