The sudden rise of far left members of the US House of Representatives has become one of the highlights of this political season in Washington. A particular object of attention has been the “Squad” formed by charismatic Democratic congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts), and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan). All four are capable, ambitious minority women who command the public spotlight. All four are also among President Donald Trump’s fiercest critics and seek to bring about a sharp left turn in US politics.
Strong female leaders and ambitious politicians are never in short supply in the United States. There are also many bitter adversaries of Trump around. However the “gang of four”, or “fab four” to be kind, is not just the latest trend this season. In fact, the Squad can be viewed as an expression of a new and far from marginal trend in US public opinion. It was already apparent three years ago when Democratic Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders, who proudly calls himself a “democratic socialist”, suddenly emerged as a serious contender for the Democratic nomination in the primary contest against Hillary Clinton.
Observers suggested various explanations for this turn to the left in the US, pointing to social, racial, gender and even regional factors. The most convincing of them links the rising leftward tide with the values and priorities of the generation of Americans known as millennials.
Millennials, also known as Generation Y, the internet[ generation or the echo-boomers, are the demographic cohort that entered adulthood around the turn of the third millennium. In the US, this generation usually covers people born between 1981 and 2003, and is followed by the cohort known as Generation Z that does not yet affect the political landscape in the country due to its young age.
For justice thunders condemnation
Some of the most prominent members of the radical left, excepting Bernie Sanders who is almost 80, are either Generation Y or not far off. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born in 1989, and Ilhan Omar in 1981. It is not a surprise then that they view millennials as their natural political base. In addition, most millennial leaders have not had any significant experience in the private sector or even in public service, having built their careers in civil society or political movements.
The programs offered by the far left have much in common with the traditional set of slogans used by the left-wing social democrats in Europe over the past century, adapted for the US and the 21st century: affordable or even free higher education, and possibly student loan forgiveness, a substantial minimum wage hike, national guaranteed healthcare for all, expedited legalization for immigrants and fast-track procedures for obtaining US citizenship.
Climate change and environmental protection also feature prominently in their programs. In particular, they propose decarbonizing the economy by as early as 2030. Of course, millennial leaders oppose shale oil and gas extraction, and the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Climate Agreements. They want tougher environmental standards domestically, and for the US to emerge as a global climate champion internationally. Moreover, they want to stop the US from intervening abroad and reduce the US military presence across the world, refocusing instead on human rights and multilateral diplomacy. Even if millennial leaders can be called patriots, this is definitely not the kind of patriotism embraced by Donald Trump.
It goes without saying that all the wondrous social ideas of the far left entail lavish spending, and this money will naturally come from the rich through higher tax rates of up to 90 percent on affluent Americans, curbing Wall Street’s financial appetite and putting an end to tax havens where US corporation hide their profits from the IRS. Slashing defense spending or assistance to foreign allies and client states abroad is also an option. Specifically, the far left is accused of anti-Semitism for its criticism of Israel’s current policies and the pro-Israel policy of the Trump administration.
We have been nought, we shall be all!
Youth radicalism in itself is not something new to the history of the US, let alone humankind. It is conventional wisdom that anyone who is not a liberal at 20 has no heart, while anyone who is still one at 40 has no brain. Still, the millennials are quite a special generation that grew up in the age of the internet, globalization, the emergence of digital technology, the “unipolar moment” in geopolitics and expectations of the “end of history”. The unique nature of the last two decades of the 20th century shaped both their strengths and weaknesses.
Millennials differ from the preceding generation, known in the US as Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980), as being more creative, adaptive and having a more pronounced sense of social responsibility. They care about the environment and other global issues. Millennials are citizens of the world to a much greater extent than any other generation in the US. They are critical thinkers, unwilling to follow generally accepted role models – the first generation to have idols but not heroes.
At the same time, millennials have problems with communication, especially when faced with strict hierarchies, lack team skills and readily escape problems of everyday life through social media or computer games. Millennials are narcissists, and their self-image is usually exaggerated rather than understated. In terms of their professional qualities, they are often more prone to taking risks, but have less ambition than their parents. The average millennial would rather fit work into their lifestyle rather than vice versa. All in all, millennials prefer to discuss projects rather than careers. They often change jobs and even professions.
The fact that millennials take longer to become mature adults compared to past generations in the US is equally important, at least when it comes to becoming “mature” in the traditional sense of the word. Generation Y tends to hold on to teenage fantasies longer, putting off decisions that involve greater personal responsibility, be it moving out of their parents’ home, marrying or having children. This generation is also prone to spend more, devoting their income to consumption, entertainment and travel without thinking about savings. Losing a job or being unable to pay the bills is much less of an incentive for millennials compared to the preceding generation. They rely on their parents for financial support, and also on government paternalism. Moreover, they have little faith in stability and permanent employment. Many millennials were affected by the 2008−2009 global financial crisis, when youth unemployment in the US for persons under 24 years old exceeded 20 percent for the first time in many decades.
If there are role models that can inspire millennials, they are the successful young entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley, who are believed to make huge amounts of money out of thin air and have mastered the skill of living a hedonistic lifestyle while also being successful in business. This is where the naïve nature of this generation is exposed. First, this conception of Silicon Valley is somewhat superficial, and second, Silicon Valley as a socioeconomic phenomenon is more the exception than the rule even in the United States.
The earth shall rise on new foundations
Respected US economists have demonstrated time and again that the plans of the far left are impossible by definition. No punitive tax rate on the rich, no matter how high, will ever cover the astronomical cost of the social programs of the leftists. In addition, they argue that in a globalized world big capital will always find a safe harbor should the need arise. France is one such example, where former President Francois Hollande tried to tax annual income exceeding 1 million euros at the rate of 75 percent. The result was far short of spectacular, and the tax was canceled two years later.
However, conservatives are also trying to attack the far left on moral and ethical grounds. Even if the proposals of the “fab four” become reality, are they fair? For example, student loan forgiveness would be unfair to millions of Americans who had to tighten their belts for many years in order to pay off their loans in full and on schedule. Extending various benefits to illegal migrants would devalue the many years of efforts required from “legal” immigrants to obtain US citizenship. The idea of giving up private medical insurance in favor of universal guaranteed health coverage is regarded as an attack on fundamental freedoms and can be easily challenged in court.
What about the idea of raising the minimum wage that is so popular among the far left? Conservatives argue not without irony that this would be a very humane step to protect the poorest members of society. In fact, why not pay workers $15 per hour in New York or $14 in Washington? But in reality what this means is that an owner of a laundry, a dinner or a repair shop who used to higher three workers, waiters or loaders, will only hire two at a higher minimum wage.
The far left is accused of populism, of not knowing how things are in real life, of being politically irresponsible and betraying America’s fundamental values and traditions, especially since few of its leaders are from families who have been in the US for generations. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s mother is from Puerto-Rico, Rashida Tlaib comes from a family of Palestinian refugees, and Ilhan Omar is a Somalian refugee.
Millennials are mostly well educated and skeptical by nature, so it is unlikely that they fail to notice the glaring inconsistencies and shortcomings in the programs of the far left. And yet they continue to lend the far left their support. Politics in the US is becoming increasingly polarized, leaving millennials no other choice. They do not see idols, let alone heroes, in respectable democrats from the Clinton or Obama era. At the same time, millennials are even less inclined to support Trump. And so, of course, this new wave of leftists looks young, glamourous, eloquent and forward looking by comparison! As for making good on the goals shared by the “fab four”, didn’t posters during the 1968 Paris Spring say “Be Realistic – Demand the Impossible”?
'Tis the final conflict
Understandably, far left activism sows discord within the already disorderly ranks of the Democratic Party and plays into the hands of Donald Trump. The more influential the radicals become, the better his odds of being reelected in 2020. The fact that Democrats will waste time and effort on infighting is not the only reason. By their activism the far left helps the current president make a caricature of the entire Democratic Party, portraying its candidates as seeking to bring Soviet or China-style socialism to America.
In this context, it should not come as a surprise that Trump has no desire to put out the fire started by the “fab four,” but is seeking to fan the flames with inflammatory tweets and acerbic comments during press appearances. The president probably understands the collateral damage that comes with such statements, such as accusations of racism and sexism, and considers them acceptable costs in the struggle to hold onto his electoral base. Personal animosity is also an important factor. The far left represents everything Donald Trump hated and derided back when he worked as a real estate developer in New York.
The far left has placed Democratic heavyweights like Senator Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) and former Vice President Joe Biden in a tight spot. On the one hand, these 2020 presidential hopefuls have to incorporate at least some of the slogans of the far left in their platforms, especially since the indefatigable Bernie Sanders actually has the power to split the party and deny it any chance of winning the presidency. Ultimately, the opportunity to reframe the Democrats as the party of a new generation is too attractive to give up so easily.
On the other hand, by moving to the left, the Democratic leadership cedes the political center to the Republicans and Donald Trump, especially in the conservative South and Midwest. The 2020 election could follow the same pattern as the preceding election when Democrats took New England and the West Coast in a series of sweeping victories, while conceding the rest of the country. In 2020 Donald Trump will probably be even stronger than he was in 2016.
However, the proposals of the far left highlight an even greater problem for the Democratic Party. All its programs, whether leftist and centrist, mostly focus on a better and fairer division of the national economic pie, instead of thinking about growing the pie for everyone, as Republicans do. In fact, Democrats lack a strategy for stable economic growth, which is especially alarming against the backdrop of China’s steady economic progress.
Donald Trump will keep his edge as long as Democrats follow the words of a famous character from a Bulgakov novel: “We should take everything and divide it.”
The International working class shall be the human race!
The millennial phenomenon reaches far beyond the United States. For example, this generation is widely represented in the ranks of European green parties. Millennials are staging mass protests in Hong Kong, supporting Vladimir Zelensky in Ukraine, and building a new economy in India’s Bangalore. Deloitte recently released its Global Millennial Survey 2019 based on the views of more than 13,000 millennials across 42 countries, showing that this group shares many common traits despite hailing from diverse cultures, civilizations and social, economic and political backgrounds.
In Russia, the beginning of the millennial era is marked by Gorbachev’s perestroika (1987) rather than Ronald Regan’s election (1981) in the US. In America, millennials grew up and came of age in the prosperous and relatively calm years of late 20th century, while their Russian peers lived through the shocks and cataclysms of the first post-Soviet decade.
Russian millennials arguably had to grow up faster compared to their US peers. The time they lived through may have forced them to become more independent, bold and determined. Surveys also show that young Russians are mostly pessimistic about the future compared to their peers abroad. In the Deloitte survey, India had an “Optimism index” of 65, compared to 61 for China, 40 for the US and only 25 for Russia.
However, just like anywhere in the world Russian millennials were influenced by the same fundamental and irreversible factors such as the internet, globalization and digital technology. Therefore, it is in vain that conservatives from the aging baby boom generation in the United States, Russia or China expect the millennials to mature and become like their parents. This would require putting a stop to globalization, abandoning the digital economy and returning to the bygone world of the 20th century. The idea of reversing the course of history is considerably more utopian that even the wildest dreams of the far left.
If so, the millennials will not have to get used to the surrounding political reality, but rather the political reality will have to accommodate the millennials. In the 1960s−1970s the boomers brought revolutionary change to all areas of life, from art, fashion and sexual morals to civil rights, science and technology, and nuclear arms control. Millennials will probably affect human civilization in the 21st century to the same or even greater extent.
Of course, as time goes by, most US echo boomers will listen to reason. They will embark on successful careers in major corporations, move from metropolitan areas to the suburbs, dutifully pay their mortgages and complain about the next generation, Generation Z, also known as the post-millennials, plurals, i-generation or Generation Snowflake. But this won’t happen tomorrow, in a year or even a decade. The “fab four” still have every chance to gain a foothold in Washington politics.