A new brand of politically active millennials is emerging in Missoula, Montana—and the ideology that they espouse may be a troubling sign for the future of American politics.
A recent New York Times article introduces us to “this different-minded generation of young voters” from the “funky” town of Missoula. This group of twenty-somethings—from undergrads to budding business leaders—is “highly entrepreneurial” and left-leaning on social issues.
That provides a rare opportunity for liberal politicians: These voters represent a unique section of the voting population. They’re “the only age group in which a majority said the government should do more to fix problems,” as the Pew Research Center reported in November.
Do more? The problem is that government is already trying to do too much.
America’s new economic reality, explains Heritage’s David Azerrad, is defined by the “pernicious collusion of big business and big government, which benefits both at the expense of honest, hard-working taxpayers.” The costs, however, are not simply economic.
Whether it’s through favorable regulations or loan guarantees, targeted tax breaks, or noncompetitive contracts, the government-granted privilege that results from this crooked marriage undermines the public’s faith in both government and business.
And when neither Washington nor Wall Street can be trusted as legitimate, people tend to prefer state control to an unfettered market.
A recent study from the Mercatus Center explores precisely this phenomenon. In diagnosing the pathology of government privilege, they find a rather destructive cycle: “Distrust seems to lead to more regulation, but more regulation seems also to lead to more distrust.”
This is not to say that people inherently trust government more than business. Rather, the choice of government as the lesser of two evils is motivated largely by a deep distrust of success. “When business success becomes a function of who you know and not what you do for the customer,” the Mercatus Center observes, “the public tends to look upon success with suspicion.”
Although this cycle has an innate momentum—regulation begets more regulation, big government begets even bigger government—all hope is not lost.
With government spending at an all-time high and a federal bureaucracy that has expanded dramatically under President Obama, the failure of big government to deliver on its big promises becomes clearer each year.
Those who support free enterprise and limited government must tap into the entrepreneurial spirit of the Missoula Millennials, explaining the difference between big business and free markets and refuting the left’s common refrain that one must choose between only two options: government or absolute individualism.
And, as Reihan Salam explains, there is reason to believe that this kind of outreach could actually work. The same under-30 voters who say they would like to see the government do more would likely support “[o]verhauling Social Security and Medicare to make them fiscally sustainable” and “empowering charter networks” to reform our K–12 education system.
Indeed, the question of the proper size and scope of government is far from settled. As outgoing Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner says: “In Washington, there are no permanent victories or permanent defeats, just permanent battles.” From Montana to D.C., conservatives must do a better job explaining how our ideas help young entrepreneurs.
Matt Grinney is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.