Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Are Young People Really Progressive As New Study Claims?

Ruy Teixeira has published a few articles (and even co-authored a book), in which he argues that the United States is becoming a more "progressive" society. Now, Teixeira and his colleague David Madland of the Center for American Progress, have released a study which concludes that the "Millennial" generation is strongly progressive (view the full report here).

In the past, I have viewed these types of studies with a high degree of skepticism. First, I believe that it is very difficult to articulate a list of factors that define an individual as "progressive." Second, public opinion is highly malleable, and people's responses to a set of specific policy questions might reflect the politics of the moment rather than longterm ideological commitment. Third, younger people's views tend to be more fluid, thus exacerbating the problem of measuring their longterm ideological commitments. In addition to these general methodological problems, I have some specific "questions" about the Teixeira and Madland study.

Voting for Obama = Progressive?
The first nine pages of the study report how well Obama performed among voters in the 18-29-year-old category. Exit poll studies have already revealed that Obama received a huge share of younger votes. Madland and Teixeira interpret this fact as an indication of the age group's progressive values: "Millennials backed Obama primarily because he reflects their progressive view of the world and progressive policy preferences. . . ."

Obama represented many things to different individuals. But as many progressives who supported Obama are recently discovering, political campaigns and governance are not the same. A lot of liberals constructed Obama as being far more progressive than other candidates -- including, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards -- without having a tangible basis for such a claim. Madland and Teixeira demonstrate that Millenials' support of Obama was far greater than their support for Kerry, but Obama and Kerry are pretty close in terms of social policy. Saying that a candidate is progressive and then voting overwhelmingly for that person does not make the candidate or the voter progressive.

Post-Gender and Post-Racialism Are Not Inherently Progressive Positions
Despite the blatant role of race and gender in the 2008 election, many political commentators have celebrated the arrival of America's new "post-racial" and "post-gender" landscape. Even though Obama ultimately won the national election on the strength of black, women, and Latino voters, many commentators view his election and Hillary Clinton's strong performance as proof of the social irrelevance of race and sex. Not only is this view contradictory, but it is not inherently "progressive" as Madland and Teixeira assume.

To Madland and Teixeira identity-blindness is a positive thing. The authors applaud the Millennials for believing that race is not a "big deal," and they enthusiastically proclaim that: "Barack Obama’s election is just the beginning—America’s postracial future is fast approaching." They make a similar observation with respect to gender: "Just as with race, gender equality is rapidly becoming a nonissue with Millennials."

Critical theorists have produced a rich body of literature that contests the idea that race- and gender-blindness produce progressive outcomes. Not only is this argument inconsistent with Millennials' support for Obama, but this view has also justified conservative resistance to policies designed to create educational diversity and equal employment opportunity.

As long as social inequities correlate with race and gender, the post-identity rhetoric will preclude an honest discussion of and solutions to inequality. Conjoined racial isolation and poverty severely limit opportunities for advancement. Dismissing race and sex in the name of progress does not alter this harsh reality.

Lack of "Context": Measuring Future Generations By Past Standards
The study also questionably measures the "progressive" ideology of the Millennials based on their support of historically contested ideas that were considered progressive to earlier generations. The study fails to articulate a new set of values that might provide a more accurate measure of how cutting-edge today's Millennials are.

The study, for example, shows that Millennials are less likely to believe in creationism, do not believe a "woman's place is in the home," favor government-sponsored health care, believe in same-sex marriage, and support a move to renewable energy and a reduction in dependence on fossil fuels. Opposing the idea that a "woman's place is in the home" might have been a radical concept (especially if she were white and wealthy) up until World War II, but the post-War era and the second wave feminist movement greatly altered societal beliefs in "women's work." The fact that today's younger people embrace concepts that centuries of social movement activity and subsequent legal reforms have legitimized does not make them more progressive. Instead, it gives them a different set point than their predecessors.

Conflating Idealism With Progressive Ideology?
Finally, several aspects of the study suggest that the opinions of the respondents correspond with age, rather than ideology. The authors cite to studies which purportedly demonstrate a continuity in ideology across an individual's lifetime. Even if these studies are accurate, age could still determine an individual's response to many of the questions in the survey.

For example, younger respondents want much more regulation and governmental involvement in economic affairs. Younger respondents are also less cynical and more trusting of the government than older respondents. The authors attempt to dismiss this fact by explaining that younger respondents are more cynical than younger persons who completed similar surveys in the past. But this qualification does not answer how today's Millennial's would have viewed politics if they lived in the past.

Youthful idealism could also explain the Millennial's embrace of post-racial and post-gender politics. Once younger people and their friends report experiences with discrimination in the workplace, then their views on the insignificance of race and sex will likely shift.

Because public opinion is contextual and shaped by the media, social movements, politicians and contemporaneous events, it is very difficult to discern ideological commitments from short-term viewpoints. The Madland and Teixeira study focuses on "hot-button" social issues that have informed much of the "adult" lives of the Millennials. Hillary Clinton took "the bullet" on healthcare reform in the 1990s, but today, her thinking on the subject informs the so-called progressive commitment of the Millennials. The shift in public opinion on the subject resulted from years of political activity and statutory reform that predated the 2008 election.

The older folks in the Madland and Teixeira study engaged in vigorous protests over Vietnam, racism and sexism, and they showed a commitment to progressive causes that went far beyond simply casting a vote for certain issues or candidates. Yet, Madland and Teixeira describe these individuals as being more conservative than younger people who oppose the Iraq War and think race and sex are irrelevant.

Despite my skepticism, I took the "How Progressive Are You" quiz. I scored 288 out of 400, which makes me extremely progressive. The average score among Americans is 209.5. I even slammed the Millennials. Of course, I do not know what score I would have earned 20 years ago.

1 comment:

Alessandro Machi said...

Voting for Barack Obama in 2008 was more of a "Viet Nam" style of vote as the younger, Starbucks addled, I-Phone enabled, text totin voters fancied themselves as the oppressed victims of the older, old school democrats within their own party.

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