Yes, they can be whiny. Yes, they can be narcissistic. And yes, some of them are incredibly spoiled. But millennials have plenty of legitimate grievances, grievances rooted in a conception of modern history that is much more closely aligned with reality than the narrative that their generation is uniquely lazy, soft or self-entitled, or that they’re to blame for society’s most urgent problems.
Millennials didn’t cause the Great Recession of 2008, the impact of which has yet to subside; predatory lenders, irresponsible borrowers and short-sighted legislators were responsible for that. Millennials didn’t vote to send our brave men and women to fight an expensive, bloody and totally unnecessary war in Iraq; the blame for that mistake falls on the shoulders of the politicians of that era, most of whom were elected by Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Silent Generation voters. And millennials didn’t start the student loan crisis; they were roped into it by employers who decided to start making a college degree a basic requirement for countless jobs that don’t actually require a college-level skill set.
Of course, every generation gets saddled with the problems left unsolved by its predecessors. That’s an infinitely reoccurring trend from which no generation has ever escaped. Yet when millennials dare to shine a spotlight on the particular burdens and obstacles they’ve inherited, they get accused of being weak-willed “snowflakes” who simply need to suck it up and work a little harder.
Comparatively, one of the dominant themes of the 2016 presidential election was that Washington had failed rural American communities in virtually every possible respect. That was one of the most commonly cited explanations for President Trump’s historic victory over Hillary Clinton, and it made perfect sense to anyone even slightly familiar with the seemingly indestructible cycle of poverty that has infiltrated many of those communities. But to hear many on the right and in the national media tell it, we’re not supposed to take the concerns and complaints of millennials as seriously as the concerns and complaints coming out of the Rust, Bible and Corn Belts. Apparently, millennials’ problems just aren’t that important.
Enter millennial politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a savvy young go-getter and former organizer for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. On June 26, Ocasio-Cortez pulled off a remarkable victory against incumbent Democratic Representative Joseph Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives and former potential heir to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s throne.
Since having been thrust into the spotlight, Ocasio-Cortez’s critics have had a fair bit of fun at her expense, drawing attention to some very awkward gaffes she’s made and incoherent answers she’s given in interviews. To be fair, she’s a notable public figure now, and that kind of scrutiny just comes with the territory. That being said, Republicans would be wise to spend a little less time mocking her and a little more time reflecting on her unprecedented rise to progressive stardom.
Similarly, it would behoove establishment Democrats to take her victory more seriously than many of them have been. That especially goes for longtime party leaders like the aforementioned Nancy Pelosi, who, during a July press conference with reporters, appeared to shrug off suggestions that Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of Crowley had any major implications for the party as a whole.
Ocasio-Cortez may be more than a little wet behind her ears, but her primary victory over Crowley wasn’t an anomaly; a 10-term representative’s defeat at the hands of an inexperienced 28-year-old newcomer indicates a seismic shift in the political landscape that can’t be attributed exclusively to right-place-right-time politics. Her all-but-guaranteed ascension to the House of Representatives isn’t just an underdog story; it’s a story about a Democratic establishment that has completely lost touch with working-class voters, has been accused of taking the support of minority communities for granted, and routinely places the interests of its most deep-pocketed donors ahead of the interests of its most desperate constituencies. It’s a story about a community that decided to risk exacerbating the growing tensions between the progressive, liberal and moderate wings of the Democratic Party by nominating a candidate who’s willing to give voice to the misery of the masses and isn’t intimidated by grouchy establishment types like former Senator Joe Lieberman, whose foreboding screed in the Wall Street Journal probably did more to cement Ocasio-Cortez’s anti-establishment credentials than anything she could have said or done herself.
In other words, the story of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the story of President Donald Trump — albeit on a much smaller scale.
Like Trump, Ocasio-Cortez is no Moses. She’s not going to be parting any seas or leading anyone to the promised land. But also like Trump, Ocasio-Cortez draws her support from voters who are less concerned with her expertise and experience — or lack thereof — than they are with what she represents, which is a necessary and long-overdue departure from the business-as-usual politics that has consistently frustrated millennial voters and working-class families. And as far as they can tell, the only way to effect that departure is to drive a stake through the collective hearts of the institutions that routinely let them down. Donald Trump was willing to step into that role on behalf of disaffected conservatives, and both the Republican and Democratic establishments laughed him off. Now progressives have found their own dragon slayer, and politicians, pundits and activists on both sides of the aisle have responded by repeating the same mistakes Democrats made in 2016.
Republicans and Democrats who don’t take Ocasio-Cortez or her candidacy seriously are missing the forest for the trees. Her admittedly radical politics are too far outside the mainstream and come with much too high of a price to have any meaningful impact on the national discourse right now. But if both parties continue to try and distract attention away from their own failures with nonstop blame-shifting, duplicitous rhetoric, and the almost-always disingenuous pledge to “do better” — a pledge that’s typically (and conveniently) made without an actual timetable attached to it — it’s entirely plausible that her brand of democratic socialism could start attracting serious interest from scores of disenchanted millennial voters across the country.
Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton capped off a years-long right-wing insurgency that began with the rise of the Tea Party and culminated in a Republican takeover of Congress and the White House. Thanks in large part to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run, a similar insurgency has begun to take shape on the left. Ocasio-Cortez’s triumphant campaign is the first major victory of that insurgency, an inaugural flexing of its muscles. Will it enjoy the same degree of success that the Trump wing of the GOP has experienced? Probably not, but the political class ought to think twice before arrogantly downplaying its potential. Millennials in particular are already much more open to socialism than their elders, and they’re not terribly pleased with the current state of affairs. If the Republican and Democratic establishments don’t get their acts together in the very near future, they may one day find themselves staring down a blue wave of democratic socialists. And if that happens, everyone will remember how it all began with a spirited young underdog from the Bronx and her affinity for punching above her weight.