Hey all, I’m Ned Resnikoff. Along with Barrett Brown, I’m part of the latest batch of dewy-eyed greenhorns to start contributing regularly to this blog.
A little bit about me: I’m a recent NYU graduate, and a current researcher at Media Matters for America.* In the past, I’ve contributed to Campus Progress, Cracked, Spencer Ackerman’s joint, the Ms. Magazine blog, and Wunderkammer, though these days my freelance stuff shows up most frequently at Salon. My solo blog is here.
I’m also a Millennial–though I really, really hate that word–and, if the consensus among social scientists is correct, then I should probably be apologizing for that. It seems like every month brings news of the latest study confirming that Americans in my age bracket are compassion-stunted narcissists. The newest entry in the series, via Campus Progress’ Simeon Talley, comes to us from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. The findings? “[C]ollege students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years.”
I’ve heard plenty of friends and peers angrily dismiss studies like this, but I’m not so sure dismissal is warranted. If it were just one case study, then sure, I might buy accusations of flawed methodology. But the mound of concurring research is getting pretty hard to ignore. Plus, though I’m reluctant to say it, anecdotal experience says we can be a pretty self-absorbed bunch. (I can’t exactly exonerate myself from charges of narcissism, either. You might have noticed that I’m a blogger.)
The big question is why. Talley and Michael Tomasky lay the blame largely with what the latter calls: “the modern era of conservative dominance.” Talley writes: “A worldview that idealizes rugged individualism and atomistic, selfish existence could be the culprit.”
That explanation is far too elegant and appealing for it to be correct. Not that I don’t think there’s some truth to it; take a good long look at the Tea Party and then tell me that modern American conservatism hasn’t fostered an atmosphere of aggressive nihilism and self-interest. But sweeping cultural shifts like the one I fear we’re witnessing rarely happen because of a single culprit, especially in a society as large and pluralistic as ours. Blame belongs not to a single cause, but to a cloud of interconnected factors.
I’ve got my thoughts on what a short list of those factors might look like, but for now I’ll stick to the overtly political and suggest that we on the left aren’t entirely blameless. How could we be? I don’t know the demographic breakdown of the study, but I do know that my generation is significantly more left-leaning than its parents, and that this is especially true for the college-educated kids being surveyed. I don’t find it inconceivable that even kids who feel a deep, visceral revulsion at the sight of George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, et al. could be performing poorly on this study in a statistically significant way. So if we’re to accept any causal relationship of the type Talley and Tomasky suggest, then the strongest claim we can make is that my fellow Millennials and I internalized the pernicious subtext of the conservative message even as we rejected both the messenger and the messenger’s policy preferences.
Perhaps that’s because they weren’t given much of an alternative. Glenn Beck, as thoroughly contemptible as he is, understands one thing that a lot of his opponents miss: that the left-right battle isn’t just over policy, but over first principles as well. That’s why he promotes his own first principles at every available opportunity, and demonizes all those who beg to differ.
The left has yet to offer much of an alternative to the browbeating. When we engage in philosophical arguments with the right, it’s most often to make negative claims about why discrete plank in mainstream conservative philosophy is morally depraved. Or we do as President Obama has done, and try to reassure dubious conservatives that modest left-wing policies can be reconciled with right-wing philosophical convictions. Then there are the folks on the left like Noam Scheiber, a very sharp observer who has the unfortunate tic of labeling as “non-ideological” those politicians whose governing philosophies he happens to like.
None of those strategies directly engages with the problem. Instead, each is as good as an abdication. If we’re to combat political narcissism and nihilism, then we need to have a compelling alternative. We need to be unafraid to speak publicly, in strong, unequivocal terms, about things like morality and virtue. But prior to doing any of that, I think we need to have the internal debate that I never saw happen before the 2006 liberal resurgence. For all the talk about Democratic and progressive “soul searching,” we mostly plumbed our souls for the answers to tactical questions. There are bigger questions prior to those, and I don’t think we can avoid asking them for much longer.
*Not like you don’t know this, but just so I’m on the record about it: The views I express on this blog and in all of my other extracurricular endeavors, are mine alone. Nothing I write here or anywhere else should be taken to represent the views of my employer.