Norman Stone at Oxford in 1994
My first German lesson with Norman Stone was — like so much about Norman — unorthodox. “Meet me at 11am in the Worcester College bar,” he had said. It was 1986, I think, and I had embarked on a doctoral degree at Oxford, mainly because my three years as an undergraduate hadn’t seemed quite enough. Norman had just arrived from Cambridge to take up the Oxford chair in modern history. Someone at the history faculty had recognised kindred spirits, so I had been assigned to him. The technical term was “advisee” — not a word commonly associated with the Worcester bar.
At some point in my final year, I had decided my doctoral thesis must be on some aspect of German history, if only so that I would have to learn the language. In those days there seemed to be three options when it came to foreign expertise. The Cold Warriors and fellow travellers learnt Russian and went to Moscow. I already loathed the Soviet Union enough not to want to do that. The aesthetes (“weeds” in Norman-ese) learnt Italian and went to Florence. I knew there was no future in the Renaissance. So I chose German and went to Hamburg, which had worked as launchpad for the Beatles.
It seemed a safe bet that, however docile the West Germans might seem from a distance, they and their long-standing “German question” would at some point be back. In any case, the most interesting historians of the previous generation had tended to write about Germany, including the arch-rivals Hugh Trevor-Roper and AJP Taylor.
Norman’s reputation preceded him — and not just the fact that he knew all three of the above languages, and several more besides. In those pre-internet days, communications between Oxford and Cambridge were comparable to communications today between rural Vermont and Vladivostok. Clearly, the Oxford committee that appointed him had not done much due diligence beyond reading Sir Geoffrey Elton’s effusive letter of reference. But I had friends who had been undergraduates at Cambridge and so possessed first-hand knowledge of Norman’s Byronic style. I knew roughly what to expect. I was nevertheless unprepared for the combination of Guinness and Nietzsche.
It turned out that Norman’s method of initiation into the language of Goethe, Schiller, Dichter und Denker was to consume two preprandial pints of Ireland’s beloved stout and then, having repaired to his rather chilly set of rooms, to attack Also Sprach Zarathustra.
And so the Stone Age of my life began. At times, it was downright madness. True, the British historical profession in those days was bibulous by almost any standards, except perhaps those of the Russian army, and Norman was by no means the worst drinker I worked with in my youth. Whereas others would descend into incoherence or unpleasantness, Norman under the influence was nearly always delightful (provided he could also chain-smoke). Indeed, drunk, Norman could be so dazzlingly brilliant that I came to dread the rather morose interludes when his wife, Christine, or his doctor or his liver would insist on a period of abstinence.
A year or two after I had finished my DPhil — by which time I had landed my first teaching job at Cambridge — I invited Norman to come back to his old stamping ground to address the Peterhouse History Society. He agreed, but I knew him well enough by then to know how contingent such a commitment was. At lunchtime on the day he was due to speak, I rang to remind him. He had, of course, forgotten. However, there was just time for him to jump in a taxi (he loved shouting, “Charge!” at taxi drivers, and I am sure they did indeed charge him a fortune in the course of his life), and he arrived in time for dinner.
What I had not bargained for was the bottle of whisky he insisted on having — most of it consumed before the meeting had begun. I recall little of what he said — it was the early phase of the break-up of Yugoslavia, so it probably had to do with Bosnia, about which he had agreed to write a piece for this newspaper. The most memorable part of the occasion was the after-party in my rooms on Trumpington Street, which culminated in Norman’s (rather good) performance of Don Giovanni, sung while he was lying on my floor. He went to bed at 3am.
The next morning, just after dawn, my phone rang. It was Norman. Could I get him a pack of cigarettes as a matter of urgency? And could I bring it to Maurice Cowling’s rooms across the road? Head pounding, I obliged. Never shall I forget the sound that greeted me as I climbed the stairs to Cowling’s: blaring out of his old stereo was the opening of Act III of Wagner’s Siegfried, almost but not quite drowning out the hammering of typewriter keys. Norman was up and hard at work on his Bosnia piece. Cowling greeted me with a facial expression that combined irony, geniality and malice.
Later, I was entrusted with five pages of manuscript and a fax number. On my way to the college secretary, who possessed Peterhouse’s only such device, I looked at what he had written, and recoiled in horror. So numerous were the typographical errors, mostly a result of missed keys, that it might have been written in Serbo-Croat. But what could be done? The deadline was imminent. So the pages were sent. The next morning a perfectly cogent article appeared under Norman’s byline — a reminder that, more often than is commonly admitted, mercurial men like Norman are saved by unsung sub-editors.
Guinness and Nietzsche, scotch and Wagner, and I hazily recall a similar night of bordeaux and Céline — this was Norman’s way. At a time when academic culture was already beginning its shift from Regency to Victorian morals, he personified all that the hatchet-faced exponents of gender history and “the cultural turn” detested. As a reader of draft chapters and writer of letters of reference, he was as unreliable as any professor I have known; I required a parallel, more dependable Doktorvater (Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann) to survive.
But missing all deadlines was the least of it. The #MeToo movement lay in the future, which was just as well. For Norman in his prime, one would have needed a #MeThree movement.
For all his flaws, Norman was a genius: history’s Flann O’Brien. As his obituarists noted last week, he was a truly exceptional linguist and was never happier than when sharing the quirkiest feature of the latest language he was learning. Very drunk, he veered from one tongue to another, often to baffling effect. But it was what he said, more than the languages he knew, that set him apart from nearly all his contemporaries. Although The Eastern Front 1914-1917 was his best as well as his first book, Europe Transformed 1878-1919 was a masterpiece of synthesis and has proved an invaluable guide to our own times. Ever wondered why tariffs have made a comeback, or why Italian politics is so hard to predict? It’s all there, and the fun Norman had with the Italian word trasformismo has come in handy time and again.
In addition, Norman could justly claim to have come up with the best examination question ever set in the Cambridge history tripos: “Romanticism: masculine, feminine or neuter?”
He was also, despite or perhaps because of his unorthodox methods, a wonderful adviser. The hardest part of a doctoral dissertation is not the writing of it but the original conception. Norman’s genius was quite destructive: he was pitiless in shooting down mediocre ideas, of which I had many, with the lethal question “So what?” and a gesture he had learnt in Prague (or was it Bratislava?) that involved rolling his eyes, sticking out his tongue and shrugging his shoulders, all at the same time.
My original plan had been to write a thesis about satirical magazines in late 19th-century Vienna. Norman skewered that: “You’ll never be able to translate the jokes.” He steered me instead towards economic history, urging me to do “number-crunching”, as it would teach me economics. This was life-saving advice. My bet on Germany came up trumps when the Berlin Wall fell just two days before my DPhil viva voce examination. But I wouldn’t have been able to make much of the opportunity, had I not grasped the economic difficulties it would create for the West Germans.
Norman was brilliantly right on this issue when Margaret Thatcher sought his advice, at a time when she and other European leaders were worried reunification would make Germany a superpower. He sought to reassure Thatcher that, in taking over East Germany, West Germany was only getting “six Liverpools”. That was vintage Norman: funny, and penetrating to the heart of the matter. Even better was his answer as to why he had moved from Oxford to Ankara, Turkey, in 1997: “You have to understand that, in the depth of my being, I’m a Scotsman and feel entirely at home in an enlightenment that has failed.”
Of all the “media dons” who flourished in the 1980s, Norman was the most wickedly clever, and the academic left hated him as much for the cleverness as for the wickedness. But Norman exulted in its disapproval. He once told me: “I wear my enemies like medals.” And that is how I shall always remember him: Guinness in one hand, Nietzsche in the other, cigarette balanced on lower lip — and the heads of Oxford’s dullest dons dangling from ribbons on his barrel chest.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
‘Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed captain of school for next half). I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”
Thus Martin Hammond, the master of Boris Johnson’s house at Eton, in a letter addressed to Johnson père in 1982. Boris took much the same approach to life at Oxford, where I met him a few years later. It was the same story in Fleet Street; in parliament; as a junior minister; as mayor of London; as foreign secretary — and I have no doubt that it will be same story if, as now seems all but inevitable, he is elected Conservative leader and fulfils his life’s ambition to be Britain’s prime minister.
It is true that Sir Winston Churchill was also something of a maverick at Harrow, where, according to a contemporary, he “consistently broke almost every rule made by masters or boys, was quite incorrigible, and had an unlimited vocabulary of backchat”. A few years ago Boris dashed off a very bad book about Churchill, the main purpose of which was to draw attention to resemblances between himself and Britain’s greatest prime minister. For me, the book only confirmed the chasm between them.
In any case, as Andrew Roberts notes in Churchill: Walking with Destiny, Winston did better at Harrow than he later claimed, winning a prize for reciting 1,200 lines of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome without error — whereas Johnson was notorious for fluffing his lines at Eton. Cruelly neglected by his parents, Churchill flourished under the influence of Robert Somervell, who taught him English grammar.
Now there is a man who deserves our admiration: the man who taught English to the young Churchill, who in turn became one of the language’s greatest masters — second only to Shakespeare, in my view. Somervell, like Hammond, dedicated his life to teaching. He did not aspire to be prime minister, for teachers are generally modest types. But should we admire only the ambitious?
To be a teacher is to forgo fame. You might aspire to become a headmaster; you do not dream of No 10. This is the time of year when, regardless of the political goings-on in Westminster, the school year draws to a close and the more grateful sixth-formers shake their teachers’ hands as they set off into the world. Let us therefore turn away from the attention-seeking antics of the power-hungry — there will be more than enough articles about Boris this weekend — and give thanks instead for the unsung heroes who are great teachers.
Earlier this month, The Times reported, Sharon White became chairwoman of the retailer John Lewis, just days after Sonita Alleyne was elected master of Jesus College, Cambridge. What these two high-flyers have in common, aside from being neither male nor white, is they were both pupils of Gerald O’Connell at Leyton Senior High School for Girls in east London, then classed as a severely disadvantaged school (the opposite of Eton, in other words). It was O’Connell who urged them to apply to Cambridge.
“When teaching boys that age and in that area,” O’Connell told The Times, “you had to be quite tough. With the girls, as a young male teacher, it was best to use flattery to form an emotional bond, then get them to worry about disappointing you and letting you down. It’s emotional blackmail but it works. I went a bit far one day and all the girls ended up crying when I said I would be heartbroken if they didn’t do well in their exams.”
The best teachers have just that kind of insight into the dark place that is teenage psychology. I was the rebellious type in my early teens. Not long after Anarchy in the UK had been released by the Sex Pistols — it was 1976 — I bought a cheap electric guitar and ineptly cut my hair in the punk fashion with my mother’s nail scissors. I was one of the worst boy soldiers in the history of the Glasgow Academy’s combined cadet force.
History — then as now — had the reputation of being a boring subject at school. (It’s no accident that the history teacher in the Harry Potter books, Professor Binns, is so boring that he has died without noticing it.) Yet my history teacher, the late Ronnie Woods, had the gift that makes a great teacher. He understood that a bunch of recalcitrant Glaswegian boys would respond only to a mixture of theatre and terror.
Ronnie would begin each lesson with an explosive flourish, spinning the blackboard around to reveal a multicoloured lesson plan. He had catchphrases — “The question is sacrosanct!”— that I remember to this day (even at university level, most history essays are bad because students simply fail to answer the question).
Ronnie was in tune with our adolescent addiction to humour, well aware that we were imitating him behind his back — as we imitated all our teachers — and furnishing us with ample raw material. But there were also the odd flashes of ferocity that are needed to keep boys in line. Once in a while, Ronnie was not averse to administering the dreaded belt or tawse to the outstretched hand of a transgressor, pour encourager les autres.
Then there were the vital nuts and bolts. Ronnie showed us how to take notes, how to plan an essay, how to defend it in discussion. It was from him I learnt that the obvious answer to a historical question is rarely the right one, and never the interesting one. Above all, Ronnie had the vital quality that he truly wanted his star pupils to triumph.
We lost another great teacher last week, the Harvard economist Martin Feldstein, who died at the age of 79, having taught a striking proportion of the biggest names in economics today. Fellow economist Lawrence Summers recalled how, in 1973, Feldstein “decided to take a chance on hiring a dishevelled college sophomore as his research assistant. Marty was infinitely patient with my many questions about his research and remarkably tolerant of my inability to keep straight his data on international social-security comparisons.”
Either man would have been a better Federal Reserve chairman than the present incumbent, and both came close, for Harvard is one of the few educational institutions in the world where the teachers do dream of the corridors of power.
But let Marty be remembered — along with Robert Somervell, Ronnie Woods and thousands of others — as a great teacher, always patient and tolerant. Cultivating teenage talent is a noble vocation. And if some of the talent remains incorrigible . . . well, don’t blame the teachers. If, as prime minister, Boris Johnson continues to act as if “free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else”, it will not be Martin Hammond’s fault.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
I am old enough to remember when Twitter billed itself as “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party”. Heck, I can even remember John Perry Barlow’s hippie-libertarian “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” — a place “where anyone, anywhere, may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity”.
Well, “it’s the morning after the free-speech party, and the place is trashed”. Don’t take it from me. Those words come from twentysomething Adam, a content moderator in one of the “trust and safety teams” now employed by Facebook, Google and the other network platforms to detect and remove “hate speech”.
Last week, YouTube announced that it was “specifically prohibiting videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status”. It swiftly became clear what that meant in practice. On Wednesday, as The New York Times reported, “numerous far-right creators began complaining that their videos had been deleted or had been stripped of ads, presumably a result of the new policy”.
As if to test YouTube out, a Vox journalist named Carlos Maza demanded that it ban Steven Crowder, the host of a raucous political show, on the grounds that Crowder had repeatedly made homophobic jokes about him. “I’ve been called an anchor baby, a lispy queer, a Mexican, etc,” Maza wrote on Twitter. At first, YouTube resisted, arguing that Crowder hadn’t violated the company’s terms of service, but soon — partly under pressure from other employees of Google, its owner — it folded, announcing that it had “suspended this channel’s monetisation . . . because a pattern of egregious actions has harmed the broader community”.
I knew nothing of either Maza or Crowder until last week. The point of this column is not to defend the latter or the obnoxious “Socialism is for fags” T-shirt he sometimes wears on his show. The point I want to make is the more general one that free speech on the internet is in free fall.
Crowder has company. The co-founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, also had his YouTube presence restricted this year. Last month, Facebook banned not only the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones but also the alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, the white supremacist Paul Nehlen, the African-American Muslim zealot Louis Farrakhan and the national activist Laura Loomer.
And those are just the better-known names. In a recent report, Facebook boasted that the proportion of hate speech it found “proactively” — before users reported it — had risen to 65% in the first quarter of 2019.
Having previously confined themselves to removing paedophile and terrorist content, the big tech companies are now openly engaged in political censorship. Google admits as much: an internal presentation last March was actually entitled “The Good Censor”. What this means in practice is that tens of thousands of content moderators such as young Adam are deciding what you can and cannot see online.
Here’s another of them, talking to Silicon Valley lawyer Alex Feerst: “I was like, ‘I can just block this entire domain, and they won’t be able to serve ads on it?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes.’ I was like, ‘But . . . I’m in my mid-twenties.’ ” In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s vision of the future was “a boot stamping on a human face — for ever”. In 2019, it turns out to be a geek hitting “delete” on a keyboard for ever.
You may not care for any of the people I have mentioned thus far. You might still not care if I tell you that interviews my wife and I have done (for, respectively, the US online broadcasters Dennis Prager and Dave Rubin) have been “demonetised” by YouTube, meaning that advertisements were not associated with them and therefore Prager and Rubin could not earn money from them. The point is not who gets censored or demonetised. The point is that companies as big and ubiquitous as Google and Facebook should not have this kind of power. Even Mark Zuckerberg agrees that “we have too much power over speech”.
When so many people now read an article such as this after being directed to it by one or other of the tech platforms, it is true to say that the platforms are, in the words of recently retired Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy, “the modern public square”. Yet they are emphatically not acting in that spirit — unless it was Tiananmen Square Kennedy had in mind.
Remember, the First Amendment to the US constitution bars Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”, and the Supreme Court has allowed few exceptions. Much more than in Europe, US courts are reluctant to penalise speech, even when plaintiffs allege defamation, invasion of privacy or emotional distress.
But none of this applies online, where (in the words of two legal scholars) the big tech companies can “act as legislature, executive, judiciary and press”. For they are doubly protected. First, the First Amendment is generally held not to apply to private companies. Second, section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act explicitly states that “interactive computer services” are not publishers (so, unlike newspapers, they can’t be held responsible for bad stuff that appears on their platforms), but they also cannot be “held liable on account of . . . any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that [they] consider to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable” (so they can’t be accused of restricting free speech when they delete bad stuff).
To call section 230 — which was enacted when the internet was in its infancy — an anachronism would be an understatement. It would be more accurate to say that it is the Catch-22 of our time, in that the big tech firms are not publishers when harm arises from the content on their platforms, but are publishers when they engage in censorship. Either way, they have minimal legal liability.
Yet section 230 (a) (3) explicitly assumed online platforms would “offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse”. And the phrase “or otherwise objectionable” was never intended to cover political positions.
These days, in Washington, there is a great deal of discussion of “breaking up big tech” by resuscitating or reforming competition law. Other voices (including, suspiciously, the big tech companies) clamour for more regulation. But the free-speech crisis can and should be simply addressed. The network platforms handle far too much content to be effective publishers. They are entitled to section 230’s protection — but only if they uphold the diversity of discourse envisaged by Congress.
The alternative is to repeal section 230 and impose on big tech something like a First Amendment obligation not to limit free speech. Speaking as one of the last surviving members of the free-speech party, I’d prefer that second option. But either would be an improvement on that geek hitting “delete” on a keyboard for ever.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
By Niall Ferguson
Co-director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Applied History Project
Research analyst at Greenmantle
Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
“There is a mysterious cycle in human events,” said Franklin Delano Roosevelt, accepting the Democratic nomination for president in Philadelphia in 1936. “To some generations much is given. Of others much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”
In the 20th century, many sociologists and historians flirted with the idea that generational changes could explain U.S. politics. The historians Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and Jr. wrote about “cycles of American history,” arguing that, as the generations turn, American politics rotates inexorably between liberal and conservative consensus. More recently, a new generational scheme has come into vogue. William Strauss and Neil Howe’s theory of the “fourth turning” predicts a crisis and a major political realignment every 80 to 90 years. (Strauss and Howe were briefly in the spotlight in 2016 after Steve Bannon praised their work.)
We are skeptical about cyclical theories of history. We are also aware of the slipperiness of generations as categories for political analysis. As Karl Mannheim pointed out more than 90 years ago, a generation is defined not solely by its birth years but also by the principal historical experience its members shared in their youth, whatever that might be. Nevertheless, we do believe that a generational division is growing in American politics that could prove more important than the cleavages of race and class, which are the more traditional focuses of political analysis.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is often described as a radical, but the data show that her views are close to the median for her generation. The Millennials and Generation Z—that is, Americans aged 18 to 38—are generations to whom little has been given, and of whom much is expected. Young Americans are burdened by student loans and credit-card debt. They face stagnant real wages and few opportunities to build a nest egg. Millennials’ early working lives were blighted by the financial crisis and the sluggish growth that followed. In later life, absent major changes in fiscal policy, they seem unlikely to enjoy the same kind of entitlements enjoyed by current retirees.
Under different circumstances, the under-39s might conceivably have been attracted to the entitlement-cutting ideas of the Republican Tea Party (especially if those ideas had been sincere). Instead, we have witnessed a shift to the political left by young voters on nearly every policy issue, economic and cultural alike.
As a liberal graduate student and a conservative professor, we rarely see eye to eye on politics. Yet we agree that the generation war is the best frame for understanding the ways that the Democratic and Republican parties are diverging. The Democrats are rapidly becoming the party of the young, specifically the Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z (born after 1996). The Republicans are leaning ever more heavily on retirees, particularly the Silent Generation (born before 1945). In the middle are the Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980), who are slowly inching leftward, and the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), who are slowly inching to the right.
This generation-based party realignment has profound implications for the future of American politics. The generational transition will not dramatically change the median voter in the 2020 election—or even in 2024, if turnout among young voters stays close to the historical average. Yet both parties are already feeling its effects, as the dominant age cohort in each party recognizes its newfound power to choose candidates and set the policy agenda. Drawing on opinion polls and financial data, and extrapolating historical trends, we think that young voters’ rendezvous with destiny will come in the mid to late 2020s.
Today, the older generations have a lock on political power in Washington. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are members of the Silent Generation. So are Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who lead in nearly every poll of the 2020 Democratic primary. President Donald Trump and the median senator and representative are Boomers. Of the nine justices on the Supreme Court, two are from the Silent Generation and six are Boomers. Yet the median American is 38—a Millennial.
Over the past year, the Democratic Party’s geriatric leadership has begun to feel the ground moving beneath its feet. For decades, moderate Democrats have kept a tight grip on the party’s platform. The 2018 midterm elections were a watershed. Boomers and members of the Silent Generation still make up more than three-fifths of the party’s House members and hold all major leadership roles. But newly elected members—including 14 Millennials and 32 Gen Xers—are driving the conversation on policy, from Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal to a recent resolution to withdraw support from Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
The Democrats have responded by moving left. In 2013, President Barack Obama signed a bill to cut the budget deficit by slashing hundreds of billions of dollars in spending. But already in 2019, a majority of the House Democratic caucus has co-sponsored a Medicare for all bill. Even those 2020 presidential candidates characterized as moderates, such as Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, have endorsed Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, which calls for trillions of dollars of deficit-funded federal spending to transform America’s economy and its energy sector.
If Roosevelt was right, and demographics are destiny, then the Democrats are going to inherit a windfall. Ten years from now, if current population trends hold, Gen Z and Millennials together will make up a majority of the American voting-age population. Twenty years from now, by 2039, they will represent 62 percent of all eligible voters.
If the Democrats can organize these two generations into a political bloc, the consequences could be profound. Key liberal policy priorities—universal Medicare, student-loan forgiveness, immigration reform, and even some version of the Green New Deal—would stand a decent chance of becoming law. In the interim, states that are currently deep red could turn blue. A self-identifying democratic socialist could win the presidency.
By contrast, from the perspective of pure demographics, the GOP seems to be playing a losing hand. Unless Republicans can find a way to stop young voters’ slide to the left in the 2020s, the party will survive only if it can pull older voters—Boomers and the remaining members of the Silent Generation—to the right fast enough to compensate for the leftward shift of the young.
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Millennials cannot be blamed for concluding that the economy is rigged against them. True, in absolute terms, Americans under 40 carry less debt than middle-aged Americans. But their debt profile is toxic. Nearly half of it comes from student loans and credit cards. In contrast, 72 percent of the debt held by Americans aged 40 to 49 is mortgage debt, which comes with tax advantages and allows debtors to build home equity as they repay their loans.
Meanwhile, the job market has turned a college education into a lose-lose choice for many young Americans. In 2016, a single year of tuition, room, and board at a private college cost 78 percent of median household income. Most American families can barely afford to send even a single child to college without loans, let alone two or three. Yet young workers without a college degree are deeply disadvantaged in the workforce, and more so all the time.
Young people then struggle to stay above water financially after they graduate. The net worth of the median Millennial household has fallen nearly 40 percent since 2007. This is not because they eat too much avocado toast; it is because student loan payments consume the income that they would otherwise save. Headline unemployment figures show that the labor market is humming. It does not feel that way for Millennials, who have never experienced a “good economy.”
It is therefore unsurprising that large majorities of young voters support economic policies that Ocasio-Cortez describes as “socialist.” According to a Harvard poll, 66 percent of Gen Z supports single-payer health care. Sixty-three percent supports making public colleges and universities tuition-free. The same share supports Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal to create a federal jobs guarantee. Many Gen Z voters are not yet in the workforce, but 47 percent support a “militant and powerful labor movement.” Millennial support for these policies is lower, but only slightly.
Younger voters are also far left of center on most other economic and social policies. They are particularly opposed to the Trump administration’s handling of immigration. Americans 35 and older are nearly evenly divided on the issue of President Trump’s border wall. Among voters under 35, this is not even a question. Nearly 80 percent oppose the wall.
Gen Z are not a trusting bunch. Students tend to believe that their college or university administration will do the right thing “always” or “most of the time.” Contrary to conventional wisdom, young Americans trust the military and law enforcement more than other institutions. But they take an extremely dim view of Trump, Congress, Wall Street, the press, and the social-media platforms where they get their news: Twitter and Facebook.
When the question is posed as an abstraction, most Gen Zers don’t trust the federal government either. But they favor big-government economic policies regardless because they believe that government is the only protection workers have against concentrated corporate power.
Philosophically, many Gen Zers and Millennials believe that government’s proper role should be as a force for social good. Among voting-age members of Gen Z, seven in 10 believe that the government “should do more to solve problems” and that it “has a responsibility to guarantee health care to all.”
Young voters are also far more willing than their elders to point to other countries as proof that the U.S. government isn’t measuring up. Gen Z voters are twice as likely to say that “there are other countries better than the U.S.” than that “America is the best country in the world.” As Ocasio-Cortez puts it: “My policies most closely resemble what we see in the U.K., in Norway, in Finland, in Sweden.”
Will Gen Z voters moderate their views after they enter the labor force? Probably not. Irving Kristol once joked that conservatives are liberals who have been “mugged by reality.” But the data don’t support this hypothesis. Most Millennials have already been mugged by reality: competing in the job market, paying taxes, and—for those 26 and older—taking responsibility for their own health care. In the process, they have lurched left, not right. On questions of political philosophy, Millennials are far closer to their juniors in Gen Z than to their elders in Gen X.
Even young Republicans have been caught up in this philosophical leftward drift. Gen Z Republicans are four times as likely as Silent Generation Republicans to believe that government should do more to solve problems. And only 60 percent of Gen Z Republicans approve of Trump’s job performance, while his approval among all Republicans hovers around 90 percent.
In short, Ocasio-Cortez is neither an aberration nor a radical. She is close to the political center of America’s younger generations.
Shadi Hamid: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez understands politics better than her critics
Can the Democratic Party convert this tectonic shift into victory at the ballot box? Maybe, but not necessarily. As the party tries to harness its younger, more progressive wing, it faces three interrelated challenges.
The first challenge is the perennial problem of low youth turnout. Democrats have been working for decades to get more young Americans to vote. They have partnered with organizations such as Rock the Vote to make voting cool. They have invested heavily in social-media microtargeting and experimented with mobile apps that use peer pressure to drive up turnout. Yet they have never gotten youth-turnout rates high enough to swing a close presidential election in their favor. Since 1980, the percentage of eligible voters in their 20s who actually vote in presidential elections has held steady between 40 and 50 percent. For Americans aged 45 and up, voting rates have been far higher: between 65 and 75 percent.
History offers Democrats some reason for hope. The closer an American is to middle age, the more likely he or she is to vote. On the other hand, turnout rates are declining across the board, and it is the 30-to-44-year-old age bracket that has seen the steepest decline over the past four decades. Unless Democrats can show younger voters that their votes translate into policy change, they could find themselves trying to mobilize a generation that is permanently apathetic and politically disengaged.
Read: The voters Democrats aren’t really fighting over
The second challenge for Democrats is that most of the party’s traditional power brokers are older, and many of them consider the youngsters to be radicals, or at the very least political liabilities. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has declined to move forward with the Green New Deal. When freshman Representative Ilhan Omar made comments about Israel policy that were widely criticized as anti-Semitic, the Democratic-controlled House voted to voice its opposition. When the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tried to block staffers from joining primary campaigns, Ocasio-Cortez told her followers to stop donating. These squabbles could easily lead to a rupture within the party.
The third challenge is that when young people organize, they do it in their own way and on their own terms. By The Washington Post’s count, between 1.4 and 2.3 million people attended the March for Our Lives in 2018, organized by school-shooting survivors from Parkland, Florida. Democratic candidates embraced the students’ cause and made gun control a central issue of the campaign. That may be one reason why early-voting turnout among 18-to-29-year-olds soared. But it was young people driving the agenda and the party following—not the other way around.
The best way for the Democrats to bridge these divides is to redouble the party’s focus on the issue that unites the coalition across generations: health care. In 2018, 41 percent of voters listed health care as their top issue. Three-quarters of them voted for the Democratic candidate.
However, on most other issues, the demographic trend lines are clear: By the mid 2020s, if a preponderance of young voters support an issue, the Democratic Party will probably have no choice but to make it central to the platform. Today, 43 percent of self-identified Democrats are either Gen Zers or Millennials. By 2024, by our calculations, this figure might rise to 50 percent. If the Democrats are not already the party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they will be soon.
Does all this mean that the Republican Party is doomed? Perhaps not. Even as younger voters have moved to the left, Republicans have been sustaining themselves by winning an ever-greater share of older voters. The Silent Generation moved hard to the right under Obama. In 2008, 38 percent of its members identified as Republicans. By 2016, that figure had risen to 48 percent. But the youngest members are now 75, and they will not be around forever. So Republicans are racing against the clock to pull nonaligned Boomers into the coalition. (It doesn’t hurt that Boomers now comprise fully two-thirds of the House Republican caucus.)
But how? Tax cuts are part of this strategy, but as voter reactions to the 2017 GOP tax bill showed, it’s a policy that yields diminishing political returns. A more important gambit was revealed in Trump’s State of the Union address in February, which drew a link between the disastrous regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and the emerging Democratic agenda. “We are born free, and we will stay free,” the president declared. “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
As a small but growing number of prominent Democrats embrace the label “socialist”—or “democratic socialist,” as Sanders terms it—Republicans smell blood in the water. More than half of young voters may have a positive view of socialism, but sizable strong majorities of all age groups over 30 prefer capitalism. Indeed, voters over 65 feel more positively about capitalism today than in 2010, when Gallup began to ask the question. It remains to be seen whether the 2020 Democratic primary can normalize the word socialist. For now, however, it is clearly a liability for the Democrats in a national election.
Then comes the question of immigration. As we have seen, younger American voters strongly disagree with the Trump administration’s aggressive efforts to “build a wall” along the country’s southern border or limit legal immigration from Muslim-majority countries. This reflects the profound difference between the generations in terms of racial composition. Fully 85 percent of the Silent Generation is white; only 12 percent is black or Latino. Among the members of Gen Z, by contrast, only 54 percent are white, and 38 percent are black or Latino. A far larger proportion of Gen Z also identifies as mixed-race. This divide will widen further in the coming years because of immigration, birth-rate differentials, and the fact that white Americans at age 75 have a higher life expectancy than African Americans.
Negative views of immigration are based on more than just the economic argument that newcomers are lowering the wages of native-born workers or exacerbating shortages of housing or public goods. Such views have a significant cultural component, too. Needless to say, Donald Trump specializes in whipping up the anxieties of older voters about what they see as alarmingly rapid social change.
But the Republicans need to find ways of winning over aging Boomers, many of whom are squeamish about being branded as racists. That is why it makes political sense for them to broaden the culture war, making it about much more than immigration.
According to a Marist poll last December, a sizable majority of Americans under 29 want to see the country become “more politically correct.” But voters over 30 oppose the rise of political correctness by a factor of nearly 2 to 1. This is a wedge issue that Republicans will exploit with gusto.
Republicans will be happy to note that middle-aged voters are even more strongly opposed to political correctness—and all that they believe this entails—than retirees. This trend is unlikely to reverse as the Democratic Party, under the influence of the Ocasio-Cortez cohort, brings issues of cultural and social justice closer to the core of its platform. Nor will it resolve itself as these middle-aged voters’ children become teenagers and go to college, where the culture of social justice is most explicitly disseminated.
Liberals may retort that social values can change with surprising speed. Couldn’t PC culture follow the same trajectory as interracial relationships, gay marriage, and legal marijuana—once taboo, now mainstream?
Perhaps it can, but we think it probably won’t. The gay-marriage debate was about the legal status of a minority. The PC debate is about norms of expression that affect everyone. For many older voters—and not just conservatives—campus politics has become a wholly alien parallel world of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and gender-neutral pronouns. That helps explain the president’s recent executive order to cut off federal funding to colleges that fail to uphold free speech. By taking campus politics national, the GOP will try to pry centrist Boomers and older Democrats away from a party more and more driven by the values of progressive academia.
Generational conflict likely won’t swing national elections until the 2020s, depending on turnout rates and attitudinal shifts among the Boomers. In the short run, this is probably good news for the GOP, as Democrats lurch to the left on identity-based issues that turn off older voters.
Yet Trump’s strategy of single-mindedly courting members of the Silent Generation with issues such as immigration, the evils of socialism, and campus free speech is not a long-term solution for the Republican Party. The more the GOP belittles the preferences of younger voters, the more it risks forging them into a left-wing bloc.
In the 2020s, the Silent Generation will fade from the scene. This will happen at precisely the same time that history suggests younger, more left-wing voters will start to vote at higher rates. To attract more Boomers, and some Gen X men, the GOP may paint the Democrats as radical socialists and do all it can to fan the flames of the culture war. To avoid splintering along generational lines, Democrats will likely redouble their focus on health care, a rare issue that unites the party across all age groups.
In short, America’s political future will be determined by the outcome of the generation war. Can the Millennials and Gen Z organize themselves into a cross-party political bloc? If they succeed, they can dominate U.S. politics within the next 10 years, and the Democratic Party will follow them. But if Republicans can persuade enough Boomer Democrats to switch sides by effectively turning politics into a nationwide culture war, Trumpism could prove longer lived than most commentators today assume.
Will there be any areas of common ground in a political future fueled by intergenerational warfare? Not many. But one suggests itself. Even as the rising cost of Social Security and Medicare place growing pressure on the budget, neither side will have much political incentive to fight for deficit reduction. Republicans’ dreams of privatizing Social Security and trimming Medicare died forever with Paul Ryan’s retirement last year. If anything, the two parties might collaborate to expand and shore up welfare programs, ramping up the deficit in the process. The experience of Japan suggests that, so long as interest rates remain low enough and the demand for government bonds high enough, difficult fiscal decisions can be postponed for much longer and public debt accumulated to much higher levels than conventional economics led us to expect.
When FDR spoke of a new generation’s “rendezvous with destiny,” few in his audience imagined that it would take the form of another world war. Democrats who aspire to the presidency are often tempted to talk in similar, uplifting terms. Barack Obama liked to quote Martin Luther King Jr.’s remark that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” though for Obama it became an arc of history, invariably bending his way. Few Democrats, even on the night of November 8, 2016, could conceive that the arc of history might bend toward Donald Trump.
Cyclical theories that seek to explain and predict political change in terms of generational “turns” should be therefore be treated with skepticism. If, as Mannheim argued, generations are shaped by the big events of their youth, then—who knows? —a single black swan could turn today’s kids into Ocasio-Cortez’s worst nightmare: Generation T for Trump. After all, it has been asserted, to the glee of his critics, that the president’s vocabulary is that of a fourth grader. Sure, but that also means fourth graders can understand what Donald Trump says. Today’s fourth graders will be voting in 2028. Perhaps they, too, will be as “woke” as Generation Z currently is. But history teaches us not to assume that.
In 1960, Friedrich Hayek predicted in The Constitution of Liberty “that most of those who will retire at the end of the century will be dependent on the charity of the younger generation. And ultimately not morals but the fact that the young supply the police and the army will decide the issue: concentration camps for the aged unable to maintain themselves are likely to be the fate of an old generation whose income is entirely dependent on coercing the young.” It hasn’t turned out that way at all—a salutary warning that it is much easier to identify generational conflicts of interest than to anticipate correctly the political form they will take.
NIALL FERGUSON is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a co-director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Applied History Project. He is the author of Kissinger, 1923–1968: The Idealist and The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from the Freemasons to Facebook.
EYCK FREYMANN is a research analyst at Greenmantle and a Henry Scholar at St. Edmund's College, Cambridge. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Emperor's New Brand: One Belt One Road and the Globalization of Chinese Power.