Progress. The term has several definitions. In recent decades the term has been a rhetorical red flag for conservatives because of its association to the culture war over issues such as abortion, marriage, etc. But the Merriam-Webster definition more broadly applies as “the development of an individual or society in a direction considered more beneficial than and superior to the previous level.” American Millennials have observed an interesting sequence of political trends coinciding with emergence of major technological change and the transformational modern global economy. They’ve had the benefit of seeing multiple manifestations of efforts aimed at advancing “progress." Take those born in 1988. The Soviet Union was struggling to maintain its influential grip on Eastern Europe, as its centralized economy could not sustain the nuclear arms race. The US unemployment rate had fallen to 5.4 percent with rising median household income. When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, the United States had been facing the bleakest economic outlook since the Great Depression. Rather than telling Americans to give up on their ambitions and increase reliance on government, Reagan asserted, “This Administration’s objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunities for all Americans, with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination.” Reagan’s success demonstrates how remaining loyal to our free-market conservative values and believing in America’s potential provides at least one path to prosperity.
If communism was the ideological enemy of the West for baby boomers, then radical jihadism had become the “ism” for Millennials to confront. By high school they observed an extreme shifting of US foreign policy in a relatively short time. The continuing War on Terror campaign post-Afghanistan provides a case study of domestic blowback to that change. Millennials watched the controversial Operation Iraqi Freedom, then reports over the following brutal battle against insurgency, the troop surge, rapid troop withdrawal and the rise of the self-described Islamic State. As many lost the stomach for overseas military engagement, more isolationist sentiment became prominent couched in terms of “non-interventionism.” Extremity bred extremity in foreign policy as the pendulum swung back-and-forth, all to the detriment of global stability.
We often take for granted that Communism and Jihadism, while distinguishable, are united by a common attribute: they are both an abomination of the value that all people come into this world with fundamental human rights that government can never justifiably take away. Yet many millennials are conflicted on the most effective approach to combat the terrorist threat.
The same struggle had emerged in debates over domestic economic policy. Most Millennials are by now aware that in most industries, they are forced to compete with workers across the globe. The Trump administration should tailor its agenda towards putting in place the conditions most conducive to encouraging investment in the US and promoting growth. Conservative Republicans have in the past been vocal in criticizing politicians who encourage a class warfare mentality. This was particularly acute when Democrats especially appeared to frame the debate as a zero-sum game, based on the misguided assumption that low-income Americans can only succeed at the expense of wealthier Americans. However, there is cause for doubt as to whether less politically engaged Millennial voters can say the same.
For example, most agree we should reform a tax code and student loan system that penalizes couples for marrying, but opinions vary drastically on the best approach to fixing it.
We could mistakenly take a step backwards. Millennials are again seeing a shift between extremes on multiple national security, foreign policy and Constitutional issues, another indication of the toxic political environment. Some were rightly aghast as President Obama responded to a terrorist attack by admonishing Christians to not get on a “high horse” in condemning with radical Jihad. Now some are also troubled by litigation concerning a controversial change to refugee policy that some charge is motivated by an unconstitutional desire to discriminate against practicing Muslims. But whether it’s the US military forces or Christian missionaries in a foreign land, Americans inevitably must at some point rely on the assistance of peace-loving Muslims for success. Some have called for internal reforms on what values are prioritized in the religion itself. The West may never eradicate the fanaticism giving rise to Jihadist groups if we seriously put stock in the narrative that all Muslims embrace an ideology prompting children to be buried alive, and women to be enslaved. As was noted during one Republican Presidential primary debate, rightfully refusing to be politically correct does not give leaders a license to be factually incorrect.
And this all goes to the essence of what “progress” is within the context of these issues. It means confronting and remedying major problems head-on with new strategies, not pushing them further down the road or clinging to the same misguided policies that helped cause them to arise in the first place. The true reason for cynicism among most millennials may be that they've seen the same public policy battles playing on a loop for decades, still with no clear resolution in sight. The ultimate hope is the same as it has always been – for people (and the officials they elect) to overcome their differences so the country can unleash its full potential. Many Millennials hope to prevail over these challenges and actually move American society forward in a meaningful way. If they can do that, history will demonstrate that this generational cohort achieved true progress.
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