What Motivates Millennials?

(originally published in the Falls Church News-Press)

Much ink has been spilled about what Democrats can do to win back the Rust Belt voters who switched from voting Obama in 2012 to voting Trump in 2016. Unfortunately, not enough focus has been given to a group that might be easier to reach in the coming years: young eligible voters who chose not to vote at all. Half of all Millennials stayed home on Election Day, a phenomenon that assuredly drove the election’s outcome: while Trump won Seniors 52%-45%, Trump lost Millennials 37%-55%. If Democrats want to win the next election, they would be smart to think about what would motivate those 24 million young people who last year’s candidates failed to inspire to vote.

When confronted with this challenge, party strategists tend to employ two misguided strategies. Their first strategy is to deploy what I call “civic engagement finger-wagging”: criticizing young people’s disengagement by appealing to platitudes about the almost-religious importance of voting (like “people died so that you could vote” or “It doesn’t matter who you vote for: just vote!”).

This strategy is ineffective, because people do not vote because they care about voting: they vote because they care about the deeper projects for which their votes stand. To be invested in voting, you have to be invested in a direction in which you want the country to move. To be invested in a direction in which your country could move, you have to be invested in your country. If we do not connect young people to their country — by engaging them in the public life of their own neighborhoods and towns — and if we do not empower young people to imagine themselves as being able to lead their country in a fresh direction — by respecting their ideas and fostering their initiatives — then young people will never become invested in voting.

A second misguided strategy that politicians use to motivate Millennials is to highlight political issues in which Millennials, they perceive, have a self-interest. They think they will win over Millennials by, say, talking about the national debt (“you know, you’re going to have to pay for this one day!”) or narrowly focusing on, say, student loans or legalizing pot.

This is also ineffective, because it appeals to young people as self-centered consumers rather than as moral-centered citizens. Our consumer preferences might motivate us to buy one toothbrush over another, but they will not motivate us to participate in something as beautifully irrational as casting our lone ballot in with millions of others. To vote, we need to first become part of something bigger than ourselves, a process which requires politicians to appeal, in Lincoln’s words, to “the better angels of our nature.”

The great sociologist Emile Durkheim warned of two paths to societal unhappiness. One was insufficient individualism: society requesting too much of its members and overwhelming people. We all know about the dangers of this type of society: our culture is replete with tales of iconoclastic individuals liberating themselves from the constraints of oppressive roles.
Durkheim’s other unfortunate path, however, is much less discussed. This is the path of “anomie” or excessive individualism: society providing little moral guidance to individuals, because the bonds of community, mentorship, care, and responsibility had broken down. Millennials today, perhaps more than any other generation, suffer under a state of anomie. We are given infinite choice and total consumer freedom. But we yearn for solidarity: a sense of belonging and purpose. If done in a spirit of solidarity, politics has the potential to be be one antidote to our generational isolation and drift.

Perhaps a lesson can be drawn from the story of civic organizations in the past decades. When mid-century community groups were seeing declining numbers, civic leaders split on what to do to stop the bleeding. Half of the organizations thought the best way forward was to ask less of their members: to loosen each members’ required commitments by demanding less time and less effort from each of them. The other half thought the best way was to ask more of their members: to re-affirm members’ required commitments by calling for more time and more effort from them. Surprisingly, organizations that loosened their requirements continued to wither and organizations who re-affirmed their requirements became vibrant again. Indeed, people are drawn to groups that demand enough of them to become a part of their identity.

If we are to meet the immense public challenges of our age, we young people need to make long-term civic commitments. Fortunately, as many of our elders know, these day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out, decade-in-decade-out commitments are a path to great joy. We need their help to teach us of what the poet Jack Gilbert put best: “not the marvelous act” but “the beauty that is of many days… the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.”

Civic Creativity talk featured in the Falls Church News-Press

I recently gave a talk to the Falls Church League of Women Voters entitled “Civic Creativity: Beyond Civic Engagement Finger Wagging.”  Here’s the original News-Press feature plugging it:

The League of Women Voters is hosting a forum called “Civic Creativity: Beyond Civic Engagement Finger-Wagging,” next Sunday, April 19, from 3 – 4:30 p.m. at the Falls Church Community Center. Pete Davis, co-founder of Our Common Place of Falls Church, will start the program with a presentation, which will be followed by a discussion about how civic engagement can be improved in response to the realities of contemporary life.

Davis’ organization, Our Common Place of Falls Church, is “a community web platform that is designed to make it easier for Falls Church residents to share and connect with each other,” according to a press release from the League of Women Voters about the forum. “American civic life is in crisis,” the press release said.

“Our civic infrastructure—from civic education in schools to our organizational structures, from our way of talking about politics to our local government’s methods of engaging citizens—is due for an upgrade. This event is designed to move beyond complaining about the decline in civic life to laying the groundwork for its revitalization.” For more information, visit lwvfallschurch.org.

And here’s the follow up:

Peter Davis, a 2008 George Mason High School graduate who will be entering Harvard Law School this fall, made a stimulating presentation to a gathering hosted by the Falls Church League of Women Voters at the Community Center Sunday that argued for a new “Progressive Era” like the one the U.S. experienced in reaction to its first “Gilded Age” in the late 19th century.

The nation is suffering a “new gilded age” now he said, and a form of civic engagement and activism is called for that goes beyond “flipswitch” politics – where a single issue is agitated for and then changed – to a more organic, community-based efforts at reform. Politics are now run by managers as mass spectacles, he said, where the public is alienated from its government that becomes more like an impersonal vending machine. “Wagging fingers doesn’t work” to fix this, he said. But instead “successful alternatives are the best protest,” achieved through the systematic public learning of civic creativity through new institutions dedicated to that purpose.

The goal is to achieve projects, not just back candidates: that was the model operative in the first “Progressive Era,” he said.

I will be posting a version of this speech on this site in the not-so-distant future.

Civic Creativity: Democracy as a Platform for Our Public Projects

For my senior thesis, I wrote a piece called Civic Creativity: Democracy as a Platform for Our Public Projects.  You can download the work here.

Here’s a summary from within the work:

The first big idea is that, for the individual citizen, there is a new mode of civic action – independent of voting, deliberating, and protest – which I call: civic creativity. It is defined as “the imagining and implementing of public projects over multiple platforms.”  In Part 1, I will describe the history of the three commonplace modes of civic action (voting, deliberating and protest), define civic creativity as new mode of civic action, and compare civic creativity to the other three modes.

The second big idea is that the individual act of civic creativity, being a social and collective practice, has ramifications for our understanding of democratic society as a whole— that there is a new way to understand democratic governance that goes hand-in-hand with this new mode of civic action: democracy as a platform for our public projects. In Part 2, I will describe this new way of thinking. In this understanding, governance is not just Government— the institution commonly referred to as the government is not the only force that governs our lives. Rather, the model acknowledge that a network of various institutions – the media, corporations, religion, web platform architecture, culture, language, neighbors, foundations, universities, civic groups, and more – also govern our lives. Each of these governing forces are themselves governed by rules. To turn a civic creation idea into a reality, you must navigate the various “platforms of governance,” convincing various people and entities that your creations and purposes are worthy of their support.

Plus, here’s the table of contents to pique your interest:

Introduction: A New Paradigm Shift in Democratic Theory

  1. Strange civic actions
  2. A disconnect between such actions and common civic concepts
  3. Paradigm shifts in democratic theory.
  4. Outline of the argument for a new democratic model

Part 1: A New Mode of Civic Action 15

  1. Beyond civic engagement finger-wagging
  2. The three dominant modes of civic action: a history of voting, deliberation and protest
  3. Another turn in democratic thought
  4. Gaps in the three dominant modes of civic action
  5. How the three dominant modes capture and fail to capture the new civic actions
  6. Civic Creativity: A New Mode of Civic Action
    1. Spearheading instead of just participating
    2. Problem solving rather than law
    3. Decentralized work instead of a focus on the state
  7. A broader understanding of civic creativity

Part 2: A New Understanding of Democratic Governance 79

  1. The restricted spectrum of democratic models
  2. The restrictive assumption of the two models
  3. Democracy as a network of platforms of governance
    1. Governance is more than government 87
    2. Platforms of governance have their own specific rules and procedures 90
    3. Multi-platform governance and civic creators 92
    4. The ramifications of multi-platform governance 93
  4. Democracy as a platform for our public projects 96

Conclusion: On Generativity

I hope to develop these ideas into a book. You can follow progress on that book’s development here.