The 2012 election will present the United States with a stark choice between two radically different visions of the country's future. Which of these competing visions becomes the nation's future is likely to be determined by the strength and effectiveness of the Millennial Generation's participation in next year's election.
Whatever is said at this week's debate, the Republican Party is sure to nominate a candidate committed to the vision of its Tea Party base, with even Mitt Romney now tacking in that direction. The mantra of smaller government, lower taxes and an unwillingness to engage in collective effort to solve national challenges has been embraced by every one of its candidates, most notably the current favorite, Texas governor Rick Perry, who has promised to "make Washington DC as inconsequential as possible." By contrast, President Barack Obama has continued to articulate the vision of "shared sacrifice and shared opportunities" that will be at the heart of his campaign message.
In 2008, Millennials provided Obama with roughly 7 million, or 80 percent, of his 8.5 million popular vote margin. However, only forty-one percent of all Millennials, (born 1982- 2003) were eligible to vote that year. In 2012, about sixty percent of the generation will be eligible to vote, representing a potential voting block of one out of every four adult Americans. In addition to the sheer size of the generation, its philosophical unity makes it an especially powerful force.
By a 54 percent to 39 percent margin, Millennials favor a bigger government with more services, over a smaller government with fewer services, almost the reverse of the attitudes of older generations. While older generations are split on the question, Millennials by a clear 51% to 43% margin believe government needs to regulate business to protect the public interest rather than accepting the GOP argument that such regulation usually does more harm than good. On another issue that divides partisans, Millennials, by 62% to 34%, favor the Supreme Court basing its decisions on what the Constitution currently means rather than how it was originally written.
Millennials are equally unified against GOP conservatism on most of the current hot button social issues. By 64% to 31%, Millennials favor gay marriage; only 40% of older voters agree with them on that issue. By an overwhelming 82% to 16% margin, Millennials also favor a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The Millennials' belief in sharing and inclusion extends to foreign policy, with 64% of them believing that the United States must take into account the interests of its international allies, even if this involves compromise.
While it is almost inevitable that attitudes like these will form the core of the nation's civic ethos by the end of this decade, when Millennials will represent more than one out of every three adult Americans, the choice of which path to choose will be before the country in a much clearer and more immediate way in 2012.
A few Republicans realize the danger this constituency represents to their cause. Some young Republicans, like Margaret Hoover, great granddaughter of the President and Meghan McCain, daughter of the GOP's last presidential candidate, supported by analysts like pollster Kristen Soltis, have warned their party that it must change some of their policies, particularly on social issues, if it is to make inroads among Millennials. Other, more cynical Republicans have orchestrated campaigns in state after state to restrict voter turnout among Millennials, particularly college students.
The challenge for Millennials is to overcome these obstacles and stay engaged in the process of change they initiated in 2008. Twice before in America's history, a generation committed, as Millennials are, to institutional change and a rebirth of civic purpose, guided the country through traumatic times and put it on a path to greatness.
From 1773, the year of the Boston Tea Party, until the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1789, Americans fought and argued about the type of government that would be true to the ideals of equality and inalienable rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence, but would also be strong enough to meet the needs of a new and growing nation. The Constitution, whose adoption finally resolved this issue, was devised by members of the Republican Generation (the Millennials of their day) such as James Madison. Their vision prevailed over the attitudes of older leaders like Patrick Henry, whose words Tea Partiers are fond of quoting. Henry opposed the new Constitution as vigorously as he had supported the Revolution because of his fear of a more powerful federal government.
About a century and a half later, from 1929 until 1941, the country argued over the wisdom of giving that very same federal government a central role in guiding the economy and providing opportunity and social justice for all Americans. Thanks to the enthusiastic support of young members of the GI Generation, FDR's New Deal for the forgotten man became so ingrained in the nation's political consensus that not even World War II hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower, challenged its basic premises when he became the first Republican president to be elected after the Great Depression.
Now it is the Millennials' turn to provide the same spirit and commitment to generating a new civic ethos for the United States in the 21st century. Whenever the country has torn itself apart arguing over the size and scope or purpose of government, the responsibility for resolving the dispute and preserving American democracy has fallen to its youngest adult generation.
Which path the United States eventually chooses will be determined by the willingness of Millennials to engage in a vast civic endeavor to remake America and its institutions and the willingness of the rest of the country to follow their lead. The 2012 election provides Millennials with the opportunity to take control of this debate, pick up where they left off in 2008, and place the country firmly on a path aligned with their own liberal, Democratic beliefs. If they become as involved in this presidential election as they were in the last one, their optimistic, problem-solving attitudes will eventually triumph over the doomsayers and doubters of America's future and place a stamp upon the country's civic ethos as enduring and positive as those of our Founding Fathers and the GI Generation.