At Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate in Ames, Iowa, both candidates and moderators steered strangely clear of one of the most important questions facing leaders of any political party.
What do we tell the kids?
Thursday night’s spectacle continued a sad pattern of public evasiveness about the ignominious inheritance foisted on the young voters of tomorrow and today. The vague invocations meant to substitute for frankness on this score (“mortgaging our future,” “our children and grandchildren”) belie a remarkable ignorance about the character of America’s rising generations and its political implications.
A very few commentators are working to change this. Margaret Hoover, for instance — a veteran of the Bush White House and a “Culture Warrior” on “The O’Reilly Factor” — argues in her sharp new book American Individualism that millennials fit naturally within the modern Republican tradition that reaches back to her great grandfather, the globalist and technophiliac Herbert Hoover.
On sex, immigration and other hot-button issues, Hoover’s high-achieving bourgeois ecumenicism casts a net wide enough to take in pop political heiress Meghan McCain, who blurbs American Individualism lustily.
Yet Hoover— classy, accomplished, all grown up — can’t help but regard millennials from something of a distance. She has more in common with David Brooks’ pre-economic-crisis “organization kid” than with the celebreality persona that defines Meghan McCain as much as it defines the whole youth culture of post-crisis America.
If you’re still wondering what this has to do with the coming Perry era, I confess. It’s not Rick Perry our political thinkers should ponder.
It’s Katy Perry.
No one better captures and epitomizes what it is to be young as America transitions swiftly from “empire” to “post-empire,” in the words of the celebrealist writer and Brat Pack alum Bret Easton Ellis. The “imperial” pop value system built around exclusivity, luxury and artifice is out. Now, what’s in is decadence that’s as cheap as it is easy, shared as frankly as it is freely.
Rather than Amy Winehouse’s suicidal self-indulgence, Ke$ha’s manufactured slumming or Lady Gaga’s old-world theatricality, young America identifies with Katy Perry’s low-stakes confidence. She’s the girl who’s as comfortable showing her own pimples in skin care ads as she is posing naked on her album cover; as comfortable dressed in nerdy headgear for her videos as she is in a whip-cream-spouting bra; as comfortable working in the asexual genre of post-Oprah self-affirmation (“Firework”) as she is mainstreaming bisexuality in its more corrupt (“I Kissed A Girl”) and innocent (“Last Friday Night”) forms.
There’s a reason everyone from Snoop Dogg to Kanye West wants a featured slot on a Katy Perry song. The drunken, auto-tuned saxophone solo on “Last Friday Night” is the party horn of the new American youth, and their voice belongs to Katy Perry.
On its face, young America’s post-imperial vibe is decidedly anti-political. But the habits and commitments growing up around its emergent culture have colossal political ramifications. Never in the history of America has a cohort confronted a future in which they are almost certain by every measure to be worse off than their parents and to have more fun.
In wealthier, more stable times, social critics worried that the tightening grip of science and the loosening bond of mores would lead to an irreversible banalization of the American soul. Superficiality is still a dominant force in pop life. But today’s rising generations, immature in some key respects, are older and wiser about the uses and abuses of artifice than young people have probably ever been. Precipitous changes in technology and sexual attitudes have established a durable ethic of sharing that lowers the costs of unscripted interactions, online and off — reducing awkwardness and complicating the soul just as often as the reverse.
In the absence of traditional havens, young Americans are thrown back on their individual and collective resources. Now more than ever, your youth is what you make of it.
The consequence, part distressing, part encouraging, is a growing divide between the resourceful and the incapable. The resourceful actively troubleshoot life’s endlessly recombining problem sets of personality, economy, publicity and intimacy. The incapable passively endure their own loss of agency: think of the customer-service rep saying “The computer won’t let me,” or the newly divorced family member saying “We realized we were really more like friends.”
The resourceful/incapable divide already runs perpendicular to class, strengthening the willingness of many young Americans to stop worrying and learn to love downward mobility. Paradoxically, this is good for entrepreneurship — especially at a time when America desperately needs an upsurge of small enterprise among what it will soon stop making sense to call the working class. The incapable will bear all the drudgery of the blue-collar world without any of the institutions of solidarity and identity that gave it shape and force.
Resourceful or incapable, however, everyone will continue to pursue the cheap and abundant pleasures that increasingly define American life: plentiful drugs, sex, pornography, arts, crafts and music. In most important respects, for the resourceful and the incapable alike, the line between the professional and the amateur will continue to blur. At work, at play and at home, roles will bend and strain.
Politics, accordingly, will follow suit — or else become the province of an isolated and estranged officer class of administrators. Even still, the resourceful/incapable divide will penetrate the halls of officialdom. A bureaucratic state that runs things for a people either too busy or too incompetent to govern themselves requires both a tiny elite of policy virtuosos and an army of compliance drones.
In some ways, the Katy Perry generation is naturally inclined to embrace that smothering form of rule and abandon the practice of politics. But in other ways, that dystopian future will strike the young as hopelessly out of date — the stuff of 1984 and Brazil. Those nightmares will never be forgotten, but the diabolical logic of possibility that made them fearsome will continue to unravel.
What dreaded failures will arise in their place? That’s for today’s politicians to ask and answer.
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.