Will COVID-19 radicalize young people forever? Don't count on it

Will COVID-19 radicalize young people forever? Don't count on it
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Young Americans, including millennials and their Gen Z counterparts, are routinely blamed for doomsday trends that range from the lengthening work day to declining patronage of chain restaurants. But for Americans of a certain political bent, all this, even the avocado toast, may be forgivable if the youngsters vote Democratic. “A progressive youthquake is coming,” TIME magazine wrote in a February cover story, arguing that the combined experiences of 9/11, the War on Terror, a financial collapse and its lingering economic consequences all but guarantee that new voters will be “distinctly more liberal than their elders.”

Now, some are predicting that COVID-19 will be the latest outside force to radically shift young voters to the left. The Washington Post recently noted that “as the pandemic and its economic havoc exacerbate disparities, some Gen Zers see grim validation of their support for the government-run programs and social-welfare policies less popular with their parents and grandparents.”

This article quotes several young, left-leaning activists, including one dubbed “America’s Greta Thunberg,” who “have been using some of their time in self-quarantine to organize protests and grow the movements behind their own causes. They have incorporated the pandemic into their messaging about health care, climate change and income inequality.”

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By now, the logic has become a cliché. Voters decide elections, and if young voters become uniformly liberal, then every future election will resemble a “progressive youthquake.” 

Experts in the media who opine on the next generation hold these truths to be self-evident: that patriotism and individualism are out, while democratic socialism and paper straws are in. 

But these grand pronouncements are premature, to say the least. Generational stereotypes by definition brush a lot under the rug, and prophecies of woke younger generations are no exception. While pundits gaze into crystal balls, plenty of younger conservatives are also hard at work building a wholly different future. We’ve stepped up our engagement in many ways, even if our actions lie below the surface of daily politics and simplistic efforts to describe the largest generation in U.S. history.

Consider the policy debates on the right today, which are more dynamic and intellectual than any other time in decades. The buffet of issues is rich: The nature of the American founding; the proper relationships among the market, the state, civil society and faith; and how we should correct the mistakes of past generations. Young conservatives also are beginning to debate the national response to COVID-19 and what it means for the future of our free-market economy.

In my own experience, as a participant in The Fund for American Studies’ Public Policy Fellowship, I have participated in seminars where young people are excited to debate the legacy of our Founding Fathers, the nature of statesmanship, and the roots of the ideas so many of us take for granted today. As these classmates go on to careers in government and academia, they will shape the future as surely as any progressive will. Of course, conservatives can’t predict the future — and that’s the point. We simply can’t know what tomorrow will bring, which is why debates about underlying philosophy and values are so important. 

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Projections about how the next generation will transform America grossly overestimate our ability to game out the full impact of broad demographic trends. When researchers first coined the term “millennial” in 1987, nobody could have foreseen the events that are now recognized as shaping the worldviews of millions of children. For that matter, the COVID-19 pandemic itself — which will supposedly cement a permanent leftward shift among young people — was unimaginable just four months ago. Going forward, what watershed political moments will resonate with this generation as we continue to age? We won’t know until they happen.

Similarly, it’s easy to forget how unpredictable political ideas of the day are. No one had even heard of the Green New Deal two years ago; now it’s as fashionable as causes come on the left. How can we know what issues will matter in 2040, let alone how people will feel about those issues?

“It’s tough to make predictions,” one proverb observes, “especially about the future.” It’s even more difficult when those predictions are supposed to cover a group of 70 million people. The coming “progressive youthquake” is a simple and convenient story, but the real world remains messy and unpredictable. Will the popular predictions come true? It’s up to the next generation of conservatives, engaged in an honest dialogue with our fellow millennials and Gen Zers, to ensure that they do not.

Robert Bellafiore Jr. is a congressional staffer and public policy fellow with The Fund for American Studies