Generation 9/11

Generation 9/11 wants to marry national security with progressive, internationalist values, argue US Democrats Rachel Kleinfeld and Matthew Spence. What are the lessons for European social democrats?

During the 2004 election campaign, political experts thought they knew where young people stood. They were filling campus courtyards protesting the Iraq war. They were filling the campaign coffers of liberal candidates. And they were filling buses headed for get-out-the-vote drives in swing states. Pundits spoke of the reawakening of political youth, and the force that this baby boomlet generation would become in American politics. This confluence of far-left politics and grassroots activism left security-minded Democrats in despair. How could the party take responsible, strong national security positions without losing the next generation of voters and alienating its crucial activist base?

But a funny thing happened when we looked at real polling data. This conventional wisdom turned out to be dead wrong. The traditional dovehawk, liberal-conservative dichotomies describe little about today’s young people. Instead, it turned out that young voters, ages 18 to 30, hold a new political orientation that does not fit into 1960s stereotypes. They are simultaneously human rights crusaders and supporters of a strong military. They are more concerned about both traditional and non-traditional security threats, more comfortable with the use of force, and more in favor of trade and reducing protectionism than their elders. Indeed, this generation holds complex and nuanced views that straddle traditional lines of party affiliation, income, class, and ethnicity.

They are the September 11 Generation, a generation that may help revive the progressive internationalist foreign policy tradition of Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy by supporting policies that re-couple strong international alliances and a strong U.S. military, aid and trade, human rights and democracy around the world. They are already, quietly but powerfully, helping to reshape America’s national security debate.

It is important to note that the Sept. 11 Generation is hardly a homogeneous group. It instead differs by political orientation, by race and ethnicity, and by an attitudinal split between Gen X (those over 25, who, as a group, typically harbor a strong distrust of government and a yen toward entrepreneurship), and Millennials (those born after 1980, who tend to be community-oriented and more trusting of authority).

Overall, voters under age 30 still fit conventional stereotypes by identifying themselves more as Democrats (42 percent) than do most voters (29 percent). And far more young voters identify themselves as liberal (34 percent) than do all voters (19 percent), according to surveys conducted by Democracy Corps. But these numbers break down starkly by race. Young minorities remain on the left, especially African-Americans under age 30, of whom 86 percent identify themselves as Democrats. Young whites, however, are moving away from the Democratic Party. In 2002, for example, Democracy Corps found that 47 percent of white voters 18 to 24 years old identified themselves as Republican—nearly 10 percentage points higher than their parents’ generation.

So what do the numbers say about the attitudes of this generation? Voters under age 30—particularly those under 25—are far more conservative than the Vietnam Generation. Protected by attentive parents, they are close to their families and are the first generation to grow up with more conservative sexual, religious, and social mores than the generation immediately preceding them. Sixty-seven percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 25 feel that religion is important in their family lives, according to Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research, and over one-half attend church at least once a month. They are also more prone to accept authority and trust the government than voters in their late 20s and early 30s.

These beliefs help explain why the young Caucasians of this generation lean more toward the Republican Party than past generations of young people—a fact the Democratic Party would do well to notice.

From 2000 to 2005, polls conducted by Harvard Student Surveys found that between 87 percent and 92 percent of college students claimed to be deeply patriotic. They also have deep respect for the military: More than 70 percent of college students (the most liberal contingent of this group) trusted the military to do the right thing all or most of the time, when polled in 2001. In 2005, 65 percent still held that opinion. Among the young, the military is the most respected of the major public institutions.

But members of the Sept. 11 Generation are not old-fashioned conservatives. They distrust large corporations. They have even less confidence in spin from the media and politicians. They believe that the government can—and should—be an active force solving problems in America. They embrace multiculturalism and a multilateral worldview. After all, they have grown up in a truly pluralistic society, where many schools enroll students who speak dozens of languages; where Caucasians are often minorities themselves among other minorities; and where that reality is not threatening.

Cataclysmic events

Each generation is defined by its own set of catalyzing events, and by different generational moods and beliefs. Earlier generations wrestled with the ideological challenge of Soviet communism, the fear of nuclear weapons, and the divisive debate over the Vietnam War. These events shaped their general worldview, which carried over into their beliefs and policies on how to face an age of terror. Similarly, to understand how Americans under the age of 30 think about foreign policy now, it is important to understand their general beliefs about the world and the cataclysmic events that have shaped their way of looking at the questions and policy challenges America faces.

For voters under 30, the main catalyzing foreign policy event has been the fall of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. Hence, on issues of national security, they are collectively the "Sept. 11 Generation." But the tragedy of Sept. 11 begins with the climax of the story. To really understand the generation’s outlook, it is important to start at the beginning.

The Sept. 11 Generation was raised during a time of enormous optimism. The Cold War was distant: A 21-year old in 2005 was only 5 when the Berlin Wall fell. His or her first political memory would have been the triumph of freedom: the collapse of Soviet communism. American values were strong and spreading: America turned to NATO not just as a Cold War alliance of realpolitik, but increasingly as a vehicle to promote democracy and human rights. In school, members of the Sept. 11 Generation learned that they lived in the "end of history", a time when U.S. values, aided by an enormous economic boom and the promise of globalization, would spread peacefully across an improving world.

American power was real, vast, and a force for good. Members of the Sept. 11 Generation never knew the pain of military stalemate and the self-doubt of the Vietnam Generation. Instead, they watched their first war on television, culminating in the first Gulf War’s stunningly rapid victory. That war showed them both the power of military force and the broad potential of multilateralism—with NATO, the United Nations, Arab countries, and even America’s former Soviet enemy united to defeat aggression against an innocent country.

They also saw that inaction and isolation could betray American ideals. They watched the foot-dragging in Bosnia and America’s failure to address genocide in Rwanda. Yet they viscerally understood that military solutions were not the only answer. Underneath the "end of history", new problems were boiling that seemed unlike the old ones. America did not face Soviet armies in the center of Europe, but instead the threat of AIDS, ethnic conflict, and Samuel Huntington’s famous "clash of civilizations", weak states, environmental destruction, and myriad new issues that required new, non-military solutions.

Then, Sept. 11 struck. Suddenly, on the cusp of adulthood, young people faced the stark reality of a threat. It was not overseas, abstract, and far away—but concrete, and in America’s cities. The attitudes and history that had begun shaping this generation crystallized into a new security worldview, one that simply does not fit old categories.

Americans under 30 do not doubt that the country faces a deadly enemy—the burning towers are etched on the generation’s collective consciousness, and young people are not burdened with the blame-America-first mentality that tars some on the left. Yet they are neither "realist" hawks nor conservatives. They do not believe Americans need to surrender civil liberties at home or human rights abroad to be safe. And they believe America should be willing to stand for its ideals in the world, spreading hope and preventing genocide.

Crucially, perhaps because of the encompassing multiculturalism of their peer groups, young people firmly believe in a world community, despite otherwise conservative security stances. Thus, they care about the United States being respected by other countries, and think the United States should lead cooperatively, not unilaterally—because it’s right, and because it works. In June 2005, Democracy Corps found that more than twice as many voters under 30 chose the statement "America’s security depends on building strong ties with other nations" (64 percent) over "Bottom line, America’s security depends on its own military strength" (29 percent). That was more than twice the margin opting for multilateralism in any other age group, and double the margin of American voters overall (who sided with multilateralism by 53 percent to 38 percent).

Young people do not deny the power of terror and hatred. Neither do they blindly accept the Republican strategy for a unilateral, military-led solution. They are engaged in a more difficult pursuit: trying to determine for themselves how best to meet these threats."

While Sept. 11 provides the starting point for the national security vision of this generation, the long-term foreign policy values and policies of those under 30 are still being formed. They are watching, learning from, and—most importantly—fighting in the current war in Iraq. That war will easily have an impact that rivals Sept. 11 itself in terms of shaping this generation’s vision of national security.

For example, overwhelming confidence in America’s military superiority—and even invincibility—catalyzed much of the Sept. 11 Generation’s pro-war sentiment. (More than 60 percent of young Democrats supported the war in 2002, according to The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a number that has steadily dropped since.) Yet polling shows that the struggles of the war in Iraq are giving young people a more nuanced view of what military force alone can and cannot accomplish. American troops—most of whom are members of the Sept. 11 Generation—were eager to go to war, but have been chastened by the realities of occupation and insurgency. They have learned firsthand, and the rest of the generation has learned at one remove, the limits of military force.

Looking for inspiration

But the generation as a whole has reached a very different conclusion from the ambiguous and painful relationship the Vietnam generation formed with the military. Today’s young people care about, support, and trust the military to do good in the world. They are, instead, simply becoming aware of its limits, and learning that the military is not a one-size-fits-all tool. Support for the war has gradually dimmed since 2005, along with support for the necessity of pre-emptive war. Young people are paying attention to what is happening in the world and changing their beliefs accordingly. They are becoming not more timid, but wiser.

The attitudes and beliefs of the Sept. 11 Generation are important because these young people are not just the future of the Democratic Party; they are already coming into political power. Many of the children of the baby boomers are just reaching voting age. By the next decade, they will comprise 25 percent of the voting public. But their political identity is not captured in categories created for their parents during the Vietnam era. This generation is looking for inspiration from a different vision of national security that neither political party now espouses—one that marries national strength with progressive, internationalist values.

Rachel Kleinfeld is the founder and co-director of the Truman National Security Project. Matthew Spence is the co-director of the Truman National Security Project. This article is adapted from the book, With All Our Might: Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty, edited by Will Marshall (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006). It first appeared in Blueprint,
the magazine of the Democratic Leadership Council. Thanks to our friends at Blueprint and the DLC for permissions.

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