The fact that a significant number of young Americans have refused to fall in line and respond with much enthusiasm during the final weeks of this presidential election has shocked and baffled the punditry. This indignation was already acute in September, when the trouble appeared to be a slim minority of white millennials driven by ideological discontent into the arms of third-party candidates. Now we have discovered that a far greater number of young people across demographic lines are unmoved by the presidential candidates and consequently unwilling to affirm them, so they have dropped out of the process altogether. The commentary has become only more incredulous. The pundits wail: “Can’t they see this is a crisis? This isn’t a normal election. With so much on the line, what could they possibly be thinking?”
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The theories proffered by the Serious and Sober analysts of American political life are astounding. One hardly needs to list them in particular, given how inadequate the whole mode of inquiry has proved. It relies, as it often does, on the assumption that the troubling behavior of large groups of people can be attributed to a failure of basic rationality: “They aren’t realistic.” “They lack information.” “They don’t have a sense of the stakes, aren’t serious, haven’t got perspective.” Each of these explanations evinces, as always, the evident unfamiliarity of American pundits with the actual emotional experience of human life. “Why do so many people feel the economy is failing when projections for the gross domestic product are so positive?” Their world is explained in total by a dry assemblage of facts , and if the behavior of people fails to correspond to the rational consequences of these facts, the trouble must be ignorance, willful or otherwise. This is not to say that our emotional lives are disconnected from the conditions of the world. A more adequate theory of young minds during the final stretch of this election requires only the most cursory examination of the world they inhabit. The country into which young voters have recently been born finds itself in a state of depravity. Forty-two million Americans, including 14 million children, do not have enough food. Despite gains made under the rapidly disintegrating Affordable Care Act, nearly 30 million Americans do not have health insurance. Neither of these facts results from lack of food or medicine, as 50 years spent pumping chickens and cows with our copious reserves of penicillin and tetracycline have brought about a glut of environmentally unsustainable farm animals and a world on the precipice of antibiotic-resistant infections. Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 27. Some delegates waved signs against the Trans-Pacific Partnership during his remarks and throughout the convention. Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS Black Americans, 50 years after Jim Crow, remain precarious in their claim to citizenry, subject to daily harassment and theft routinely punctuated by outright murder at the hands of the state. Over 2 million Americans are in prison. Those fortunate enough to graduate college have a debt load virtually impossible to discharge by almost any legal avenue while prospects for employment remain scarce. Those fortunate enough to be employed have not seen their wages correspond to productivity in 40 years. The economy—insufficiently terrorized by the 2008 collapse, in part because the perpetrators of that collapse remain effectively in control of their own regulators—is haunted by the possibility of another shock. Who is doing well? Silicon Valley libertarians, promising to disrupt us back to 19th-century labor relations, cheered on by members of the notionally liberal party. In September, atmospheric measurements confirmed that industrial output, driven in large part by the United States, has lurched the world past 400-parts-per-million atmospheric carbon dioxide. At least 2 degrees Celsius of global warming and its attendant catastrophes are nearly inevitable. Remember too that even this tenuous arrangement of a nation is maintained only by a grinding, ambient violence, the occupation, torture and incineration of the citizens of no fewer than six sovereign nations at present, a world kept at bay by the 23,000 bombs dropped by the American military annually and a world that that, for all this effort, does not appear content to remain at bay much longer. We are closer than we have been in a generation to the real possibility of nuclear war. Now turn on any television set, read any newspaper, load up any political content outlet and note the utter inadequacy of the political solutions on offer. We are faced with a presidential election between a parody fascist and a breathing embodiment of liberalism’s vaguely enlightened trepidations, the latter’s marginal superiority achieved mainly by way of not being an incompetent or a rapist. U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton arrive for the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis on October 9. AFP/Getty Images/ROBYN BECK We have three debates to decide whether we prefer vulgar racism or barely bridled corporatism. Whether we ought to flatten the Middle East outright, or merely occupy it with “trainers” and special forces. One candidate says global warming is a Chinese hoax. The other, more grounded, is encouraged that we have achieved “energy independence” during the same week we learned that we cannot afford a single new oil well. On one side, an isolationist trade war. On the other, the latest iteration of an internationalist trade regime dedicated the proposition that workers in the United States and in Asia ought to be more equal in their abject enthrallment to the aristocracies of both regions. Perhaps the poor can merely solve themselves by starving. Perhaps they can be helped by way of a welcome but narrow expansion of the welfare state, on the condition that they reproduce. The poverty those children inherit can be worked out later. The jackboot or the white shoe on your throat? It is not that these choices merit equivalent concerns, nor even that they are looking upon this nightmare and explicitly refusing to address it. Rather, to watch the election unfold is to observe a contest that does not appear even dimly cognizant of the scale of our emergency. Either America is already great or, worst case, it is on the verge of becoming great again. Back in the punditry, the pot calls out to the kettle: “What are young voters thinking? Can’t they see this is a crisis?” A Trump supporter yells at demonstrators at a rally that was canceled in Chicago on March 11. Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters I do not want to suggest that the present sentiments of young voters amount to these articulated grievances. They are only the facts of the world as it is, and though disagreeable, the conditions of which we are all in some half-conscious way, unavoidably aware. One does not need to be terribly sophisticated, nor loyal to any particular ideology, in order to detect that something has gone wrong at the roots. What I am proposing is that young voters, and a great deal of older ones, have in their minds the ineradicable and subterranean suspicion that the whole world has lost the plot. What follows, what has followed, what we are seeing, are the early tremors of a consequent nervous breakdown. It should not surprise us that young people are particularly susceptible to the anxiety produced by this state of affairs. The notion that adults may not ultimately have everything in hand is a common teenage conviction, but it is difficult, unless provoked by calamity, to really believe it. What other conclusion can they reach? All around them are the klaxons of moral failure and catastrophe, yet should they turn to the journalists and analysts tasked with interpreting the world, young voters can find scarcely more evidence than they do amongst the candidates themselves that anyone has any sense of what is happening. Instead, young people find a thousand digital and broadcast content mines engaged in endless bickering stupidity. Republican vice presidential nominee Governor Mike Pence prepares for a television interview on September 26. REUTERS/Carlos Barria They find declarations that liberalism is working. That the real trouble is the menace of college kids who are too politically correct. They are told that the alumni of the Bush administration, just yesterday prime candidates for the Hague, must now be hugged in the name of civility. They are told through a fog of historical amnesia that Trump is an affront to our whole history, unprecedented in his proposed abuses of power, an inexplicable stain upon a nation that has actually imprisoned candidates for political dissent, blown up pharmaceutical plants, sold weapons to fund a Nicaraguan extremist organization and seen its presidents intern citizens, criminalize journalism, authorize torture, overthrow democratic governments and drop atomic bombs on cities filled with civilians. Richard Nixon tried to firebomb the Brookings Institute, burgle the Democratic National Committee and purge Jews from the executive branch. Barack Obama has deported more people than any other president in history. But Trump—we’ve never seen anything like this before. They are told that all of this has something to do with the Russians. Young people have watched the rise of racist nationalism amidst the ruins of neoliberalism. When they look for guidance, they find men whose résumés consist of “Ivy League” and “write a blog” being paid six-figure salaries to crack “economic anxiety” jokes and tell anyone proposing radical solutions to be more serious. The most charitable interpretation is that these pundits too are afflicted by a sense of our catastrophe. Perhaps this is how they cope. And indeed it is not as if we have all accommodated the bare facts of our reality in the same way. Even young people have varied wildly in their responses. Some take refuge in imitating the confidence of their elders, using social media as if they are sitting down their friends for an intervention: “No, really, just don’t elect the madman, and everything will be fine.” Like all such sermons, this is as much about shoring up the faith of the preacher as it is about his audience. Others have rebelled, and they are the ones who captured the most notice. They have denounced the whole system, insisted they will support third parties, called the whole thing rotten and corrupt. They have been met with condescension, the baffling stupidity of well-intentioned commentators who assure them they understand and even agree with their goals, but that it would be unreasonable to do anything to bring them about. (Rather, th…