Monday, August 26, 2013

The Search for the Wrath of the Conquest of the Planet of the Bride of the Son of the Return of Cranky Blogging

Oy, Fournier.

There's just about no way to get a "generational" analysis of anything right. People aren't really grouped, naturally, into generations -- Baby Boomer mythology notwithstanding.

So when Ron Fournier went to look for how the "Millennials" are going to change US politics, the odds of a train wreck were high. And, yeah, it's Really That Bad.

We learn, for example, that students at the Kennedy School aren't planning to run for office. Is that news? I have no idea! I don't know how many similar students thirty or fifty years ago wound up running for office, or what their plans were at a similar life stage.

We learn...well, I'll quote:
College students increasingly prefer the private sector, graduate school, or non-profit work, according to the Partnership for Public Service’s analysis of the 2011 National Association for Colleges and Employers Student Survey. In 2008, 8.4 percent of students planned to work for local, state, and federal governments after graduation. That number reached an all-time high of 10.2 percent during the 2009 recession, before dropping to 7.4 percent in 2010.

Now, just 6 percent of college students plan to work for public sector institutions, and only 2.3 percent want to work at the federal level.
Students "increasingly prefer the private sector"? C'mon. Fournier is apparently putting a ton of "generational shift" weight on a shift from 2009 to now), which makes no sense at all. There's nothing at all here about comparable data from the 1980s or 1960s. Or how well college preferences line up with actual career choices. And even within these data, it seems far more likely that the year-to-year shifts are either meaningless reactions to the latest news, or even more meaningless random variation. It's hard to believe that there's something truly radical going on if the "all-time high" in the other direction was just a few years ago.

And it's not the only time he does that in this article:
Diggles is the first to admit that, contrary to conventional wisdom, her party does not have a lock on the youth vote -- and thus Democrats are not immune to the withering forces of generational change. For instance, she says, 51 percent of Millennials believe that when government runs something it is usually wasteful and inefficient, up from 31 percent in 2003 and 42 percent in 2009: “Hardly a ringing endorsement for a bigger government providing more services.”
But how do those numbers compare to sentiment in the general population? This sort of thing, again, goes up and down all the time in reaction to events and political fortunes (note that lots of indicators of government approval jumped up after the September 11 attacks; that 2003 number may be unusually low for that reason). But it's not at all clear that it matters in any way at all. There are some political preferences that are "sticky" over time (such as party identification), but others just aren't; they're just answers to pollster questions.

All of this, to Fournier, are "hard data" that back up his conclusions, which are about how the parties are going to be replaced by apps, or something like that: "The GOP and (less likely) the Democratic Party could die." Oh, and he has "experts on the Millennial Generation say they can easily envision a future without a two-party system." Perhaps so -- but perhaps Fournier should have checked with some experts in, well, the two-party system. It exists not because of some particular technology or ideology of government, but because of the very logic of large democracies and a first-past-the-post electoral system.

Or, perhaps, I'm just an old guy who can't see something new coming. But here's the thing: these millennials have actually been around for a while now (the oldest, by Fournier's definition, are thirty), and there's no sign yet of anything like that. Instead, the parties are if anything getting stronger and more institutionalized. It's nothing like the real crack-up and destabilization of the parties that happened when the baby boomers first entered the political scene, although to be fair the disruptions of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s only sometimes had anything to do with baby boomers as a group.

Basically, what Fournier finds is that high school kids, college students, and Kennedy School students are perfectly comfortable mouthing the same anti-party sentiments that have been popular in the US for a century or more; that many of them also like to repeat anti-politics rhetoric that's been popular for even longer; and that many of them believe that there's something "new" coming that they get and their elders don't, which is probably how the younger generation has thought since forever.

Hey, there may be something to all of this, but it's just not here. For example, Fournier is concerned that millennials aren't going to run for office...but it would be nice to check and see what the oldest of this cohort is actually doing in state and local elections, and to compare that with what people in their 20s were doing in 1995 or 1975. But throughout the piece, there's no hint of any baseline that would allow us to see how anything happening now is any different from what happened before.

Of course, new technologies and new ways of thinking will change the parties and how government works...which is the story of pretty much all the time. The parties we have now are a lot different from the parties of the 1960s, or the parties of the 1930s, or the parties of the 1890s; the government we have now has some continuities, but plenty of disruptions, too. I'm sure there will be disruptions to both the parties and the government in the future, too! But there's nothing at all here to tell us anything about any of that.

Yeah, it's enough to make me cranky.


  1. 6, 7.4, 8.9, 10.2 percents.

    All of those are within a 2.1% margin of error; I'm guessing (don't want to give them my email for a chance at getting behind what looks like a paywall) that the survey's margin is actually closer to 3 or more.

    Never mind that "planned to work for" is a FAR cry from "preferring." In the real world, a graduating senior will take the job they get.

    This number reached a high point in "the 2009 recession?" I am SHOCKED, just SHOCKED, that more graduating students said they would be working for the one portion of the economy that tends to cut hiring less than the other sectors of the economy during a recession. Granted, states and locals DID massively (and stupidly) cut hiring during the recession, but those hiring freezes don't start immediately...they need the next year's budget to be passed first, which is when? Oh, right, usually in the summer. So, students graduating in May who would have applied and interviewed for jobs in January-April took jobs in the sector of the workforce that lagged in hiring slowdowns? Say it ain't so!

    Ugh. That is REALLY stupid.

  2. If you really want to get worked up into a lather, you could follow this with the big weekend WaPo story by David Farenthold.

  3. Fun Fact: the Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader is a millenial (born 1980).

  4. The ugly little-known fact here is that news reporters generally are not qualified to write about a lot of the issues they cover. This becomes clearest when they're mangling statistics or trying to report on current academic debates, but it's also true on a wide range of political and public-policy questions. I mean, there was a local daily newspaper in Illniois that had me covering health, housing and transportation policy at age 19. I was a bright-ish 19-year-old and eager to learn, but obviously, one year out of high school, I knew nothing of those policies beyond what my sources told me, and was hardly equipped to make independent judgments about them, even news judgments.

    Which means that reporters fall back on formulas. A favorite, of course, is "who's up and who's down" or "what does this mean for the mayor / governor / president." Another is "more'n'more," e.g. "More and more young people are dropping out of traditional politics." Apparently that was Fournier's template here, along with "what's hot," which -- because something must be hot, right? -- often becomes "we're right on the cusp of radical change," which of course we always are and always aren't, depending on what you choose to focus on and whose comments you choose to credit.

    Anyway, yes, it all makes me cranky too. Although I don't think you need all these adjectives to excuse that. What you're calling "cranky blogging" is what most bloggers just call "blogging."

  5. "[The two-party system.] exists ...because of the very logic of large democracies and a first-past-the-post electoral system."

    Somebody forgot to tell India!

    Or, for that matter, Britain or Canada.

    1. Yes, yes, you're right, it's shorthand. Most of those that don't wind up with a two-party system have a regional two-party system -- just as the US has had at various points in history. On the other hand, the US at *this* point also has institutionalized the D & R parties, so it's going to take quite a bit to dislodge one of them.

      And the implication that Fournier and his sources have is that we'll just go without any parties at all (he makes much of "independent" voters), which is even less likely.

    2. Adding...

      I think that sounded snippy; I apologize. You (MSS) obviously know this stuff far better than I do!

    3. iirc are these *not* first past post democracies? Like Australia i had the impression they are proportional rep democracies?

      admittedly they can wind up being 'effective' two party systems where minority parties are far too small to materially effect parliamentary votes but large enough to have at least a seat or few.

      the point about regional vs national is worth noting too, there could be more choice at low and only two choices at high level elections, which gives the appearance of choice locally but effectively the voter is still tied to one of the two national strands.

      but in terms of choices for voters, looking from the outside the US seems decidedly narrower in its offerings than those other examples....?

  6. Those kids, with their protective tariffs and their internal improvements...

  7. Generation is a ragged concept at best, I agree. The baby boom officially lasted from 1946 to 1964, which by the old definition I learned (generation=20 years) is about right for a generation, but a lot changed within that time period and so there are probably three "generations" within it.

    I don't know if the baby boom is the exception that proves the rule, but the very fact of it--that is, sheer numbers-- changed a lot. But characterizing the generation except by a few common experiences that other generations didn't have is just the usual laziness of reality as interacting cliches and stereotypes.

    But I would make one observation about the effects of changes on attitudes among the young. In my early boomer cohort, the majority was apolitical, at least until forced not to be. But in terms of attitudes towards government, we had parents who remembered the New Deal and WWII, when government was very important. Governments were building highways all around us. And perhaps most important and most overlooked: labor unions were a strong political force well into the 1960s in support of government action. They made that case. Since their decline, there has been no institutional counterargument to the anti-government parroting of corporate interests. That probably has an effect on the percentages.

    As for "not planning to run for office," isn't it another way of saying "haven't made millions of dollars yet"? That's changed.

    1. "As for "not planning to run for office," isn't it another way of saying "haven't made millions of dollars yet"? That's changed."

      Another word for it is 'not working in politics yet'. I imagine that one first has to go into politics as a grunt, organizer, campaign staffer. Then, if one is successful, one can run for office.


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