Those Darn Kids Are Starting To Understand Government

Who says the message of freedom doesn’t resonate with the young’uns? Well, most people who study market dynamics and poll kids for a living.

But it seems that when we talk about targeting the “message of freedom” to people aged 18-35, the marketing world’s hotspot of consumerism and cultural knowledge, it’s less that they’re simply not interested in hearing about the shortfalls of an oppressive, large-government system and more that they’re just not hearing the message phrased correctly for their tender MTV-honed sensibilities. Because, at least according to a recent Harvard study of young adults, they seem to be at least getting part of the message right.

Young adults aged 18 to 29, also known as the millennial generation, have an increased distrust in every political institution except the military, according to a biannual Institute of Politics report released Tuesday. Written and analyzed by students, the report also showed an increased polarization among party lines since the election and split opinions about gun regulation.

C. M. Trey Grayson ’94, director of the Institute of Politics, said he was particularly alarmed by the long-term implications of the poll’s results, explaining that the support of the millennials is key to the future stability of modern American institutions like the media, local and federal governments, and Wall Street.

“You hope the process can work, the system can work, politics can work,” Grayson said. “We’ve got to give millennials a reason to trust these institutions.”

The cynicism and distrust of large institutions is across the board, from the President to Congress to the Supreme Court. Overall, the Federal government has the backing of only 22% of respondents in the target category. 

The rest of the study is interesting, too. As it turns out, young adults seem to date within and socialize within heavily polarized circles (“all my friends are Democrats”) and stake out what Harvard considers to be “extreme” positions on most issues, like gun control, abortion, gay marriage and federal spending. When asked to self-identify, however, an almost even number of students (approximately a third of those polled overall) identified as Democrats as they did Republicans, showing that party affiliation is more pronounced in the general population than it is among people at the beginning of their careers as voters. More people self-identify as “independents” than anything, which probably means they have similar attitudes to most Millennials – social liberalism paired with fiscal restraint – that doens’t quite put them squarely in either party.

What unites them all?  Distrust of the state. It’s a simple fact that Reason notes is distressing to the head of Harvard’s Institute for Politics, who seems preoccupied with the idea that the distrust needs to be remedied or changed. If it’s a massive concern of people who see government as the answer to all of our prayers, of course, perhaps it should be a massive opportunity for people who understand government isn’t. If freedom-minded individuals were ever looking for a wedge, this just might be it.

Attitudes about voting are shaped early. Some even say that the first vote you cast determines your default political position for the rest of your life. As Harvard’s director of politics notes, the respondents’ are at a critical point in their ideological formation. Messaging and material that drives home the point that governmental institutions are corrupt, overbearing, full of red tape and, most of all, ineffective at things like serving the poor and downtrodden (which many Millennials noted was among their primary concern), could further solidify their libertarian leanings. 

It’s no surprise. My generation was raised on things like the Daily Show, which despite being constantly maligned by conservatives, presents a cynical if openly hostile view towards elected officials and their work. Regardless of who is in Jon Stewart’s crosshairs, they’re being attacked for incompetence, hypocrisy and disappointing behavior; a thread which runs across party lines and through both media and culture. The distrust of all major institutions – including, not surprisingly, the media, which is another of Stewart’s favorite targets – is imprinted in the Millennial mind. In fact, it’s what the Obama campaign played off of in their 2008 campaign; even though Obama, in reality, promised no change from the day-to-day business of a corrupt DC establishment, his fresh approach, youth-oriented marketing materials and message of a world devoid of dishonesty and entanglement, was singularly appealing. By presenting the message of freedom with an eye to the vision of this target consumer, message progression seems possible, especially considering two Obama terms has done little to alter the perception that dishonesty and entanglement reign supreme.

Of course, the messengers of freedom will need to be creative, funny and willing to see humor in themselves as well as in others, and that may be the tougher task. But maybe – just maybe – a little self-examination and change is worth it in pursuit of a country where freedom is viewed as paramount at every age.