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9/11 Upended the Way Millennials Think About America
The aftermath of Sept. 11 set millennials on a more mistrusting political trajectory
I was 16 years old on Sept. 11, 2001—just starting my junior year in high school. It was during second-period history that morning that we got the first announcement from the principal: A plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center about 20 miles south of school. Then about 15 minutes later, we faced the unthinkable news of a second plane crash, and the realization that what we thought was a tragic accident was a coordinated attack. The horror was compounded by the fact that a few students had a parent working in one of the buildings, and I wish I could say that every one of them survived.
In a way, I can’t really imagine an age at which such an event could have a more fundamental impact. My classmates and I were on the verge of starting our futures, on the path from childhood to adulthood. But we lived close enough to see smoke from the ruins of the Twin Towers, and so the effects of the terrorist attacks became an inextricable part of our daily lives: Suddenly, we second-guessed any plans of attending college far from home, and we caught our breath every time an airplane flew overhead or the click-click heralded a PA announcement at school.
The day itself was exhausting, frightening, confusing—but one thing was clear: Everything would now be different. That did end up being true—though not in the way I could have ever imagined. The unity we felt in the days and weeks after 9/11 melted away in the years that followed. And among millennials like myself, the loss of those feelings dramatically influenced the way we think about America today, and not in a good way.
Shaped by Sacrifice… Or Lack Thereof
9/11 is to millennials what Pearl Harbor was to our grandparents. We know exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news. Both events popped the safe-seeming bubbles in which we lived—suddenly, we found ourselves amid a fight taken to America’s shores.
But the similarities pretty much end there. While Pearl Harbor galvanized Americans to make sacrifices for their country, we were not asked to give up much in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. In fact, we were told to go back to our everyday lives. After 9/11, many Americans expected a surge in military enrollment, possibly a draft, but with the exception of a brief bump in enlistments right after the attacks, neither materialized.
Instead, for two decades, the country’s professional military bore the brunt of the sacrifices following the attacks while the rest of us were able to largely continue with our lives as before. As a result, the “we’re in this together” mentality following 9/11 was short-lived. Another outcome, as modern polling reveals, is that millennials’ feelings about America reflect an alienation from American institutions rather than a vested interest in their success.
Start with the very idea of patriotism. American exceptionalism is a less compelling idea to millennials than it is to older generations. One 2019 poll found that only 43% of millennials believe America is the greatest country in the world, making them the only age cohort in which a majority felt America was not the best country. But this should not be surprising.
One reason why people my age no longer have faith in their country is that they don’t have faith in its core institutions. While trust in institutions has cratered among American adults in all age cohorts in the years since 9/11, the drop has been particularly precipitous among millennials. A 2015 survey from Harvard’s Institute of Politics, for example, found that three-quarters of millennials “sometimes” or “never” trust the federal government, and two-thirds of them say the same of the president.
Why the lack of trust in institutions, particularly political ones? Events of the past two decades—open-ended wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example—have tested Americans’ belief in those running the country and left Americans skeptical that we can unequivocally win anymore. And for millennials, these failures of political leaders have been the norm throughout our entire adult lives. This is not exactly a recipe for great faith in America’s actions.
One of the clearest examples of this lack of faith comes in the way millennials view America’s role in the world. While one could imagine a world in which 9/11 made millennials more supportive of an active, even muscular foreign policy, the opposite ended up happening. A Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey conducted last year finds that more than 30% of millennials believe the U.S.’s top foreign policy priority should be leading international cooperation on global problems—again more than any other age cohort, even including those in the normally more liberal Gen Z age group.
At the same time, only 12% of millennials believe our top foreign policy priority should be protecting democratic values and ideals in the world—less than any other age group. It’s not hard to rationalize these findings: In their politically formative years, millennials watched as America used military solutions for global challenges in the name of democracy—and many didn’t like what they saw.
The 9/11 Political Realignment
Sept. 11 also kick-started a political realignment that millennials now find themselves in the middle of. I was able to vote in my first presidential election in 2004, when George W. Bush faced John Kerry, who ran on his opposition to the Iraq War. But the party tables have certainly turned since then. These days, it seems just as likely, if not more likely, to hear calls for non-interventionism coming from politicians on the right, at least the populist contingent, as on the left. Neoconservatism dominated the Republican politics of my youth, but the experiences of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made that strain of political thought anathema to many of today’s GOPers.
This non-interventionist sentiment may help to explain why younger voters who self-identify as conservative have been embracing more isolationist political figures. The Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC, has long been heavily attended by college-age conservative activists. And since 2009, its presidential straw poll has been dominated by Republicans with isolationist tendencies—Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. (Mitt Romney’s 2012 straw poll win is the only deviation from the pattern—and just eight years later, CPAC leaders said they couldn’t even guarantee Romney’s physical safety at the conference, given his unpopularity among activists.) A sea change, for sure—and one in which young millennial activists played a powerful role.
Furthermore, the rise of non-interventionism among millennials may be spurring an increasing number of them to change their party registration from Democratic to Republican. Kerry lost the 2004 presidential election while winning the support of 57% of voting millennials, but in 2020, Joe Biden won his election against Trump while capturing a smaller percentage of millennial support—54%. It’s not a good trend for Democrats, and the parties’ evolving stances on foreign policy likely has something to do with it. While Vivek Ramaswamy’s strident performance in the first GOP presidential debate may have turned off some voters, his embrace of “America First” policies may well score him some additional millennial support.
A Lasting Impact on Millennials
While 9/11 did end up having a profound impact on my generation, it’s not what I would have expected in those ragged days following the attacks. We returned to school and eventually moved out of the homes we’d grown up in to start our adult lives, just like generations before us had done. But though there’s some regret in realizing that “never forget” largely became a broken promise—and that such heinous attacks did not truly unite us for more than a few months—there is still a silver lining to all of this.
One of the greatest freedoms is the freedom from—including the freedom from having a shocking event take over our lives. While a great number of Americans and their families did suffer the ultimate loss on the day of the attacks or during the resulting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, most of us were fortunate enough to not pay such a price. It was—and continues to be—a luxury to be able to move on with our lives without being compelled to make huge sacrifices for the greater good.
However, it’s possible that the luxury of not having to make sacrifices likely contributed to the negative feelings many millennials have about America today. With little personal stake in the aftermath of Sept. 11—particularly in the decisions to go to war—millennials came to mistrust government decision-making and government institutions. And that lack of trust persists to this day. Indeed, it continues to grow. When millennials cast their votes next year, those votes will be influenced in no small part by events that transpired long ago—22 years ago, on that September morning when we were just teenagers.