Not their parents' conservatism

The Globe & Mail

If the past month has proven anything to a baby boom about to turn 65, it's this: Millennials are sending a firm message that it's time for you to move on and, just maybe, take your institutions with you.

The evidence is mounting. Rumours swirl of renewed efforts to engage Quebec through a new political construct, while in Alberta Danielle Smith, 39, has the Wildrose Alliance within striking distance of dethroning that province's almost 40-year-old Progressive Conservative leadership. A week ago, another new construct, the Alberta Party, largely populated by people weary of a previous generation's definitions of progressive politics, held its first policy convention. In Calgary, statistically Canada's youngest city, the new mayor is Naheed Nenshi, 38, who represents a radical changing of the generational guard.

South of the border, the midterm demise of President Barack Obama's fortunes was foretold by a Harvard Institute of Politics report released in late October. It revealed that while the majority of millennials still preferred a Democrat-controlled Congress, young independents preferred a Republican-controlled Congress (48 per cent to 43 per cent).

There, it looks like a golden opportunity for old-fashioned conservatism. But it's not. Millennials have witnessed the simultaneous moral and financial bankruptcy of both private and public institutions. In the luxurious days of yore, our parents might have been able to enjoy a cathartic scrap between the market and government camps, but now we can't depend on any of those institutions, even if we wanted to.

Debt-ridden states in Europe are literally failing, propped up in a laughably unsustainable pass the buck economic order. Our markets are starting to feel like they take more than they give, and our governments are shifting into new realities, which seem conservative, but are really just an inevitable working out of tapped-out treasuries. Austerity is the mask of the new conservatism. It has the feeling of financial inevitability and the weight of political apathy. Why struggle to save institutions we never believed in to begin with?

Conservatism used to be about a vision of human life, the good, which had important strategic, but not ultimately foundational, disagreements with its liberal counterparts. Devolution and autonomy are conservative virtues only insofar as they are tangibly oriented toward some common goal, some public conception of the good. But millennials are self-defining good now, our footloose technology cultivates mutually reinforcing psychographic clusters that span geographies.

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, calls it the digital disruption, an eclipse of intermediaries and an increasing belief in the possibility of individuals, instead of institutions, to move culture. It is a potpourri of cult-like celebrity, built around people like U2's Bono and Hollywood's Angelina Jolie.

It defaults to the local over the federal, and understands freedom not in national or ideological terms, but in private, self-actualizing ways. A postmodern potpourri of private goods might seem like good conservative pluralism, but when the system that holds it all together in productive conversation degrades, ideas about how we order those private desires for public good can take on dangerous, disillusioned tones.

Respect for more traditional offices, like the presidency or the PMO, is only the first thing to go. Unless the system produces our results, it's not our system. How long until, like Iceland, we are electing people based on joke promises of free towels at public swimming pools and polar bear displays for the zoo? Will our public institutions really capture so little of our moral and social imagination?

But there's good news: What Mr. Obama tapped into in 2008, what Mr. Nenshi did in Calgary and what other emergent entities aspire to connect with is the enormous energy latent in this generation for making the world a better place.

So here, for those who have eyes to see it, is the real opportunity for leaders to prove that private institutions, once the bedrock of conservatism, can capture the imagination of a generation once again. As our public institutions buckle under the pressure of ideological and financial bankruptcy, there is a moral and political gap.

Other institutions, especially family and faith institutions, have an opportunity to rediscover their public role: not to grab power, but to step in where public institutions and the market have failed and cast a (renewed) vision of the common good. Overlapping private institutions that work for public justice: That is change millennials will believe in.