Young Americans — kids — are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore. Having grown up in the 1950s and ‘60s, I’ve seen this before, so I know. In my youth, we had the civil rights movement, the beginnings of the women’s movement, the general awakening to issues of social justice. But when did the awakening turn into a full-fledged, generational revolt with large and lasting consequences?
When kids were getting shot and killed for no good reason.
It was the Vietnam War that turned a generation against their political leadership and formed a Baby Boom bump of liberalism in the demographics of American politics. I know how much it helped that some of those kids mattered politically — that is, that they were white kids from the financial and social middle classes. Still, it was their endangerment and deaths that caused a near-revolutionary fervor in politics. You could argue that Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern still lost their presidential races, that all the excitement only got us as far as Jimmy Carter, that even Carter was a one-termer and loser to the halfwit host of Death Valley Days, Ronald Reagan. All true, and all important for Boomers to remember when they recall the “successes” of their glorious collective youth.
This feels different, though. A great deal different from the events of 40 and 50 years ago. One difference is that the kids getting shot are not in some rice paddy on the other side of the world, engaged in a war that half of America believes in. They’re in school, for God’s sake, doing what they’re supposed to be doing, yet still being targeted without reason and with the full complicity of a Congress completely at odds with the majorities will. They hear a bunch of patent nonsense about why nothing can be done, when they darn well know the real reason.
These same kids, on the days they’re not getting killed, are getting screwed out of a future. They darn well know what has become of their grandparents’ pension systems, of threats to Social Security and the rest of the safety net. They are acutely, even desperately, aware of the six-figure burden of student loans for four-year degrees, of a dearth of employment sufficient to repay them. They understand, in a way their parents could ignore, the threat of nuclear annihilation, of the precipice on which we are perched.
Despite all this, these young people, unlike many of their jaded elders, remain susceptible to embarrassment. The buffoon in the White House is a source of daily international humiliation. President Trump has abdicated American world leadership and has taken this country a long way back into its history of bigotry, misogyny, racism, xenophobia and cruel neglect of its neediest citizens. None of this is lost on the generation about to start voting. They have grown up thinking racism and misogyny were from the American past, and they do not want them in their country’s future.
Perhaps they are also aware that more than half the world’s population will soon be forced to move inland, away from the rising seas that result from anthropogenic climate change. They appear to know that their institutions are poorly equipped to deal with it, that their parents remain in stupid denial about it.
They are becoming enlightened to the fact that our so-called criminal justice system has become a means of permanent oppression of minority populations, that incarceration rates are absurd and unsustainable.
They seem to have recognized that America has been increasingly divided along lines of income and wealth, that mobility from one class to another is more myth and legend than reality. They are beginning to understand that fixing this requires more than tweaking, that structural changes are required, that preserving liberal democracy might mean the end of liberal capitalism as we know it. Hopefully, this doesn’t scare them. Socialism, as they understand the term, has nothing to do with the tragicomic, totalitarian parodies of Karl Marx’s vision that evolved in China and the old Soviet states.
These kids are enabled. And those obnoxious “phones” in which their entire generation’s collective nose seem to be permanently interred? They enabled a near-effortless walkout of students in 1,000 different school systems, all across America, on a single day.
But how do I know all this? I don’t. I sense it; I feel it. But I’ve been in the political game, one way or another, in some depth or another, long enough to respect my own sense of trends. Much of this discussion is about things that can’t be polled. But I know, I can sense, that they are there.
How many youngsters are we talking about? Not all, certainly. People from 18 to 35 — the generation I’m writing about — must be moved to vote, and I think they are being moved. Not all, not by a long shot, fit any of the descriptions I’ve written here. How many do? The answer, I suspect, is enough.