October 12, 2017

DANBERG BIGGS | You Can’t Do Politics Scared

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The most useless columns I write treat politics like a profile picture. They are snapshots of whatever kind of political aesthetic I would like to have attached to my name. Sometimes, this is a regurgitation of the campus consensus, while at other times it is contrarian purely for its own sake. They are honest, but only in the most superficial sense. That is, they are honestly the beliefs I would like you to think I hold. This is not to say that they are fraudulent — I have never written something that I do not believe. However at times the writing is too preoccupied with making me look and feel a certain way to do anything worthwhile. The arguments do not prompt thought or challenge existing orthodoxy, and whatever self I express lacks the depth to be truly relatable.

I say all of this partially to apologize for bad writing, but mostly because I think this kind of deficiency highlights a contradiction in the way people my age approach the world around us. Our attitude toward the prospect of tangible social change shows a tremendous amount of care. Millennials volunteer at unprecedented rates, doubling the highest rate of any 18-24 year-old age cohort between 1989 and 2005. A 2014 poll also showed that a majority of millennials believe in the value of community engagement and volunteerism more than any other group. Moreover, even the profile picture approach to politics exudes an investment in a just and good world. With every hashtag and thoughtful Facebook post, we vocalize a fundamental interest in the wellbeing of the community around us. Put simply, we demonstrably give a shit.

However our approach to formal politics often tends toward ineffective and temporary forms of engagement. Because we are so prone to Instagram advocacy, we often mobilize for only the most cinematic kinds of public solidarity. We will show up for the big rally and the candlelight vigil, but it when it comes time to vote, canvass for candidates or do the myriad other forms of daily work that progress in government demands, we are often absent. I do not mean to fetishize formal politics, but surely we have reached a consensus that the quality of our political leaders matters.

The world is full of worn-out, quasi-scientific cultural analyses about millennials. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) wrote a truly dull book calling for parents to give their kids more chores in order to recreate “The Vanishing American Adult.” Joe Scarborough and Joe Simonson both declared millennials to be generational moral failures, respectively citing smartphones and Harry Potter. TV-host and-non-veteran Scarborough pined for the days when young men went to war, while Simonson just wants everyone to listen to more Bad Religion. To be honest, I’m not sure which is worse. The truth is, most arguments that approach youth politics at the generational level are too general to be accurate and too condescending to be taken seriously.

To avoid a similar mistake, I have one narrow and limited claim. Millennial politics, in certain ways, is gripped by an aesthetic preoccupation that gets in the way of our ability to affect the change we truly care about. I do not believe the tired narrative that this is evidence of apathy or laziness. Rather, I believe this is the partial product of a common, highly specific anxiety:

The possibility that the change we wish to affect will never come.

Statistically, millennials distrust formal institutions more than any other generation. This applies not only to government, but also to mass media and other traditional social institutions. In 2014, researchers found that millennials select organizations for which to volunteer, not by institutional trust, but by whether they will see the tangible effects of their work. The natural result of this shared unease is a very real, if unspoken, concern that as long as politics depends on institutional action it will always be mostly hopeless.

The anxiety runs much deeper, though. We are subject to rapid and intense flows of information, and as a result are often viscerally aware of the scope of global suffering. Even when positive news acts as a counterweight, our proclivity is always to fixate on pain and use a broad brush to paint the world gloomy. Certain events can throw this background anxiety into acute focus, whether it is the gruesome competition for the Nation’s Biggest Mass Shooting, or the unrelenting suffering of the Rohingya. The sheer scope and scale of senseless pain to which humanity subjects itself is simply unfathomable. That knowledge is absolutely frightening.

We are left, then, with a generation that is saturated with grim data and deeply suspicious of the only institutions powerful enough to respond. As a result, we tend to pivot to the politics that will gratify. At its most valuable, this takes the form of community volunteering for organizations doing demonstrable good. Its most corrosive, though, is a tendency towards politics for social credit and personal satisfaction. When we demand tangible and immediate fulfillment from the outcomes of our advocacy, we are more inclined to seek out public displays of ideology too concerned with making us feel a certain way. My worthless columns begin with the belief that they have no prospect of affecting their subject. Thus the only logical thing to do is to write for a sense of personal gratification, and hope people like the look of my beliefs. All of this because in the background there is a buzzing fear that ultimately nothing will be effective.

But effective politics requires us to give our gloomy world a central place inside of us, and trust that it is worth trying to change. The answer, albeit intangible, is to  confront more fully the submerged anxiety and distrust that leads us away from more effective engagement. Cornell students have the privilege and capital to make a difference, so politics in Valencia won’t cut it.


Rubin Danberg Biggs is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at red243@cornell.edu. The Common Table appears alternate Fridays this semester.

  • Jay Wind

    You have no doubt heard of “American exceptionalism”, well one could just as easily discuss “Cornell exceptionalism” — that Cornell students are markedly different than “millennials” in many important respects. The Cornell culture encourages political and community engagement to a greater extent than is common among millennials who do not attend college or who go to schools like Ithaca College. As a result, the Mayor of Ithaca is a recent Cornell graduate, and many other local elected positions are held by Cornell alumni. Indeed, there are a large number of Cornellians playing important roles in political parties and elective office around the nation.

    This has been true for generations. During the Vietnam War, Cornell was one of the leading centers of the anti-war movement. Perhaps the prospect of being drafted into military service was a powerful motivator, but Cornell students were very engaged in working to end the war. There are many ways that self-interest can be tapped into mobilizing current students given talented student leaders. For example, Cornell student could do more to protest the student loan and other higher education policies of the Trump administration, as they did in the “March for Science.”

    The column suggests a pivot “to the politics that will gratify.” One issue which has chaffed at many college students has been the New York State drinking age of 21. Many alumni remember when the drinking age was 18. A small dedicated group, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, successfully lobbied to raise it to 21, and as an unintended consequence drove Cornell student drinking underground. I believe that students drink to excess in large part because it is a defiant, illegal thing to do without trained bar tenders around to cut service off to an intoxicated customer. If every Cornell student were to adopt raising the drinking age to 21 as his main political cause, actively mobilized other New York campuses and wrote and called the NYS legislature, the drinking age would be quickly lowered to 18 within a year of the next election. That achievement would wipeout illegal, underaged drinking on the Cornell campus, and encourage law-abiding behavior.