Banning the American flag? Why UC Irvine flap might be glimpse of future.

The controversial decision by the UC Irvine student body government to ban the American flag – as well as all other flags – speaks to broader generational shifts in views of patriotism. The decision has since been overturned.

Ken Steinhardt/The Orange County Register/AP
Student leaders Victoria Phan (l.), Noelle Nguyen, Josh Nguyen, and Tatiana Sarkhosh sit in the legislative council's executive offices common area Friday after the University of California, Irvine, student government members voted to have the American flag be taken off of a wall in Irvine, Calif.

A decision by the student body government of the University of California at Irvine to ban the display of all flags – including the United States flag – has been vetoed.

According to the Associated Press, the university's executive cabinet has voted to overturn the ban, which prompted outrage nationwide and led one state legislator to consider an amendment to the California constitution to ensure the American flag could be flown on the campuses of state schools.

On one hand, the now-vetoed decision to ban the American flag had the feel of student government run amok, as budding iconoclasts tried to make a statement about the moral complexities they're learning in History 101. Flags are "flown in instances of colonialism and imperialism" and they "serve as symbols of patriotism or weapons for nationalism," the statement explaining the original ban noted.

Yet the move, short-lived though it was, speaks to more than an only-in-California spasm of 20-something intellectual angst. More broadly, it points to a generational shift in the notion of what patriotism is. 

Surveys by the Pew research Center suggest that Millennials are more wary than any other American generation of defining themselves by larger institutions. Half are political independents. Nearly 3 in 10 do not associate with any religion. And only 26 percent have married by the age of 32 – 10 percentage points less than Generation Xers at the same point in their lives and 22 points less than Baby Boomers.

That same trend holds true with Millennials' views of the United States itself.

By a host of indicators, Millennials are less "patriotic" than any other generation of Americans – at least by the traditional gauges of patriotism. Various surveys have found that: 

  • Just 32 percent of Millennials say US is "the greatest country in the world," compared with 48 percent of Gen Xers, 50 percent of Baby Boomers, and 64 percent of the Silent Generation, according to Pew. Likewise, Millennials are most likely to say America is not the greatest country in the world.
  • Pew also found that 70 percent of Millennials agree with the statement "I am very patriotic," compared with 86 percent of Gen Xers, 91 percent of Boomers, and 90 percent of Silents.
  • American National Election Study found that 45 percent of Millennials say the American identity is extremely important, compared with 60 percent for Generation Xers, 70 percent for Baby Boomers, and 78 percent for Silents.
  • Only 67 percent of Millennials said flying the US flag made them feel very or extremely good, compared with 94 percent of Silents, according to ANES.

Research suggests that these opinions do not change with age but rather stay generally consistent as generations grow older. In other words, with every passing year, America's definition of what it means to be patriotic will likely evolve. 

Indeed, Millennials are patriotic, just by different measures, suggests the New York Times's "Upshot" blog.  

"The A.N.E.S. data show millennials to be extremely supportive of the ideals and values of democracy, if not the symbols of America. In particular, equality stands out," writes Lynn Vavreck.

Surveys show the same dynamics at work in other parts of American society. While there are many reasons that Millennials are abandoning organized religion, one major factor is that organized religion is seen as being on the wrong side of "marriage equality" – the push for same-sex marriage.

The trend among Millennials toward religious nonaffiliation is such that even CPAC, the annual event that caters to political conservatives, has begun courting atheists, the Monitor's Linda Feldmann writes.

Similarly, ANES finds that Millennials have a keener sense of economic and social injustice than other American generations. Some 37 percent of Silents say unequal chances in life are a big problem; 57 percent of Millennials do.

Writes Ms. Vavreck: "Millennials may be less devoted to the symbols of America, but they are no less devoted to democratic ideals."

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