A recent Pew poll says that millennials don't have a lot of trust in institutions, and Ross Douthat is sad:
IN the future, it seems, there will be only one "ism" -- Individualism -- and its rule will never end. As for religion, it shall decline; as for marriage, it shall be postponed; as for ideologies, they shall be rejected; as for patriotism, it shall be abandoned; as for strangers, they shall be distrusted. Only pot, selfies and Facebook will abide -- and the greatest of these will probably be Facebook.Is individualism really the problem here, as Douthat believes? Or do the members of this generation simply have less faith in political parties, churches, and America itself because they have no memory of a time when these institutions seemed worthy of their trust? And if they don't trust one another, is that innate mistrust? Or is it the result of a hypercompetitiveness bred into them by a society that has upscale kids in a Hobbesian war with one another almost from birth, while the downmarket kids see all the opportunity heading elsewhere as the broad middle class disappears?
... A new Pew survey, the latest dispatch from the land of young adulthood, describes a generation that's socially liberal on issues like immigration and marijuana and same-sex marriage, proudly independent of either political party, less likely to be married and religious than earlier generations, less likely to identify as patriotic and less likely -- by a striking margin -- to say that one's fellow human beings can be trusted.
... The common denominator is individualism ... it explains both the personal optimism and the social mistrust, the passion about causes like gay marriage and the declining interest in collective-action crusades like environmentalism, even the fact that religious affiliation has declined but personal belief is still widespread.
Under Obama, millennials can't get jobs and can't pay off student loans, and their parents have been struggling financially for years -- but millennials didn't exactly see their elders thrive even during the supposedly better days of the Bush presidency, when the only way a non-rich person could get an extra sliver of the pie was by tapping into what turned out to be hyperinflated home equity. America's military might was more or less useless under Bush, and it's not much use under Obama. Churches, then and now, were overpoliticized and scandal-plagued. D.C. has been reduced to permanent dysfunction by a cabal of nihilists -- we know they're Republicans, though most millennials probably assume, because they're constantly told this, that "both sides do it."
Maybe millennials think institutions suck because institutions suck.
Douthat suggests that there's the potential for a turn to fascism here. He cites the conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet:
Trying to explain modern totalitarianism's dark allure, Nisbet argued that it was precisely the emancipation of the individual in modernity -- from clan, church and guild -- that had enabled the rise of fascism and Communism.Douthat seems to think that the online world, with its sacrifice of privacy, already is a sort of fascism, which is just bizarre. But I actually think fascism could eventually be what Americans turn to.
In the increasing absence of local, personal forms of fellowship and solidarity, he suggested, people were naturally drawn to mass movements, cults of personality, nationalistic fantasias. The advance of individualism thus eventually produced its own antithesis -- conformism, submission and control.
I say this not because Americans have an insatiable spiritual hunger for community that's being crushed by a mechanized ethos, or whatever the hell Douthat is saying. I think fascism might, someday soon, appear to offer a way out to a society for whom traditional politics and economics have offered absolutely nothing. We have a major party that allows the have-nots to keep losing (including, now, the middle class) and another major political party that wants the have-nots to lose much faster. Our economic overlords now consider any gains by the middle class and poor to be thoroughly unacceptable. If traditional politics offers most Americans nothing forever, sooner or later the guy who wants to send intellectuals or certain ethnic groups or certain sexual minorities to camps might start to seem pretty appealing. That's my fear, not an unsatisfied thirst for belonging.