A Millennial Reading List

Michael Metzger

This year’s leading candidates—Sanders, Trump, Cruz, and Clinton—share a corrosive trait. Millennials don’t seem to recognize it. That’s a problem.

The candidate race this year is a rather destructive affair. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are out front. Trump is a self-serving blowhard whose main cause is Himself. Sanders is a socialist independent who appeals to millennials seething at capitalism.

This leaves Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton playing catch up. Cruz is a firebrand. He torches everything. Hillary’s integrity is suspect. In her first year after State, she raked in $21 million in speaking fees from the very financial institutions she now rails against.

All four candidates share a corrosive trait, however. They are destructive when it comes to our political institutions. Consequently, they are incapable of mobilizing the broad coalitions between parties necessary for government to function. Chris Cilliazza, a Washington Post writer, calls 2016 “The Race to the Bottom.”

At least Trump and Sanders are upfront about their destructive streaks. According to The Wall Street Journal, Sanders would crush our institutions of finance, industry, and education by adding $18 trillion to the federal budget over the next 10 years. Even left-leaning economists admit his policies would increase the size of government by at least 50 percent. Trump’s policies would be just as destructive, as he knows nothing about the collaboration required to pass legislation. Both candidates appeal to what Doug Sosnik, a top aide in the Clinton White House, notes, “The public has concluded that our 20th century institutions are incapable of dealing with 21st century challenges.”1

The tragedy is that Christians, particularly evangelicals, have bitten into this bias against institutions. Older evangelicals are jumping on the Trump or Cruz bandwagon. Millennials in general (and millennial Christians in particular) are jumping on the Bernie bandwagon. That’s significant, as this year’s election cycle marks a generational turning point. For the first time, millennials will match boomers as a share of the electorate. If millennial Christians want the faith to be taken seriously, they might want to reconsider their bias against institutions. One way to do this is reading good books on the subject of institutions. Herewith is a millennial reading list.

The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (New York: Penguin, 2012). Niall Ferguson says institutions—in the broadest sense of the term—determine historical outcomes more than any other contributor. They “are the structures within which we organize ourselves as groups.” He asks whether “the economic, social, and political difficulties of the Western world today reflect a degeneration of our once world-beating institutions?” The answer is Yes.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Vintage, 1975). Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses details how Moses transformed New York City, turning it into a car culture that destroyed old neighborhoods. Moses achieved this by changing from an “ideas” man to one who leveraged the power of institutions, eventually sitting on the boards of ten of the city’s most influential institutions.

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibilities of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). James Davison Hunter’s book challenges a millennial mantra—that “ideas have legs.” They don’t unless connected to “very powerful institutions” according to the imminent sociologist Peter L. Berger.

The Sociology of Philosophies (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010). Randall Collins, a University of Pennsylvania professor, outlines how world-changing movements operate. His research indicates the key to culture change is not individual genius but rather dense overlapping networks of center institutions, and the new institutions they create. Those with an anti-institution bias are unlikely to change the world.

On Thinking Institutionally (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). Hugh Heclo’s masterpiece moves beyond academic abstractions about institutions to the personal and larger social meaning of what it is to think institutionally. His account ranges from Michael Jordan to Greek philosophy, from twenty-first-century corporate and political scandals to Christian theology and professionalism.

These five books might reframe how millennials imagine institutions. Over time, they might appreciate what the English humanist Richard Tavener wrote in 1539. “Nature” is a “thynge of great myghte and efficacye,” but “surely institution… is moche mightier.” Old English is difficult to read, but institution is plain as day in this text. So was the disproportionate power of institutions in times past. As millennials become the largest share of the electorate, will they come to appreciate the power of institutions? Hard to say, but a little reading on the subject couldn’t hurt.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Chris Cilliazza, “2016: The Race to the Bottom,” The Washington Post, February 16, 2016.


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  1. Mike, I see four prior questions. 1) How biblically and culturally literate are these political aspirants, the baby-boomers and the millennials? 2) How many of their number are willing, or even have the disciplined ability to read what you recommend? 3) How do the biblically and culturally literate communicate across such a huge chasm? And 4), most painfully, how many professing evangelicals, regardless of age, are willing to be reified by politicians as a manipulated political category; sans the grasp of a theological identity and cognate actions that govern political involvement?

  2. Mike,

    My impression is that the candidates are not trying to destroy or in any way dismantle the institutions as much they want to dismantle the people who have been running them.

    I agree with Cruz and Trump on that front.

    This is why Bush failed miserably. While he talked about disfunction in Washington, so has every candidate during the past few election cycles. Bush represented another establishment candidate that would mirror the same lame results of the past 8 years, even though his leanings are far from Obama’s.

  3. George: Dismantling the people who run the institution will destroy the institution. Take Wall Street for example. Brokers who say greed is good, can’t be forbidden to make profitable trades. We are talking about using a sledge hammer to make fine furniture. It can’t be done.

  4. I don’t know if the wringing of hands is necessary. If any of these four are elected, the great bureaucracy that is the U.S. government stands between them and getting anything done: good luck on dismantling anything.

  5. John, in light of your second question, I believe millennials are capable of reading the recommended books. This group have likely read the entire Harry Potter series before they were 18 years old. The discipline to read long detailed stories is something they are drawn to, but if the story is presented poorly, their attention with shift. They have a tendency to retain detains from these stories and adopt the world views subtly presented by the authors. What I see as an obstacle for them is to read a book about a subject when the writer looks at the subject from a differing perspective than their own.

  6. The simple disconnect. Not everything that fits in a box is a box. 1% on a spreadsheet could be 100% a person’s life. Meanwhile, the woman stands at the well and waits.

  7. The political rhetoric to which we are now relentlessly exposed is either: a) to be very afraid and angry about a system that has not kept its promises, or b) to have confidence in the restored system that will keep its promise of wellbeing and security. Either way, in fear and anger or in confidence in the system, the horizon of our political rhetoric is, perforce, limited to the claims of the U.S. market and the promise of security guaranteed by the National Security State. Both market ideology and the National Security State are given cover by the claims of U.S. exceptionalism that boldly offers theological assurance as the chosen of God. All of that, however — market, security, exceptionalism — assume that there is no “way” but the “way” of the US market-security system, no “thought” except the thought that the United States is God’s most surely chosen people. All of that, whether in despair or in pride, bets everything on the imperial wonder of the United States, thus not very different from that of ancient Babylon. – See more at: https://sojo.net/articles/we-dont-have-let-state-define-our-identity#sthash.BIto9dOD.dpuf

  8. Thanks Mike for the as usual excellent musings. The suggested books for the millennials are wonderful. However it might be a problem for millennials to find someone to read the books for them and post on Facebook etc

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