The fundamental economic experience of the 126.7 million Americans younger than 30 has been crushing austerity, plutocratic immiseration, and the privatization of health care, housing and education. This generation of Americans, in 2020, changed the course of American history. In the summer of 2020, tens of millions of young people marched in the streets against carceral racism, in the fall, those same young people were crucial to defeating Trump, the candidate of imperial white supremacy at the polls, and in future this youth population has the potential to further intensify the struggle to achieve the long-term project of planetary democratization and economic inclusion best described as the Democracy of the 8 Billion, writes Dennis Redmond.
In 2020, Americans under the age of 30 changed the course of American history. In the summer of 2020, tens of millions of young people marched in the streets against carceral racism, the first mass protest against imperial white supremacy to achieve majority support in American history. In the fall, those same young people were crucial to defeating the candidate of imperial white supremacy at the polls.
In order to understand why this happened and what the long-term consequences will be for the United States, we must first acknowledge one of the most striking developments of American society which almost nobody in the mainstream media has talked about. This is the sweeping implosion of America’s long-standing cultural provincialism between 2013 and 2020.
This may sound counterintuitive given the rampant racism, homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia of the Trumpist era, and the transformation of the Republican Party into a revanchist death-cult. Yet surveys and opinion polls show the United States in 2020 is the least racist, least homophobic, least misogynist and least xenophobic it has ever been as a society.
The overwhelming majority of young people reject racism, value same-sex relationships as highly as opposite-sex relationships, believe women should have the same rights and responsibilities as men, and are pro-immigration.
This was not always the case. A significant majority of white Americans under the age of 30 voted for neoconservative Reaganism and Bushism between 1980-1992 and 2000-2008, and for neoliberal Clintonism between 1992-2000. Young white voters voted for Republican neoconservatism in 2012 by a margin of 51% to 44%, and for Trumpist revanchism in 2016 by a margin of 48% to 43%.1 By contrast, a majority of young white voters voted against Trumpism in 2020 by a margin of 51% to 45%.2
To explain the abyssal divide between the progressivism of America’s youth and the revanchism of its political elites, we must first understand that the main cause of America’s cultural provincialism was its empire.
Between 1945 and 2008, the United States was the hegemon of the capitalist world-system. It had the biggest and richest economy, it generated the most advanced technology, it manufactured the most desirable consumer goods, it set the rules of international trade, it owned the world’s reserve currency, and it broadcast the most influential mass media on the planet.
Thanks to this hegemony, all other polities on the planet were compelled to keep up with the American colossus by adopting its technologies, importing its media, and duplicating its consumerism. To be sure, this process occurred at different speeds and at different times depending on local conditions, e.g. West Germany and Japan underwent their versions of Americanization during the 1950s and 1960s, Brazil and Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s, and China, India and Russia in the 1990s and 2000s. But no polity could simply ignore the competitive pressure of US corporations, contravene the policy decisions of US governments, or discount the appeal of US consumer goods.
What almost nobody realized was that this hegemony would exact a fearsome price on Americans themselves. The reason was that between 1945 and 2008, US citizens did not have to take the presence of non-US economies, the policy decisions of other governments, or the appeal of other cultures seriously. These latter simply did not influence everyday American life in any meaningful way. While the Soviet empire was a military competitor of the US during the 1947-1985 Cold War, it was never a serious economic competitor and did not offer a compelling cultural alternative to Americanization.
Whereas sixty-three years of US hegemony systematically trained the rest of the planet to learn from other polities and to engage with cultures very different from their own, Americans were just as systematically trained to ignore anything outside of their own borders — because America was the only game in town.
It would be too simple, however, to blame American provincialism on sheer imperial arrogance. The hegemon’s incapacity to understand the rest of the world was exacerbated by its own variant of imperial cosmopolitanism. This was the fact that large numbers of Americans were immigrants from all across the world, and created commercialized versions of their original cultures — everything from ethnic restaurants to diaspora-themed films and novels — as part of their struggle for citizenship and a share of the imperial surplus. These heavily commercialized productions and their respective diasporas became the main templates through which many Americans viewed their original societies, i.e. China was viewed through the lens of the Chinese American diaspora, Italy through the Italian American diaspora, Africa through the African American diaspora, etc.
It is true that these diasporas dramatically improved many aspects of American culture, most notably its food (Italian and Chinese restaurants), music (African American blues, jazz and pop music) and cinema (many of the great directors of the 1920s and 1930s were German emigres to Hollywood). These diasporas also powered the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, and defused many of the potential flashpoints of interethnic conflict inside the US.3 However, they could not and did not prepare Americans to understand non-American societies, especially the ones still undergoing urbanization and industrialization.
What happened between 2013 and 2020 is that a majority of Americans finally realized, with a shock, that America was no longer the only game in town. This shock ran much deeper than the revelation that the rest of the world had their own Facebook sites and Twitter feeds. After 2008, non-American polities and cultures began to export their own films, television series and interactive media to transnational audiences, retail their own consumerisms, innovate their own high technologies, and follow transnational norms of democratic governance. Americans were confronted, in short, with a world which had become more American than America itself.4
This confrontation triggered two diametrically opposed reactions from Americans. A majority of the citizens currently aged 30 and older reacted with hostility towards a world teeming with non-American economies, polities and cultures, and rage towards the weakest and most powerless of Americans. By contrast, a majority of the citizens currently aged less than 30 reacted with solidarity towards transnational audiences, and rage towards US plutocrats.
This generational split was rooted in a fundamental biographical divergence between the Americans who grew up in the era of US hegemony, and the ones who grew up in a post-hegemonic society. To see how this divergence worked, we must first subdivide the citizens aged 30 and higher into two subgroups, the 114.8 million Americans older than 50 and the 88.5 million Americans aged 30 to 50.
The first group was born prior to 1970 and grew up in an epoch wholly dominated by Hollywood cinema, national US television and radio monopolies, and American consumerism. In economic terms, they were the primary beneficiaries of the economic surplus distributed by FDR’s New Deal, Cold War military Keynesianism, and LBJ’s Great Society, and enjoyed the highest real wages in the world. At the same time, they had no significant childhood experience of any form of transnational media.
We will call this generation the Imperials, because (1) they never developed any deep understanding of any non-US culture or polity, and (2) regarded US hegemony as something perfectly normal and permanent. Their hegemonic-era provincialism did not mean they were necessarily hostile towards non-US cultures and polities. It only meant that they did not consider these latter important enough to care about one way or another.
The fundamental economic experience of the Imperials was that of imperial plenitude. The oldest ranks of the Imperials grew up with childhood memories of the New Deal and the comparatively privileged US homefront of WWII, the middle ranks with memories of the automobile-themed consumerism of the 1950s, and the youngest ranks with the counterculture-themed consumerism of the 1960s and the disco-themed consumerism of the 1970s — a spectrum of almost exclusively American experiences.
By contrast, the fundamental economic experience of the 126.7 million Americans younger than 30 has been crushing austerity, plutocratic immiseration, and the privatization of health care, housing and education. Conversely, their primary cultural experience has been daily engagement with interactive and digital media.
We will call this generation of Americans the Plebians, because (1) they regard the freedoms of the digital commons as fundamental rights rather than privileges, and (2) display deep and abiding levels of engagement via digital platforms with transnational audiences. They are the single most cosmopolitan and progressive generation in American history, and participated in the Climate Extinction school strikes as well as the Black Lives Matter protests in large numbers.
Sandwiched between the Imperials and the Plebians, there is a third group of 88.5 million Americans born between 1970 and 1990, i.e. aged 30 to 50. While this group never experienced the economic surplus available to the Imperials, they also avoided the full brunt of the austerity meted out to the Plebians. This generation had access to a slightly wider range of recorded media via videocassette and cassette tapes, and were the first generation to experience cable television and video games as daily media practices.
However, the television programs, films and videogames they consumed were dominated by Hollywood studios, by national broadcasters such as CNN, and by console monopolies such as Nintendo. The cultural horizons of this group thus remained almost as exclusively American as that of the Imperials, albeit with a slightly greater degree of internal diversity.
Paradoxical as it sounds, it was this third group which proved to be the most politically revanchist of all, and has furnished both the core ideologists and the leading cultural expressions of Trumpism. Frustrated by constantly diminishing economic opportunities, but lacking a Cold War-style antagonist to demonize,5 the majority of this group descended into the politics of a suicidal revanchism.
This revanchism blamed the destruction of the middle-class not on the plutocrats who were looting America, but on their fellow Americans. Their rage took two main forms. The first was the excoriation of fictional “liberal elites”, “globalists”, or “coastal elitists” — the updated version of the hate campaigns against wholly fictitious Jewish, Slavic or Chinese elites orchestrated by early 20th century German, Italian and Japanese Fascism. The second was the persecution of the poorest and most vulnerable Americans, namely immigrants, the poor and ethnic minorities, via carceral racism and the gutting of public healthcare, education, pensions and social services of all kinds.
We call this generation the Sacrificers, because their political agenda consists of rituals of imperial sacrifice disconnected from any concrete program to restore US hegemony. These rituals redirected the massive violence unleashed by the US during its hegemonic era on reform-minded semi-peripheries and rebellious postcolonial polities inwards, effectively turning America into the last Cold War battlefield. Whereas the neoconservatives and neoliberals wanted to destroy governmental regulation of markets while preserving the core repressive functions of the state, the Sacrificers revel in destruction, pure and simple.6
The generational shift from the Imperials to the Sacrificers helps to explain the accelerating revanchism of US politics between 2009 and 2016, while the rise of the Plebians helps to explain the limited progressive surge of 2017-2020.
Currently, the 53.6 million Plebians comprise 21% of the US adult population of 256.9 million, the 88.5 million Sacrificers comprise 34%, while the 114.8 million Imperials comprise 45%. Biden’s election victory was the product of an alliance between members of the Sacrificers who rejected its agenda of destruction, members of the Imperials who mildly disapproved of Trumpism’s crudity, and the overwhelming anti-Trumpism of the Plebians.
The demographic ranks of the Plebians will replace the ranks of the Sacrificers at a rate of approximately 4.5 million per year. By 2026, 31% of million Americans will be Plebians or former Plebians, only 25% will be today’s Sacrificers, while the Imperials will remain 45% of the electorate. Extrapolating from their past voting records, the electoral coalition in favour of progressive policies will increase by about 3 million and the current coalition of the revanchists will decrease by 3 million over the next six years, for a net change of approximately 1 million votes per year.
The single most pressing question of American politics over the next four years is whether or not the Plebians continue to mobilize against the Sacrificers. One of the first signs will be the special Georgia election on January 5, 2021 for two Senate seats. Georgia has one of the youngest populations of any US state, and the youth vote provided the key margin for Biden’s narrow victory. If young people vote in large numbers for the two Democratic candidates, Jon Osoff and Raphael Warnock, it is possible the Democrats could gain control of the Senate and pass the most sweeping reform legislation since the late 1960s.
Regardless of the outcome of the Georgia election, the Plebians will play an increasingly important role in politics outside of America. Since the Plebians interact with transnational audiences, polities and cultures via digital platforms on an everyday basis, their political and economic struggles overlap significantly with the struggles for a Green New Deal within the European Union and within the fully industrialized polities of East Asia. The Plebians will also play a catalytic role in the unfinished democratic transformations of the semi-peripheral polities of Central and South America, West Asia and Southeast Asia.
Perhaps the greatest long-term influence of the Plebians, albeit one of the most difficult to measure via traditional surveys or opinion polls, will be on the rural and peripheral regions of Africa and South Asia. These latter have large youth populations and are entering an era of profound social change, due to a combination of accelerating urbanization, digitally-boosted industrialization, and plummeting domestic fertility rates. These youth populations are now in daily contact with their peers all across the world via digital media platforms, messaging services and fan communities, and form the first global constituency of that long-term project of planetary democratization and economic inclusion best described as the Democracy of the 8 Billion.
1 Data from Tufts’ CIRCLE research group. https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/election-night-2016-24-million-youth-voted-most-rejected-trump.
2 Data from Tufts’ CIRCLE research group. https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/election-week-2020#vote-choice-by-age-and-by-race-and-ethnicity
3 For example, the success of Japanese firms in selling autos and consumer electronics to US consumers during the early 1980s, a moment when the American industrial base was in a deep recession, triggered a wave of Japanophobia and anti-Asian racism in the US mass media. Yet this Japanophobia vanished almost completely from America during the 1990s. The reason is that the Japanese American diaspora mobilized to fight against this racism, while Japanese animation and videogame media became hugely popular among American consumers.
4 As late as 1973, the ranks of the core (i.e. fully industrialized and self-financing) polities of the world-system were limited to just five: Belgium, France, Britain, the Netherlands and the United States. By 2020, the ranks of the core polities had expanded to thirty-six: the US plus Australia, Britain, Canada, the EU-27, Japan, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. Put another way, US citizens comprised two-thirds of the population of all core polities in 1973, but only one-third of the population of all core polities in 2020.
5 China is a middle-income polity saddled with a busted real estate bubble and is dependent on core consumer markets and technology. The energy-rent autocracies of Russia and Iran are economically sclerotic, politically unappealing and technologically uncompetitive.
6 Fantasies of state destruction are the single most striking feature of the revanchist media franchises in the post-2008 period, everywhere from Game of Thrones and the Marvel superhero films to EA’s Call of Duty and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us videogames.