This piece first appeared at FAIR.org.
Blaming Millennials is 2016’s hottest media trend. Thus far Millennials have been blamed for killing the movie business, credit, the hangout sitcom, online shopping, Macy’s, napkins, vacations, trees, the McWrap and much much more.
In the context of the 2016 election, discussing Millennials — a wholly arbitrary marketing distinction, referring more or less to people born between 1980 and 2000 — is mostly a way for writers to create tension in a piece of political commentary without the messy enterprise of dissecting sexism, white supremacy or class conflict. It’s a safe, evergreen way to generate traffic; vague enough to not offend anyone, but specific enough to appear meaningful.
One of the sleazier versions of this trend is an attempt by some pundits to blame Millennials for the rise of Trump, bending logic and basic social science in the process. These attempts come in different forms, but one recent gambit is to point the finger for Trumpism on the falling standards of civic education, a thesis that either implicitly or explicitly indicts younger voters:
- “Trump’s Rise, Civic Education’s Fall” (Kevin Mahken, Daily News, 1/6/16)
- “As American Education Collapses, Democracy’s Foundation Shakes” (Sol Stern, Daily Beast, 9/25/16)
- “America Is Turning Into a Confederacy of Dunces” (Max Boot, Foreign Policy, 10/6/16)
Mahken, Stern and Boot all argue that declining civic education standards — a popular target of neoliberal criticism — gave rise to the ignorant population that bred Trump. There’s one basic problem with this premise: It doesn’t make any sense.
If Trump’s support were tethered to declining education standards, the younger someone is (i.e., the more recently they were educated), the more likely they would be to vote Trump. But Trump’s voters trend overwhelmingly older: He’s most popular with voters 65 and over, least popular with those under 30.
The two most recent examples of this argument, by Stern and Boot, are textbook think piece sophistry: They begin with a superficially appealing premise designed to flatter the reader (people are dumber, therefore Trump; but not you, you’re smart) and throw out some data points, pivot to a conclusion that doesn’t follow and hope no one notices. While Boot doesn’t use the word Millennial, it’s the logical implication of what’s he’s advancing. (His examples supporting his claim that people are getting more stupid are all relatively recent).
And the source Boot heavily cites, Stern’s Daily Beast piece, does come right out and blame “kids these days”:
The book’s title is no mere epithet. The Dumbest Generation is a thoroughly researched examination of the intellectual habits and tastes of the Millennials, revealing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the country’s education collapse has reached a new and even more dangerous level. According to a host of objective national surveys, these young people have not only been shortchanged of essential cultural literacy in the schools, like previous generations, but they now disdain intellectual curiosity and the culture of books altogether.
Stern’s logic glaringly contradicts itself. How can “the dumbest generation” be blamed for Trump, when only 12 percent of this generation supports him? It’s never really explained.
Boot dressed up Stern’s thesis and added a Bernie-bashing spin to it, lumping the right-wing racist billionaire and the grandfatherly socialist as two sides of the same coin:
What are the results of this dismaying lack of knowledge? The most obvious consequence is the extent to which Trump and Bernie Sanders — the fascist and the socialist — have transfixed the electorate this year in spite of their complete absence of workable policy proposals.
This boilerplate centrist equivalency, which we identified as 2016’s laziest take (FAIR.org, 4/16/16), is here used to gloss over the fact that declining educational standards do not correlate to support for Trump. But by treating Sanders and Trump as part of the same phenomenon, Boot debunks his own thesis: How can Sanders and Trump, whose supporters are generational opposites, be part of the same downward trend? Unless Trump’s base pulled a Billy Madison and attended high school in their 50s along with the Bernie Bros, this makes no sense.
The broader problem with this line of reasoning, aside from (again) blaming Millennials for something the cohorts of Boot (born in 1969) and Stern (1935) are much more responsible for, is that it also assumes that a vague idea of miseducation — rather than white supremacy, sexism and anti-immigrant sentiment — are what draws people to Trump. By smugly blaming schools for “dumbing down,” corporate media — with its decades of far-right normalizing, NBC propping up Trump’s brand for years, the billions of dollars in free media they’ve given him — are left off the hook.
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