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The Malicious Politics of Millennial-Bashing

The latest attacks on young people's lifestyle choices are being fueled by generational polarization—and signal an emerging conservative strategy.

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More than 130,000 Americans died in World War II, but MSNBC host Joe Scarborough wants us to look on the bright side: The suffering wrought by the war helped build character, which is sadly lacking among young people today. Linking to an American Conservative blog post on high schoolers’ and millennials’ smartphone use, titled “Deforming Teens’ Moral Imagination,” Scarborough tweeted:

Scarborough has never never served in the military, but many young people today do. In fact, Americans continue to die in the country’s longest conflict ever, in Afghanistan, now in its fifteenth year. Framing war as a character-building exercise also whitewashes the enormous damage it does to survivors and civilians alike. World War II was a necessary evil, but in an ideal world all young people would enjoy peaceful lives, whether playing video games or doing anything else.

Scarborough’s imbecilic tweets are merely an extreme example of an argument that’s gaining salience among centrists and moderate Republicans: Kids today are lazy, socially isolated, and immature. This complaint is as old as it is tired, but has a particular salience today as the U.S. population ages—and its politicians do, too.

“Smartphones and social media are creating a society where people are radically atomized, and do not know how to interact with other people—not even their families,” American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher declared in the piece Scarborough linked to. Dreher’s post, in turn, linked to a much-discussed article in The Atlantic’s September issue that poses a characteristically hyperbolic question, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The author, Jean Twenge, argues that people born between 1995 and 2012 are consumed by smartphone use and social media, and even more vulnerable than Millennials”: more depressed, more suicide-prone, and more likely to stay home alone than hang out with friends or date.

Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a former university president, fretted recently in The New York Times that the hard physical labor he did as a farm boy was no longer the norm. “The time our students didn’t spend in school was mostly spent consuming: products, media and entertainment, especially entertainment,” he wrote. “Another thing I noticed was an unnerving passivity. When I saw students doing their campus jobs, they seemed to have a tough time. Over and over, faculty members and administrators noted how their students’ limited experience with hard work made them oddly fuzzy-headed when facing real-world problems rather than classroom tests.”

Complaints about technology leading to the moral degradation of the young are a venerable genre, perhaps as old as human innovation itself. The current moral panic over the smartphone echoes the anxieties of earlier generations about novelties like the bicycle, the landline phone, the automobile, television, and the personal computer. It’s a truism of civilizational history that old people love to whine about the young.

Yet the current wave of youth-bashing, while it borrows tropes from the past, is defined by the politics of the moment. It is telling that Scarborough, Dreher, and Sasse are all Never Trump conservatives, while the Atlantic is a centrist magazine that offers a friendly venue to conservatives unhappy with the Republican Party orthodoxy (David Frum is a senior editor). Among these complaints about smartphones and lazy young people we can see a new conservative politics forming that eschews President Donald Trump’s red-meat cultural politics, with its attacks on immigrants and people of color, and focuses on millennials and their successors.

For conservatives trying to carve out a niche apart from Trumpism, millennial-bashing has many attractive features. Over the last decade, a significant generation gap has opened up in American politics: The young are more socially and economically liberal than their parents or grandparents. “Beginning in 2004, when older millennials first became eligible to vote, the political divide between older and younger voters vote has widened,” Wired magazine reported in December. “That trend continued this year: Exit polls showed 55 percent of voters 18 to 29 supported Clinton, while just 45 percent of voters 65 and over did the same.”

The 2016 election showed the limits of the demographics-is-destiny argument; Clinton lost partly because she didn’t excite young voters in the way Barack Obama did. But a politician who could excite the young more than Clinton, as Bernie Sanders did last year, would present Republicans with a formidable challenge.

The natural response to this generational polarization would be to try to appeal more to the young. But the millennial-bashing of Scarborough and company suggests an alternative, one that parallels Trump’s doubling-down on the white vote in 2016. Instead of trying to win over the young, Republicans could consolidate support among the old. Mocking the young as shiftless layabouts who text all the time would further polarize the electorate along generational lines, and might earn the GOP even broader support among Baby Boomers than it currently enjoys. Indeed, it’s a move that might win over the minority of older voters who are Democrats, since complaints about these kids today transcend ideological lines.

Scorning young people has an obvious appeal to conservative voters, since it’s rooted in nostalgia. But it could also serve a broader psychological function, justifying a status quo in which the young are shut out of power. As Americans live longer, the political class is getting older, too. Donald Trump is 71, and many of his potential rivals (Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden) are also senior citizens. As Harold Pollock notes at Vox, “In the [Senate] as a whole, 23 senators are at least 70. Seven are 80 or older.... Five of the nine [Supreme Court] justices are older than 67, three are 78 or older, and several have serious age-related health problems.” Millennial-bashing is a way to justify the continued rule of the young by the old.

Scarborough is 54, Dreher is 50, Sasse is 45. None are elderly—or even Boomers, depending on where you draw the line. But in their polemics, these men are aligning themselves with the gerontocracy against the young. It’s a curious decision, for the pre-millennial generations have much to answer for politically. Over the last two decades, they gave us the Iraq war, the 2008 financial meltdown, a hotter planet, and the Trump presidency. This, perhaps, is the deepest reason why Scarborough and his ilk are so eager to kick the young. Deep down, these figures who have allied themselves with the Boomer generation know that their legacy is littered with policy failures. But rather than take responsibility for this, they’ve decided to blame the ills of the world on the rising generations. Bashing the young is, at bottom, a classic case of projection.