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Are Millennials Calling for a Truce on the Culture Wars?

Millennials and the Future of the Culture Wars Jose Carrazco

Jose Carrazco

Brian Brown - published on 05/02/14

The battle may already be over - and that’s a good thing.
“The last thirty years have left many Millennials with some baggage. The fire-breathing model of engagement practiced by some leaders of the ‘Moral Majority’ left many Millennials with a bad taste in their mouth. The disillusioned and justly confused Millennial masses include many young pastors and scholars who find their identity in the vibrant ‘big gospel’ movement of the last decade (like the New York Times, you may have just heard of it). Young Christian leaders today often express a desire to distance themselves from the Moral Majority.”

Owen Strachan recently wrote the above excerpt as part of an article that points out two main things. First, that Millennials tend to shy away from “culture war” language, leaders, and organizations. Second, that they need to figure out an alternative way to approach cultural issues. It’s fine to criticize the previous generation’s style of engagement, but you’ve got to come up with your own alternative—because (as anyone who cares about anything can tell you) good outcomes rarely come without somebody standing up for them.

But the fact that Millennials don’t identify with hot air and antagonism doesn’t mean they can’t approach the same kinds of problems the Purveyors of Hot Air and Antagonism did. In fact, they’re starting to deal with them already, and their approach is well grounded in the Millennial mind.

So what’s the future of the culture wars?

Morality in American Politics

A little context: Americans approach politics in a bizarre way. Politics, as democratic and republican societies know it, is supposed to be a mechanism for collective problem-solving. You’re trying to figure out how to fix the potholes in the street, or get water to that new city, or create and/or support social structures that help a kid grow into a healthy, civilized adult.

Since people tend to disagree about the best way to do pretty much everything, and not everybody can be involved in conversations like that, voters are supposed to vote for the candidates they think will best contribute to the conversations.

But we don’t vote like that. Noah Millman writes:

“The culture war turns politics into a question of identity, of tribalism, and hence narrows the effective choice in elections. We no longer vote for the person who better represents our interests, but for the person who talks our talk, sees the world the way we do, is one of us.”

He’s right, although it goes back further than the culture wars. As Donald Green and his co-authors documented in their book “Partisan Hearts and Minds,” Americans basically pick a side (and even that decision is heavily influenced by outside forces) and then vote, as Millman indicates, for the guy who is one of us. We are pretty much impervious to arguments coming from people who are not one of us. Our politics are infused with a morality of identity.

This means our conversations–on the rare occasion they’re even conversations–aren’t usually about convincing someone of something. They’re either about beating somebody, or, at best, convincing somebody he’s the bad guy (which is what winning a zero-sum, culture war argument amounts to).

This is a serious problem. On one level, of course, there are very real moral quandaries in politics, and the morality of our politics is one of our great strengths—we want to promote what we believe to be right and stop what we believe to be wrong. But the kind of morality that infuses American politics has been taken beyond where politics is supposed to go—a sort of “migration of the holy,” where we ascribe near-religious significance (and therefore near-apocalyptic measures) to political considerations.

While this mistake is deeply rooted in the American political psyche, it’s still a mistake. Problem-solving political climates don’t mean things are always civil–Cato and Cicero and Johnson and Burke and Jefferson and Adams said horrible things about each other. But they recognize that politics is the domain of prudence, not heaven and hell. They suggest that proposed solutions that purport to answer a question once and for all time for a huge country (think Prohibition) are a very risky proposition indeed, because of the risks if Society is wrong, and because they do not allow for the growth of the collective wisdom of a civilization. As C.S. Lewis observed:

“A political programme can never in reality be more than probably right. We never know all the facts about the present and we can only guess the future. To attach to a party programme – whose highest real claim is to reasonable prudence – the sort of assent which we should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind of intoxication.”

Morality in the Millennial Mind

But historically, America hasn’t agreed with Lewis. And here’s how this kind of totalizing politics has played out for the typical Millennial.

He is raised in ideological isolation (most of my liberal college friends had literally never met a conservative when they arrived on campus). He is instructed in the narratives and myths of Our Side. And then he is sent into a world where the political objective is the total annihilation of whatever Their Side likes—abortion, marriage, discrimination, perhaps even government as we know it. It’s an all-or-nothing game where the evil enemy is well-meaning, well-informed people who want what they think is best for society.

Millennials want to get as far as possible from this approach, partly because it contradicts a more fundamental value set that had a greater influence on their minds. They’ve been raised in a high-achiever culture where everything they do is judged by grades, results. These are practical considerations; problem-solver considerations. As a result, they tend to think about things in those kinds of terms.

That’s partly why they hate the culture war rhetoric, and by and large, the moralism of the American political psyche. It doesn’t mesh with their own psyche. They can, of course, like Cato or Jefferson, be moralistic themselves to the point of fundamentalism and stupidity (everyone can), but they tend to respond well to political narratives that resonate with their upbringings—solving problems and improving a world rather than destroying enemies and bringing about heaven. They are more likely to agree with Makoto Fujimura, who says “Culture is not a territory to be won; it is instead a resource we are called to steward.”

While there are pros and cons to this as far as the Millennials themselves (we could have another conversation about their tendency toward moral libertarianism or their apathy towards religion), it’s potentially a huge boon to American politics—an opportunity for it to become, in fact, politics. If alternative narratives are offered to Millennials, ones that discard the zero-sum approach and provide room for balancing competing interests, Millennials have been set up to respond well to them.

The future of the “culture wars” is that there isn’t one. The specific issues involved in the culture wars, of course, still inspire great enthusiasm and anger when they’re approached in the same old way. The moral questions are still real and still important.

But, and here again I agree with Millman, the culture war issues shouldn’t be foundation points for political coalitions. Morals are real, but political moral identities are man-made constructions, and as any decent political philosopher can tell you, there is supposed to be a crucial buffer zone between what is right/wrong and how (or whether) it should be engaged politically. Politics is the domain of prudence; of making compromises and solving problems—not of creating scenarios where we can’t vote for a good person who disagrees with us on one issue, or where we vilify a politician for finding a middle ground (i.e. for “being a good legislator”), or where everything we dislike ought to be banned and destroyed.

In rejecting the moralistic-identity framework, Millennials aren’t really rejecting politics as we know it, in any historical sense. They’re rejecting politics as their parents knew it; an anti-democratic environment of competing pseudo-religious zealots.

Conclusion: Talk Millennial. You’ll last longer.

Leaders are needed who can speak the Millennial language. But unlike Strachan, I think they’re already starting to exist.

The organizations that are making headway with Millennials on the old issues are engaging people across the existing aisles, and using strategies that make that possible in the current political climate (which usually means stepping outside existing “movement” organizations). The Love and Fidelity Network gives college students an intensely personal (rather than partisan) look at sexuality and the possible consequences of how they view it (I recently returned from an LFN-initiated conference where I had fabulous problem-solving conversations with some very surprised gay rights activists). The Institute for Family Studies brings together bipartisan researchers to focus on a problem-solver’s question: how to strengthen the family and its outcomes for children. The Center for Bioethics and Culture has sidestepped existing biases and put together a coalition of religious conservatives and liberal feminists to demand greater scrutiny on current artificial reproduction industries (including egg donation schemes and their effect on women).

And Millennials themselves (I’m one of them) are finding, often to their great surprise, how many productive conversations about cultural and social issues are actually possible in the world of real politics.

Brian Brownis a social fundraising consultant and cultural critic based in Colorado. He is the senior editor of Humane Pursuits. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianBrownSF.

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