Periodically in our country’s history, about every 80 years, the U.S. debates the eternal question of the purpose of our government — to help the citizenry or to get out of its way, authors Morley Winograd and Mike Hais explain in their books Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America and Millennial Makeover.

In the Revolutionary period (1773-1789), the Founding Fathers debated the role of the federal government and its taxing powers. During the Civil War era (1860-1877) we attempted to come to grips with civil rights and state sovereignty. In the New Deal era, the three branches of government battled over the appropriate controls over the Industrial Revolution and debated government’s role in balancing individual liberty of contract with social controls on economic issues.

Now again, authors Winograd and Hais explain, a new generation has emerged, one which will participate in strong debates over the proper nature of our civic order. These Millennials are spiritual, but not tied to churches, service-oriented and in favor of collective action. They prefer multinational government actions and are tolerant on social issues and supportive of immigration. They support a balanced budget, but are not doctrinaire.

Why all these insights are particularly interesting is that the attitudes of Millennials are not reflected in any of the complaints raised by Republican candidates for public office in the recent elections or in the current presidential debates. This insight leads to the possibility that what is going on in national debates over major issues and in the Republican primaries — healthcare reform or recalibration of taxes — is not reflective of what might be the relevant issues in the 2012 election. Millennials want equity, fairness and decency.

We need to know who Millennials are and what their values are because they will compose the largest generation in U.S. history, already are about 25 percent of the present electorate and will be about one-third by the end of this decade. Hardcore Republicans and Democrats, ideologues, will vote their party’s candidate. The 10 percent of new and independent voters will swing the election. President Obama is surely taking note, and might surprise his current critics — but not Millennials and the folks who know about them.

Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington-based lawyer, author and literary agent.