The BLOG: Politics and Law

Millennials, democracy, and the importance of civic virtue

Now that the millennial generation is coming of age, many are attempting to understand what it means to be a citizen in the United States of America. Is the system we have now really as wonderful as we’ve been told, or is it just too inherently flawed to work properly? Does the phrase, “American exceptionalism” have any meaning behind it, or is it ultimately an empty term? Given the chaotic election season so far, can the American system still function in the 21st century, or is it time for radical change?

To explore these questions, I interviewed four millennials who have been actively engaged in political causes, whether seeking a career in politics or advocating passionately for what they see as important issues. At the heart of my interviews, I specifically wanted to ask them what they thought of democracy, which we are taught from a young age to be one of the greatest American values.

Neil Joyce, a student at Fordham University, who plans to work for certain social justice causes, expressed his doubts about the current democratic system. “If you look at the polarization of the democratic and republican parties, especially with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, how different their political system and beliefs are, I think you have a great number of … Americans having a calculated skepticism of democracy.”

Andrew Breiter-Wu, a student at Wentworth University, also expressed doubts about the idea of democracy itself. “I’ve seen our political system,” he told me over a phone interview. “I’ve seen it fail, and I personally don’t have confidence in our political system.”

Wu also expressed concern about low-information voters: “I don’t necessarily feel confident in many of the viewpoints. We have people … they don’t have much education but they’re still voting.”

While Wu used to be a strong supporter of the Democratic Party, particularly because it led the country on climate change, an issue he is passionate about. He has now set his sights on other means to conserve the environment. “We should have a … new focus towards the private sector,” he said. “I think corporations are getting things done. They are able to have an agenda, a goal, a mission statement, and take money … and put it towards that goal and execute it. I think we should run our country more like a corporation rather than running it the way we are.”

Andrew works as an Energy Consultant for SolarCity, a company that sells affordable solar panels to households. Andrew’s views represent a new kind of shift within the millennial generation. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 48 percent of millennials identify as independents. Will this aversion to party affiliation lead to new ways of solving political problems? Consider Wu’s commitment to climate change, a typically liberal issue, yet he seeks to solve the problem through the private sector, a method conservatives usually espouse.

Taking a much less skeptical view of the current political system was Liana Ascolese, a recent graduate of UMass Amherst, with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. While in school, Ascolese served as the Deputy Political Director of the UMass Amherst chapter of the College Democrats of Massachusetts. “The system that we set up from the beginning has great capacity to live and breathe and change with our society,” she said. However, she still acknowledged the Constitution as a “deeply flawed document” which allowed for great injustices such as slavery and a lack of rights for women.

Ascolese pointed out the usefulness of certain limits on pure democracy that the founders designed for the current system, such as the Electoral College. She cited the prevalence of populism in the 2016 election to show the dangers of pure democracy. Responding to complaints about the use of superdelegates within the Democratic Party, she said, “the Republican Party doesn’t have superdelegates, look who they picked as their nominee.” Despite this, she did acknowledge that the Democratic primary process had “too many rules [that] are too varied from state to state” that make it difficult for people to understand how it all works. Like Wu, she expressed concern over low voter turnout and the presence of many low-information voters.

Even though Joyce, Wu, and Ascolese have a range of perspectives on different issues, it would be fair to say that if you were to put their views on a left-right spectrum, all three would lean to the left. Finding a conservative who was actively involved in politics was difficult for me. Honestly, I wasn’t surprised. A Pew Research poll showed that 41 percent of millennials held mostly liberal or consistently liberal views, while only 15 percent held mostly conservative or consistently conservative views.

Despite this, I was eventually able to connect with Matthew Goldberg, who graduated from UMass Amherst a year ago and is now a conservative blogger and occasional writer for the NewBostonPost.

“I think in America, democracy at this point is largely misunderstood. … I think a lot of people these days assume ‘democracy’ equals ‘good’,” he told me in an interview. “All of the great minds of the day were very critical of [Athenian] democracy and they basically likened it just to a mob rule … just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s right.”

Goldberg expressed the same fears of the previous three individuals that Americans did not have enough information when going to the voting booth. He pointed out Alexis de Tocquville’s observation of Americans in the early 19th century. “There was a real sense of civic virtue and civic engagement. In order for a democracy or a republic to work you need a sense of civic virtue … otherwise it becomes mob rule.”

I think Goldberg’s remarks on the importance of civic virtue are what tie these four individuals together. Indeed, all four are not just passive spectators of democracy, but active participants. It should give one great hope for the future of American democracy.

Shant Eghian

Shant Eghian

Shant Eghian is a current history/political science double major at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.