Consensus, Millennial Politics, and the Common Good

Peter Levine blogged about consensus today, and it got me thinking about Millennials, their affinity for collaboration, and how this impacts the current political environment.

Howe and Strauss, in Millennials Rising, cite team learning, school uniforms, and community service as indicators of a lifestyle focused on working together in this generation.  They go on, "Unlike Gen Xers, [Millennials] believe in their own collective power." Instead of following the culture of "everyone out for him/herself," Millennials prefer to work together to accomplish goals, plans, and missions.  As a result, scholars like Howe and Strauss predict a boon to civic institutions and organizations.  Organizations like Kiwanis, with its high school-based Key Club, are primed to rapidly increase their membership totals with a community-focused spirit not seen since the early part of last century.  This is nothing new, as we have seen volunteerism skyrocket with Millennials since the 1990s.  In 2005, for example, a CIRCLE fact sheet tells us that 75.9% of high school seniors volunteered at least once a month.

Millennials naturally gravitate toward volunteerism and service opportunities, but until very recently, the political process was relatively unappealing.  Baby Boomers have been a force in political and social institutions for a few decades now, and their ideological debates alienate the Millennials who are coming of age.  Barack Obama expounds on this generational tension in The Audacity of Hope:  "...in the elections of 2000 and 2004," he writes, "I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation -- a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago -- played out on the national stage." While Obama is a Gen Xer, his point is still relevant given today's high-charged political environment.  The ideological battles leave Millennials - merely interested in working together and creating positive social change - outside the political process.  The elections of 2004 and 2006, of course, demonstrated that Millennials are not content with waiting outside; increasingly, Millennials are crashing the party, forcing the parties and the punditocracy to appreciate the Millennials and their new approach to dealing with the nation's problems.

Instead of being content with grand, ideological debates, Millennials want progress.  Not only do they want to accomplish something, but they want to do it working together.  What's interesting to me, then, is Levine's discussion of consensus and how it fits with Millennials.  Levine posits that collaboration can create its own internal pressure.  To paraphrase loosely, collaboration works because of the expectations it places on stakeholders and participants and the obligations they have to each other.  While thinking hard about this, I noticed that the individualist approach that I believe humans naturally have is still present in this process, but subservient to the collaborative approach.  When I work with others on a task, I might get things done because I care about the mission of the group, but I also do it because others are counting on me and I don't want to let them down.

I think the recent discussion of web 2.0 and youth involvement in the political process is spot on, and we certainly need to continue developing ways of utilizing Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking tools to develop peer-to-peer relationships, thereby maximizing political participation among Millennials.  But I think there's another way of doing this, and that's reframing the political debate to give the advantage to Millennials.  How?  Why not frame everything using the "common good" that organizations like the Center for American Progress use?  The common good could utilize the Millennials' increased tolerance, concern for social progress, and affinity for working through institutions.  It also allows for many other opportunities.  While Boomer arguments usually lend to the "he said, she said" spats that cable news networks love to devour, the Millennial approach is only focused on progress.  It plays down the flashy personality and divisive arguments.  The passion in these debates, instead, is continually reinvested in the effort.  Finally, Levine's "pressure" concept comes into play.  When you have something that's going well, you don't want to lose it, and so you lean on those you work with - in addition to completing your own tasks - to keep the excellence going.  You have a combination of personal and social responsibility.

Alvin Toffler once said, "The secret message communicated to most young people today by the society around them is that they are not needed, that the society will run itself quite nicely until they -- at some distant point in the future -- will take over the reigns.  Yet the fact is that the society is not running itself nicely... because the rest of us need all the energy, brains, imagination, and talent that young people can bring to bear down on our difficulties.  For society to attempt to solve its desperate problems without the full participation of even very young people is imbecile." Millennials, with their sky-high volunteerism rates, are clearly already turned-on by the common good.  Why wouldn't we approach politics the same way and infuse it with "energy, brains, imagination and talent"?  Let me know what you think.

Tags: common good, Framing, Millennials (all tags)

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