Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Millennials, Obama, and the Status Quo

In his essays, such as "Generation Sell" and "Generational Conflict", William Deresiewicz seems focused on understanding the social and political ramifications of what he calls "the commercial personality" - the mannerisms and ethos adopted enthusiastically by the Millennials in their attempts to fix "the world by making things and selling them." Yet, in his exegesis of contemporary consumer and youth culture, Deresiewicz actually explains how and why Barack Obama was elected, and why the Left shouldn't have expected anything from him in the first place.

Indeed, for a while now, Deresiewicz has been complaining about kids these days. The Millennials, he gripes in a recent essay, are "motivated more by narcissism than anything else." At a time when the country is in crisis, young people have withdrawn from politics in favor of social entrepreneurship. They see politics and activism as destructive and would rather work outside the system than change it from within, take it over, or even destroy it. Taught from a young age to play nice with others in the sandbox, the Millennials favor consensus, and shirk from confrontation. Thus, any dissent or disruption of everyday life to draw attention to a problem is thought by Millennials to be "uncool" and unproductive; agitating for a cause doesn't change the world, but creating some sort of socially beneficial entrepreneurial venture does. To illustrate this, Deresiewicz writes:

"A Stanford professor told me about two internships that were open to students at his college last year. One, for a small East Bay nonprofit, drew several hundred applications. The other, for the office of the Speaker of the California State Assembly—the second-most-powerful person in the eighth-largest economy on the planet—drew three."
Deresiewicz's actual gripe with the Millennials is not just that they are narcissistic and consciously apathetic, but that they have eschewed the most logical avenue to effectuate change - politics. But the problem lurking beneath the surface is not the self-aggrandizement and narcissism implicit in the Millennials' belief that entrepreneurial activity rather than politics can result in meaningful societal change. The problem is the word "change" itself. 

Barack Obama was elected as the candidate of change, supported ardently by the vast majority of Millennials. Young, multi-racial, fresh - Barack Obama was one of them. He had stylish posters with the hipster stamp of approval thanks to Shepard Fairey, a presence on social media, and a slogan behind which anyone raised in the era scheduled play-dates could rally: CHANGE. Obama's candidacy made it acceptable for Millennials to engage, albeit cautiously, in the political process.  But why?

The rallying cry of change carried with it none of the baggage that had made politics so untenable for Millennials. It was vague but generally inspiring, and suggested action without specifying direction. Obama's candidacy embodied the characteristics Deresiewicz sees as lamentable in the Millennials: "no anger, no edge, no ego." It was as if the Obama campaign team had lifted the slogan from some California start-up, which naturally made Obama the favorite candidate of those most enamored with the cult of entrepreneurship that has become the social creed of the Millennials. The way Obama appealed to these young voters - with the incessant repetition of  CHANGE to the point that it became a sort of mantra - should have been a warning that Obama's presidency was destined to be as bland, effete, and inoffensive as any Millennial who thinks his or her newfangled water filtration gadget will save the world.

When Barack Obama campaigned with his platform of CHANGE, his candidacy did not suggest a paradigmatic shift or systemic reform.  Instead, his candidacy represented merely an aesthetic change and, for the Millennials, a change from leadership by the older generation to leadership by the newer generation. Equipped with saccharine and banally optimistic rhetoric, as well as savvy marketing, Obama presented a packaged promise of a somehow nondescript political future. This remarkable power the Obama campaign had over young voters (read: Millennials) was primarily due to the lack of direction suggested by the word "change."

By virtue of its lack of direction, change implies neither revolutionary nor reactionary movement. And, due to its lack of specificity, a call for change is essentially a call for the maintenance of the status quo, albeit with a superficial alteration.  This is because a call for change in the language of today's politicians is actually a call for exchange - of issues, compromises, constituents, and anything to maintain the status quo. Change does not herald the arrival of something new; it simply notes the exchange of an idea or policy from one hand to another. The healthcare plan put forward by the Obama administration is the best example of this. Initially a Heritage Foundation counter-plan to Hillarycare, the idea of an individual mandate first belonged to those on the right. Current presidential candidate Mitt Romney instituted this plan in his homestate of Massachusetts. But then change happened. Lo and behold, the individual mandate had switched hands and the best deal for private insurance companies in the history of mankind was championed by the president many assumed would be the most progressive in a century. 

Many on Left have been disappointed with the way President Obama's first term has played out. In 2008, CHANGE appeared as a form of salvation from the nightmare of the Bush years, but it has been translated by Pres. Obama into few if any political gains.  Liberals projected onto Obama their desires for progressive change, most of which have not been realized. With Deresiewicz's analysis of the Millennials in mind, Pres. Obama's inaction should come as no surprise. 

As much as liberals would like to believe otherwise, Obama's "change" promised nothing in the first place. He did not advocate for progress, which would suggest an alteration of the status quo. And he certainly did not advocate for reaction, which would constitute an attempt to undo reforms that had previously been made. Obama offered essentially no direction; the change he promised was solely aesthetic, designed to put a human face on a status quo that was becoming increasingly unpalatable for many Americans.  For Millennials, this was all they wanted - politics without the contention, debate without anger, and politicians without ego. 

The birth of the Tea Party movement and the recent conflagrations at Occupy Wall Street protests show that the American public has grown tired with the status quo - tired of the exchange of old ideas dressed up in the language of change.  The partisans on the Left and the Right, much to the chagrin of many Millennials, want direction; they want to be participants in the grand clash of ideology, as old as the state itself, between reaction and revolution. Naturally, the Millennials are opposed even the very recognition of this clash, and not just because it violates their general rule of non-confrontation. 

The Millennials have become remarkably successful because of their docility, eagerness to conform, and nearly unthinking respect for authority. Reaction and revolution alike would threaten the Millennials' acquired privilege. Reaction, with its accompanying austerity, would strip them of their privilege by increasing indebtedness and inequality. Revolution, or more pragmatically progress, would negate their relative privilege through redistributive policy. The Millennials want none of this, so they vote for change because they know that it will not alter the status quo, but for a few aesthetic shakeups here and there. 

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