There is a world-view that has the following to say about the anti-racism protests sweeping Western cities: “Yes, some authorities in the US and elsewhere are heavy-handed, even racist. But overall the forces of order are all that stand between the common-sense majority and the violent chaos and woke purism of youths who dwell in an intolerant world of safe spaces, filter bubbles and campus censorship. Order must be restored. These extreme social justice warriors must be stopped in everyone’s interests.”
That view comes across most crisply in Donald Trump’s new self-description as “the president of law and order”. Trump wants to emulate Richard Nixon in 1968, who won that year’s presidential election after a febrile summer of civil rights protests by promising to restore order. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated during that turbulent year. But Nixon invoked a supposed clash of values between protesters – black Americans and mostly young, liberal whites – and middle America. And he made reference to the “silent majority” who he hoped would vote him into power. Following this summer’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, Trump wants to pull off something similar in the presidential election this November.
A similar view is to be found among conservatives across the West who despair of the “hyper-woke” dogma of today’s youth and who focus more on the acts of a small, violent minority of protesters than on the arguments of a huge, non-violent majority. Two recent incidents in the UK and the US have invigorated their arguments. In Britain a crowd toppled a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston and dumped it into Bristol harbour. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, called the act “thuggery”. Across the Atlantic, the New York Times published an op-ed by the Trump-ite senator Tom Cotton calling for the military to be deployed against protesters. In crisis meetings at the newspaper, reported the columnist Bari Weiss, opinions split between older, pro-free speech journalists and younger staff wary of publishing offensive material. The clash delighted the paper’s conservative critics and resulted in the resignation of James Bennet, head of the comment pages and a former editor of the Atlantic magazine.
Both cases had their complexities (Weiss’s account was contested by many colleagues, old and young) but garnered reams of coverage because they brought the divides to life. The naive young vs stolid older generations. Cultish extremists vs the common-sense majority. Chaos vs order. Such binaries have been growing in prominence for years, on the international right and on parts of the left. The recent protests have been a particular gift to their promoters.
Yet now, even more than before, they vastly oversimplify the reality. As anyone who bothers to talk to today’s university students knows, youth political culture is far more heterodox than the stereotypes proclaim. There is doubtless a minority of young people who are genuinely extreme and intolerant, the sorts who desecrate war memorials and hurl vitriol at commentators who do not conform to their views on race and gender. They drive clicks, so the media pays disproportionate attention to them. A past cover essay in the Atlantic exposed students leaving universities thinking “that individual rights are a red flag signalling social privilege”, “that a multiracial society cannot be based on fair rules that apply to every person”, and “that all knowledge can be reduced to politics”.
That the piece in question appeared in 1991 shows that there is nothing very new about student activists or their critics. Now, as then, a minority of young people are intensely political, sometimes naively and aggressively so. Now, as then, a vastly larger majority is at most passively political and does not remotely conform to the stereotype of furious, totalitarian social justice warriors ascribed to its generation.
The really interesting story of the ongoing BLM protests is not some bogus tale of polarisation but a new, emerging pan-societal consensus. Whereas 43 per cent of Americans said in 2014 that police killings of black men in Ferguson and New York were “signs of a broader problem”, now 74 per cent say that about the killing of George Floyd. In a recent Monmouth University poll, 76 per cent of Americans called racism “a big problem”, up 26 points since 2015.
Fifty-seven per cent said the BLM protests were “fully justified” and an additional 21 per cent said they were “somewhat justified”. And the crowds at BLM marches are far more multi-ethnic, multi-generational and multi-class than at past protests. “That didn’t exist in the 1960s, that kind of broad coalition,” Barack Obama has said in recent days.
These protests have also taken place in all 50 American states – and not just in cities. A study by the Washington Post cites the example of the blue-collar swing state of Pennsylvania, where there have been BLM protests of over 1,000 people in more than 60 communities. Striking, too, is the fact that the big age divide is not on the left of American politics – where Pew surveys show that about 80 per cent of voters across all age groups think African Americans are treated unfairly and that non-binary gender identities should be accepted – but on the right, where almost half of Republicans from Generation Z (the eldest of which are now in their late teens or early twenties) hold those positions, compared with two in ten older Republicans.
“Gen Z”, then, is no politically correct anomaly. On the contrary, it is surely the future of the US. The electorate in November will include more people born after 1996 than before 1946. This cohort is more highly educated than any previous generation and came of age amid accelerating climate change, the decline of the West and advances in the treatment of women, racial minorities and the LGBTQ+ community. In the US, UK and elsewhere, Gen Z has grown up in a multiracial society and is more ethnically diverse than any generation before. It is no surprise that it is ambitious about further change, forming the backbone of the Fridays for Future movement and now the global BLM protests.
Can Gen Z effect lasting change?
The evidence suggests so. This is the first generation to have grown up entirely in a post-deference, digital era. For all the patronising criticism, Gen Z has already shaped the West’s politics by pushing climate change up the agenda, changing debates about gender and sexuality, and now challenging police behaviour and racial injustice. It has also played a role outside the West: youth-led protests have recently reshaped politics in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Chile and Hong Kong.
Smart political parties will start to grapple with Gen Z’s views. Political history is littered with cautionary cases. Consider continental Europe’s big-tent social democratic parties, which have failed to assimilate new movements, such as environmentalism, since the 1980s, and whose electorates have fragmented while right-wing electorates remained more united. Or consider the US Republicans, once dominant and now secondary in states such as California, and at risk of the same fate in those, including Texas, that are undergoing similar demographic and cultural changes. The smartest politicians of 2020 are not patronising or humouring Black Lives Matter, or dismissing it as extreme or waiting for it to go away, but asking how they can be part of it. The movement has energy and durability. The rewards for harnessing it are huge.
This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt