This is not another opinion column picking on millennials. I promise.
This is, rather, an exhortation to millennials — to all Americans, really — to think hard and think differently about the problems ailing our tarnished republic.
But to think differently about where we’re going as a nation, we need to see clearly where we are right now.
And the stone-cold truth of the matter is we live in a nation where the bulk of the largest single demographic group is entering its 30s apparently without any concept of how to use a can opener.
The Wall Street Journal on Monday revealed this staggering fact in a story about how the big-three canned tuna fish manufacturers — StarKist, BumbleBee, and Chicken of the Sea — are struggling with slumping sales. The market has changed. Customers now prefer fresh or fresh frozen products. But apart from that, as StarKist’s vice president of marketing notes matter-of-factly, “a lot of millennials don’t even own can openers.”
Now, say what you will about canned tuna — it’s disgusting, of course – the cultural and political implications of this revelation are profound. Entire industries, not just the canned tuna people, will be forced to change the way they make and sell their products all because the dominant segment of the marketplace doesn’t own a basic kitchen tool.
Call it creative destruction, or call it laziness. If it doesn’t have a pull-tab or you can’t put it in an easy-open pouch, forget it. You’re good as dead.
Millennials are frustrating that way. A simple cultural shift can change whole industries or realign the political map.
They’re frustrating, too, because they seem to believe so much that either isn’t true or is detrimental to the health of the country. People who don’t know how to operate can openers are asking us to respect their political opinions.
Consider the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
On the right, the 29-year-old freshman congresswoman from the Bronx in New York is an object of scorn and derision. She’s a proud member of the Democratic Socialists of America, after all, and her youth and inexperience make her an easy target. She makes gaffes that would have annihilated most amateur pols.
Yet Ocasio-Cortez won the votes — and the undying love of the press — because she’s selling socialism in an easy-open pouch, rather than establishment politics in a can.
Millennials especially are not buying what departing House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, is selling. That’s why Ryan won’t be a congressman come January.
Millennials might be iffy on basic economics (straight-up socialism doesn’t work, ever) but they know, without a doubt, they don’t want the political equivalent of smelly canned tuna.
Conservatives had better accept this fact, and soon.
A millennial friend of mine, a British writer with a sharp eye for the contours of the American political landscape, gave me a salty analysis just after the midterms.
“Forget left and right,” he told me (though he didn’t say “forget”). “It’s people versus mega-business.”
That’s not a bad way of putting it. Another way might be “little versus big” or “normal people versus the elite.” The point is, the old left-right paradigm doesn’t quite capture the new dynamic. It’s why you saw people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 shift gears and vote for Trump in 2016.
It’s also why some people who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary took a chance on Trump in the general election. Insiders were out. Outsiders were in. Just barely.
Now, my British friend considers himself a “red Tory”— a traditionalist socially, but an interventionist economically. He has no problem with the National Health Service, for example, and wouldn’t object to a universal basic income. U.S. politics has no equivalent, and most American conservatives would have trouble adopting such an outlook.
But I think my millennial correspondent is dead-on when he argues that an economic nationalism that emphasizes how the current game is rigged, combined with some commonsense “don’t-call-it-conservatism” policies, would clean up with millennials.
“Millennials are orphans of the Great Recession,” he explained. “There’s no way we are ever embracing Paul Ryan-style classical liberalism. To us, it’s an endorsement of what’s wrong now, not a cure.”
Understood in those terms, Republicans might begin to form an answer to Ocasio-Cortez-style socialism, which holds the way to pay for Medicare for All is “you just pay for it” or that Congress can fund a vast national health care system by finding $32 trillion in Pentagon waste and fraud, as she suggested the other day.
Socialism is appealing until millennials learn it isn’t an easy-open pouch. It’s one big, dreary can — and the government owns the can opener.