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Hartford Courant: Arts & Ideas Panel Tackles Millennials, The Election, The American Dream

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Political engagement is essential in any election year. The 21st century, however, presents new challenges. Millennials — hard-hit by the economic downturn — are increasingly pessimistic. How can this enormous demographic be roused to political engagement? And in an age where people get most of their information on the internet and initiate their social interactions online, how has the nature of political engagement changed?

A panel discussion being held Sunday, June 19, in association with the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, "The American Dream in 2016: Millennials and the Presidential Election," will tackle the first of those questions.

UConn philosophy professor Michael Lynch has recently published a book, "The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data" (Liveright, 256 pp.) that helps shed some light on the second.

Carolyn DeWitt, COO of youth voter-registration organization Rock the Vote, said a 2015 poll by Harvard Institute of Politics found that 48 percent of millennials believe the American Dream is dead. "They entered adulthood at a difficult time. ... They struggled with unemployment early on in their careers. ... That's really had a lifetime effect on them," she said. "The economy is still recovering but millennials are still facing repercussions.

"The social contract always has been that they go to school, get a college degree, get a good job, work hard and things will be great. But that's not the reality for many of them," she said.

DeWitt will moderate the panel discussion. The panel will be composed of Austin Belali, director of the Youth Engagement Fund; Abby Kiesa, youth coordinator and researcher at CIRCLE; and Kelly Osajima, voter engagement manager at Asian Americans Advancing Justice of Los Angeles.

The U.S. Census Bureau defines millennials as people born between 1982 and 2000. In a report last June, census.gov reported that millennials numbered 83.1 million, one-quarter of the nation's population, with 44.2 percent being part of a minority race or ethnic group.

DeWitt said this huge chunk of the voting-age population doesn't need to be lured into political discourse, because millennials already are talking politics. "Many young people don't affiliate with either party. Issues are more important things. And their views on issues are much more nuanced than they are given credit for," DeWitt said.

The challenge is moving from concern to engagement, channeling values into voter participation, and instilling a sense of collective responsibility.

"We talk to them about how policies are made, how the things that they care about really are tied to the people that they elect. The only way to get in a position to make those policies is by voting," DeWitt said. "One thing we're focusing more and more on is local elections. Those elections very much can be decided by a few votes and oftentimes are. You can see that any voter can make a very big difference."

Michael Lynch

In his book "The Internet of Us," Lynch calls for internet users — that is, everyone — to reflect more on what they find online. "Information technologies, for all their amazing uses, are obscuring a simple yet crucial fact: Greater knowledge doesn't always bring with it greater understanding," he writes.

Michael Lynch, author of "The Internet of Us" (David J. Murray / Courtesy Humanities Institute)

Lynch calls the internet "a bloody, messy battleground for the truth wars" and frets, in his book, that average people's everyday web-surfing habits are subtly breaking society apart. "The infosphere is making a true public life harder to achieve. We live in a Library of Babel, isolated in our separate rooms, poring over information culled from sources that reinforce our prejudices and never challenge our basic assumptions," he writes, concluding that "the real worry ... is that the internet is increasing 'group polarization,' that we are becoming increasingly isolated tribes."

We live in an age of "Googling is believing," Lynch says. However, he believes people should feel uneasy about that. "The internet is both the greatest fact checker of all time and the greatest bias confimer of all time," he says.

Lynch discussed the political-engagement ramifications of online information gathering in a televised interview in May with Alexander Heffner on PBS's "The Open Mind." (See the interview at pbs.org/video/2365733714.

In an interview with The Courant, Lynch said tribalism has eroded public belief in indisputable sources of information and interfered with people's ability to process information objectively. This complicates the vital election-cycle goal of an informed citizenry. "Nowadays our disagreements in politics ... are not just about values and not just about facts. They're over whose sources of figures and facts are the right source, whose standards of evidence are right," he said. "It's really hard to know how to go on from there. ... It's not like I can give you more information from my source. You already don't trust them."

Lynch said all candidates, regardless of party, take advantage of the bias-confirming tendencies of the internet, so voters should rely on themselves and make an effort to get out of their "self-curated" bubbles of information and analyze their own and other people's sources of facts. But that has an ironic aspect to it, too: To research other sources of information, voters wind up right back on the internet.

The key, Lynch said, is "how to balance humility and conviction in political life," toward the goal of productive discourse. This is the focus of an initiative he is launching at UConn's Humanities Institute, which he directs.

"Democracies need conviction. ... Right now, we have lots of conviction. But we're lacking humility, the sense that we might be wrong about some of the things we believe in," he said. "We need conviction and [people] able to be open-minded to listen to the reasons of others. ... It's an issue of pressing national importance, to understand the nature of meaningful public discourse and how to make it healthier."

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