Feature 01.11.2024 12 minutes

The Revolt of the Kids

American University students protest Israeli attacks on Gaza in Washington

Angry young extremists are not going away or calming down. They are growing up.

An announcement for those with their heads still in the sand: there’s something up with the youths these days. They might be more fragile and less cool than the James Dean version of Hollywood legend, but they’re rebels with a cause. The kids are here, they’re queer, and they’re out to decolonize the West.

Two-thirds of young Americans ages 18 to 24 believe that Jews are “oppressors,” though 73 percent of voters overall disagree. Unsurprisingly, then, the same age cohort takes the Frantz Fanon view of the October 7 massacre, with a strong majority explicitly agreeing that the 1,200 murders and 250 kidnappings of mostly civilian Israelis—an attack they themselves agree was genocidal, per another poll question—are “justified” by the grievance of Palestinians against Israel.

But we would be foolish to imagine that this worldview, which justifies any violence on the part of the “oppressed” toward the “oppressors,” is limited to underwriting the ancient and many-faced scourge of antisemitism. Perhaps the more important result for this country is hidden later in the same poll: voters 18-24 think the belief that “white people are oppressors and nonwhite people and people of certain groups have been oppressed” is favored on campus, and the majority of them agree this is a good thing. Younger Millennials follow close behind with divided numbers, while only among voters older than 35 does this core tenet of what has been too-charmingly dubbed “wokeism” collapse into a smaller minority. Approximately half of these young voters say they believe woke ideology is bad for America, but they overwhelmingly agree with it anyway. Going beyond the poll, it’s easy to observe that for many of them harming America is the point.

The protestors of the Left, cast in the mold of the Red Guard, can seemingly be called upon to flood the streets for any Current Thing that fits into their catechism of oppressor and oppressed. They also believe this country is firmly in the “oppressor” category. It’s important not to mistake protestors’ ignorance of basic facts—like which river and which sea are supposed to serve as the limits of a “liberated” “Palestine”—for a lack of determination about their general worldview. It’s equally crucial not to indulge in the comfortable presumption that this same vanguard would not excuse the same kind of violence if it were visited upon the broader American public.

In fact, they already do in another domestic context: they excuse the disproportionate violence of black or impoverished criminals, not as the result of cultural differences or personal agency, but as the justified vengeance of the oppressed. When mobs, in violation of the law, tore down statues of Confederate and Union heroes alike in 2020, it was the “language of the unheard.”

Those surprised by this pro-terrorist moment have, for their own reasons ranging from ignorance to ideological convenience, not been paying attention. Over and over again, on fundamental points that used to be assumed common touchstones in the background of partisan politics, a division emerges that tends to split the population around the age of 35.

When polled, only 20 percent of those under 30 report themselves to feel “very patriotic” toward the United States, compared with 68 percent of Boomers. Zoomers and Millennials agree with one another that “increasing racial/ethnic diversity” is an unalloyed good for society, while Gen X, Boomers, and the Silent Generation are more split on the question. The younger generations agree also that the United States just isn’t that special, with huge majorities either counting the U.S. among a handful of good countries, or outright ranking it as deficient in comparison to others (about a third of both generations).

There are some differences between the younger Zoomers and skinny-jean-sheathed Millennials, most importantly over matters of sex and gender. But those tend to track exposure to the pronoun crowd rather than any ideological differences over what is euphemistically termed “inclusivity.”

It would be slightly more encouraging to imagine these divides as brutely partisan, with younger generations merely trending more toward the Democratic Party than their elders. The revolts of interns and staffers in the White House and Congress over the situation in Gaza suggest otherwise, as does polling that even Gen Z and Millennial self-identified Republicans are more likely than older Republicans to say blacks are treated less fairly than whites and care about climate change as a key issue.

Some of these divides may be chalked up to the differing demographic compositions of the Millennial and Gen Z crowds in comparison to past generations; those under 30 are increasingly less white and more “POC.” This activists-plus-recent-immigrants pattern visually holds in many of the American pro-Hamas demonstrations on campuses and in major cities, as opposed to those in the U.K. and Europe, where recent immigrants and their children dominate. But it would be a mistake to blame only mass immigration for this political shift: patterns in views about race and diversity across generations hold, if less strongly, when controlling for racial background.

Nor has the old adage about hearts and brains in youth and age—that people get more conservative as they get older—held as firm as conservatives might like to imagine. Millennials at 18 already entered the political fray way more Democratic-leaning than previous generations. According to research from Eric Kaufmann, they’ve actually become more left-wing with age, not less.

And as with all the other measures, Gen Z is following the same pattern as Millennials, but more so. In addition, even these polls measuring partisan affiliations undermeasure the leftward trend of younger Millennials and Zoomers, a disconnect between the Democratic establishment and its base that can be seen clearly in the divisions over the Gaza war and other issues where D.C. Democrats buck the radicalism of the Squad. Even Kaufmann’s study design only tracks further allegiance to the Democratic Party, and doesn’t account for the trend leftward within it, itself driven by Millennial and Gen Z voters clashing with their more establishment-type party elders.

All these polls and voting patterns add up to a simple reality: Americans under 35 have very different commitments and assumptions than older generations on some of the most important matters of politics, in a way that’s not simply reflective of perennial gripes about wayward youths. Disabuse yourself forever of the idea that the blue-haired kids on campus will be educated and transformed by the vicissitudes of the “real world” and the responsibilities of family life; instead, they’ve transformed the real world into a campus quad and declined, for a variety of reasons, to form the families that would force them to grow up.

Ignorance Is Power

Two related questions of paramount importance emerge: how did this happen, and what can we do about it?

There are likely many causes, but I’d like to leap over the heads of the usual (and accurate) lamentations about technology, social media, family breakdown, and the rest to point out something more directly the result of public policy. Contra the insistence of habitual contrarians, indoctrination works. The takeover of higher education, and then the K-12 system, by the Left is a 70-year-long project famously identified by William F. Buckley in God and Man at Yale, wherein he pointed out that procedural liberalism under the guise of “free speech” or “academic freedom” was not enough to preserve the core purpose—a normative purpose—of the university. In more recent decades, the Right has abandoned this purpose even for elementary and secondary education and embraced the divorce between asserting a vision of the good and teaching the “three Rs,” consequently leaving the education system wide open for leftist radicals with their own strong vision of the good—and the bad.

This is a division that would have been incomprehensible to America’s first advocates for universal public education, who saw its entire purpose as crafting patriotic American citizens capable of self-government. “Begin with the infant in his cradle; let the first word he lisps be Washington,” wrote Noah Washington, who might be described as the country’s first textbook magnate. Our own textbook empires embrace a slightly different vision, resting on what they call “our DE&I strategic pillars.” Not inconsequently, less than a quarter of eighth-grade students are proficient in American civics.

Nor is the jaw-dropping ignorance of Americans under 40 some kind of excuse or explanation for the shifts in perspective. Too often, as with specifics about rivers and seas, ignorance of facts is mistaken as lack of overall worldview. But it’s quite easy to give kids the impression that America, along with broader Western civilization, is the bad guy of history without imparting specific knowledge. The well-documented inability of people under 40 to pass even the most basic of quizzes about the facts and construction of our Constitution, governance, and other third-grade topics is a feature, not a bug, of our current education system.

A toxic combination of ignorance and strongly ideological priors leaves young people especially vulnerable to the half-facts of perennially dishonest and hateful manipulators like Noam Chomsky. This, more than anything else, explains the reaction of shocked TikTokers upon the realization that mass murder mastermind Osama bin Laden could play the strings on the oppression harp as well as the average MSU college student.

In fact, specific knowledge, beyond a handful of narrative-confirming facts, is a disadvantage to propagandists: “Woe be to him that reads but one book.” It’s entirely possible, and indeed seems to be exactly the case, that America’s student body graduates without knowing the three branches of government, but feeling quite certain that America is racist.

Lest we forget the outrages of a couple years ago in this fast-moving news environment, the false and America-hating 1619 Project produced teaching materials used in more than 3,500 schools in the country. And the 1619 Project itself was merely the capstone of an attempt already decades in the making: to convince successive generations of Americans to hate their country. Out of the largest 100 school districts, home to millions of students, not a single one has the words “America” or “patriotism” in its formal mission statement, a revealing statistic indeed.

For understandable reasons, many Americans view the 1990s, the childhood decade of today’s mid-30s Millennials, as a triumphant, patriotic, and “normie” time. But it was also the decade and a half in which the radicals of 1968 managed to get their first batch of university-indoctrinated students into the teaching workforce. I grew up in a blue enclave ahead of its time in this sense, but by the mid-aughts, I was already learning a version of history in which America’s sins were distorted and magnified out of any proportion with her virtues; later, this same version of history would become standard, against the background of which more radical and sloppy updates like 1619 would be easily accepted.

X Marks the Spot

There is a temptation to view the radicalism of younger generations as something recent, as though wokeness sprung from the ether sometime around 2017. Nothing could be more damaging to the chances of preserving the America we remember and love than to imagine that a return to 1990s liberalism—the fertile ground from which the more aggressive form of anti-Americanism was born—will solve our current problems.

In response to a debate about the disruptive introduction of social media and smartphones earlier in the year, Ross Douthat wrote of the social liberalism of the 90s—secularization, loosening of mores around casual sex, divorce, increased drug normalization—that for a time seemed stable, contra the warnings of the Moral Majority at the time.

But then the smartphone revolution asked people raised under these conditions—raised with less family stability and weak attachments to religion, with a strong emphasis on self-creation and a strong hostility to “normativity”—to enter and forge a new social world. And they went forth and created the online world we know today, with its pinball motion between extremes of toxic narcissism and the solidarity of the mob, its therapy-speak unmoored from real community, its conspiracism and ideological crazes, its mimetic misery and despairing catastrophism.

All of which has made social liberalism look much more unsustainable and self-undermining than it did in 2008.

To Douthat’s analysis, I would only add the central importance of the education system’s increasingly anti-American normative commitments. From the vantage point of 2023, the shallow liberalism of the ’90s and aughts seems less like a way to salve our current divisions and more like pointing to a snapshot of a ball being thrown through the air and declaring “see, it stays up of its own accord!”

As regards to solutions, simplicity remains a friend: when you’re in a pit, the first thing to do is stop digging. Every year, a new rank of cultural revolutionaries is graduated into every institution in the country, from Fortune 500 companies and white shoe law firms, to the FBI and DOJ, to the U.S. Congress and the White House, now battling their own junior staffers. The more philosophical roots of our malaise—the crisis faced alternatively by Nietzsche and Dostoevsky—might not be easily solved. But institutions, especially those dependent on the public fisc, are a much more malleable enterprise. The American public above 35 or so has remained quite stubbornly resistant to strains of the woke mind virus, and with the right leadership, could, if they choose to, break the pipeline pumping out young hostiles annually as a legitimate exercise of democratic power.

A final note of caution to temper the policy optimism: there is no “one weird trick” to fix the generational wars to come. Even if the Right breaks its addiction to losing and aggressively transforms our education system and institutions, the country will still have to digest a generation and a half of radicals like a snake eating an ox. Millennials are the largest generation in history at 72 million and change, and when no longer counterbalanced by aging Boomers, they will come into an enormous amount of wealth and power, likely dashing hopes of a “woke retreat.”

It’s no accident that the rising stars of the Right who seem to “know what time it is” tend to be Gen X: Ron DeSantis, J.D. Vance, Josh Hawley, and others. Gen X is also trending rightward faster than Boomers did at their age. Any possibility of victory may hinge on the famously apathetic generation that prides itself on DGAF stepping up to the plate before Millennials fully take over. It’s also no accident that the future leadership of the Left is overwhelmingly Millennial, as AOC and the members of the Squad can attest. Boomers may be the butt of many an online joke, but when they pass from the political scene, it’ll almost certainly be for the worse.

The hour is late to notice the kids are not all right, but the voters of America still favor sanity, for now. Whether or not we preserve that America for posterity will depend on what the Right does with that reality in the next five years.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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