“In a democracy, sometimes you’re going to win on those issues and sometimes you’re going to lose,” Barack Obama said this week at his final presidential news conference, echoing words he used the day after the election.
This is a truism to most Americans. But it has been a shock for many millennials.
We millennials, for most of our adult lives, have become blissfully accustomed to winning. I don’t mean in the everyone-gets-a-trophy sense. Nor do I mean in the housing, employment or romantic sense; on many milestones of economic security and adulthood, we appear to be losers. Particularly if you ask our elders.
But when it comes to politics, we — or at least the majority of us who are left-of-center — have been spoiled to the hilt.
Same-sex marriage legalized? Check. Expanded access to health care? Yup. Protecting the “dreamers” from deportation? Absolutely. International climate change agreement? You got it.
#Winning, across the board.
Sure, there’s been obstruction; by some measures, record levels of it in the past couple of years, in fact. And, yes, there have been ugly, violent, retrograde events, particularly on race relations, but arguably those have always occurred. Thanks to cellphone documentation, the public is just more aware of them today. And also better able to organize. So, still forward movement, for the most part.
In recent years, across multiple surveys, young people have viewed themselves as falling behind their elders when it comes to finances but gaining ground on political values.
A 2015 survey from the Pew Research Center, for example, asked whether “on the issues that matter to you in politics today,” respondents viewed their side as winning or losing. A majority saw themselves as losing. (Thanks, victimhood culture.) But even so, respondents under 30 were substantially more likely than those over 65 to say they were coming out ahead (32 percent vs. 19 percent, respectively).
In early 2016, a Post-ABC News poll asked respondents whether they think people and groups that hold values similar to their own are gaining or losing influence in American politics. Again, millennials were much more likely than other Americans to feel strongly that their team was gaining; seniors were much more likely to feel strongly that theirs was losing.
And millennials were generally accurate in this assessment. Our generation’s predominantly liberal positions — on LGBT issues, immigration, marijuana legalization, abortion, the death penalty — gained traction across the general populace over the past eight years, even as our legislative leadership grew more conservative.
During that same period — the majority of our adult lives for most of us, as well as some of our most formative political years — we’ve experienced only a president whose vision and policies we generally agreed with. Sure, we picked at him and complained about the pace of change. Still, there was consistent, measurable progress, at least on the domestic agenda.
Even when progress stalled at the federal level, progressives made gains at the state and local levels, particularly in locations attracting influxes of young people. Family leave, sick leave and minimum-wage increases have found homes in youthful bastions of blueness.
For eight years, when we put our shoulder to the wheel, we usually saw it move. Like the generation of home buyers who saw housing prices move in only one direction, many of us took for granted it would be ever thus.
When Donald Trump won, then, many millennials were body-slammed by disillusionment. That whole arc-of-history-bending-toward-justice thing? We’d never realized that there might be dips and divots that sometimes seem to zag in the wrong direction.
We’d had a taste of stagnation, sure. But we had little inkling that the wheel could roll backward.
Many of us cried, and some missed exams. Some became cynical and decided our beloved country might be more evil than good. Or we became paralytically nostalgic, filling our Facebook feeds with sappy supercuts of Obama’s most telegenic moments with puppies and children.
On Friday at noon, a new era begins, yes. And many of us fear that the likely dismantlement of progressive legacies and the damage to our hard-won international reputation for stability and leadership may be lasting.
But the world isn’t over, not yet. To my fellow millennials who have felt like giving up, and extracting themselves from a grinding political process that they were only superficially connected to in the first place, who have viewed this election as a wholesale repudiation of our values, remember: Public opinion is still mostly in our favor.
More important, if we can lose sometimes, we can also win again.
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