Last year I wrote of my experience as part of what some call the 9/11 Generation. I don’t think there’s any way around it: that’s what we Millennials are. You can argue about whether or not we’re lazy, or that we waste our money on frivolities like avocado toast instead of saving, or that we are all “Me, Me, Me,” as TIME famously put it. Those things are debatable because they’re opinions. What we all are, whether we like it or not, is a product of our time. And our time has been shaped by the events of September 11.
I experienced September 11 at the start of my formative years, at the age of 13. I watched the events unfold, and wasn’t spared from the images or their meaning like the younger kids in my generation were, either because they weren’t born yet or were too young to comprehend.
My peers and I rode the wave of change that came after 9/11 as we were becoming adults, and beginning to form our opinions about politics, our personal belief systems, and our world views. There are many differences among us, of course. But there are some trends that I would wager have something to do with the direction older leadership steered our country during this time of great change.
There are two ways we, as a nation and a people, can react to tragedy. We can come together. Or we can turn to divisiveness and point fingers. Immediately following 9/11, the former occurred. But over time, it seems we have been engaging in a lot more of the latter. I could provide examples to prove my point, but instead I will just direct you to turn on your TV to any cable news station for at least five minutes. I think you’ll get the point.
While I have previously written that, in some ways, Millennials are engaging in the same political divisiveness that pervades all age groups in our country, it does seem to me there are greater numbers of Millennials and younger folks pushing back than there are among older generations of people.
In March, Pew Research Center unveiled research in an article entitled “The Generation Gap In American Politics,” which largely focused on the fact that more Millennials identify as liberal and as Democrats than any other adult generation.
That’s certainly noteworthy. But equally noteworthy, and not paid as much attention in the analysis, is that 44% of Millennials – that’s nearly half – identify as independents. I happen to be one of them.
I have always been registered as an independent perhaps because, by the time I was 18, I had witnessed a distasteful shift in political rhetoric among the parties. After 9/11, the emphasis was on togetherness, patriotism, compassion, and, not to sugar coat it all, revenge. That last bit, I think, is where the extreme divisiveness we have today first sprouted from. Those on the right wanted to exact physical revenge to defeat our enemies. Those on the left wanted calculated diplomacy. We got the former. Maybe that’s oversimplification, but that’s what I observed as a teenager.
I could see both sides. But what I couldn’t stand was how, as the years progressed, those on each side of the fence became progressively angrier and less willing to even speak to one another. Everything became about party lines. And I mean everything. Health care. Military spending. LGBT rights. Gun violence. Literally any potential policy that has implications for this country’s citizens always now boils down to one final determination: blue or red.
For somebody who sees things moderately, this is incredibly frustrating. It’s why I really bought into President Obama’s spiel when he was first running: his promise to work across the aisle.
. . . . And how did that pan out?
More Millennials identify as independents than any other voting age cohort. About 39% of Generation X-ers, 32% of Baby Boomers and just 27% of the Silent Generation identify as independents. Interestingly, Pew chose to leave independents off its chart denoting party lines among the generations. The chart instead depicts Democrat, Leaning Democrat, Leaning Republican, and Republican. I find that a misleading approach, and frankly, part of the problem.
There hasn’t been much research on why more Millennials are registered as independent, so I am left to my own experiences and observations to speculate on the cause. For one, I think it’s rooted in a frustration with a two-party system in which each side is so married to its own views that they refuse to ever reach across the aisle, as we had been promised they would a decade ago.
I also think it’s because we’ve seen our country’s political rhetoric devolve into one defined by hard lines. Sure, the United States has always operated on a two-party system, so of course, divisiveness has always been a factor in our politics. But has it always been so ugly, and at times, blind? Maybe, but not in our memories. At least, not in the memories of those old enough to recall what it was like before 9/11, and in the immediate months following.
Senator John McCain was known for his great patriotism, and for his willingness to work with Democrats. The man was so committed to his country, and these principles, that he showed up to cast a deciding vote to retain the Affordable Care Act against the will of many of his Republican peers after having undergone brain surgery.
Something McCain tried to impart to us all is that we are one nation. Increasingly it seems like that fact is growing dim, as facts are nowadays, shrouded in more pressing alternatives derived from tweets, and the inevitable resounding din of furious shouting from all sides that follows. That’s really what politics is now: who can shout the loudest. It doesn’t seem to matter what’s being said, so long as it’s said along party lines.
Maybe I’m overly optimistic. Maybe half of the Millennials registered as independents are really just waiting for the day when “anarchist” is listed as an option.
Or maybe, as I’d like to think, so many of us Millennials are independents because we long for politics to be about what’s best for our country, and not what’s best for “The Party.”
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