For much of the 20th century, young and old people voted pretty similarly. The defining gaps in our recent politics have been the gender gap (women preferring Democrats) and the education gap. But now the generation gap is back, with a vengeance.
This is most immediately evident in the way Democrats are sorting themselves in their early primary preferences. A Democratic voter’s race, sex or education level doesn’t predict which candidate he or she is leaning toward, but age does.
In one early New Hampshire poll, Joe Biden won 39 percent of the vote of those over 55, but just 22 percent of those under 35, trailing Bernie Sanders. Similarly, in an early Iowa poll, Biden won 41 percent of the oldster vote, but just 17 percent of the young adult vote, placing third, behind Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
As Ronald Brownstein pointed out in The Atlantic, older Democrats prefer a more moderate candidate who they think can win. Younger Democrats prefer a more progressive candidate who they think can bring systemic change.
The generation gap is even more powerful when it comes to Republicans. To put it bluntly, young adults hate them.
In 2018, voters under 30 supported Democratic House candidates over Republican ones by an astounding 67 percent to 32 percent. A 2018 Pew survey found that 59 percent of millennial voters identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, while only 32 percent identify as Republicans or lean Republican.
The difference is ideological. According to Pew, 57 percent of millennials call themselves consistently liberal or mostly liberal. Only 12 percent call themselves consistently conservative or mostly conservative. This is the most important statistic in American politics right now.
Recent surveys of Generation Z voters (those born after 1996) find that, if anything, they are even more liberal than millennials.
In 2002, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote a book called “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” which predicted electoral doom for the G.O.P. based on demographic data. That prediction turned out to be wrong, or at least wildly premature.
The authors did not foresee how older white voters would swing over to the Republican side and the way many assimilated Hispanics would vote like non-Hispanic whites. The failure of that book’s predictions has scared people off from making demographic forecasts.
But it’s hard to look at the generational data and not see long-term disaster for Republicans. Some people think generations get more conservative as they age, but that is not borne out by the evidence. Moreover, today’s generation gap is not based just on temporary intellectual postures. It is based on concrete, lived experience that is never going to go away.
Unlike the Silent Generation and the boomers, millennials and Gen Z voters live with difference every single day. Only 16 percent of the Silent Generation is minority, but 44 percent of the millennial generation is. If you are a millennial in California, Texas, Florida, Arizona or New Jersey, ethnic minorities make up more than half of your age cohort. In just over two decades, America will be a majority-minority country.
Young voters approve of these trends. Seventy-nine percent of millennials think immigration is good for America. Sixty-one percent think racial diversity is good for America.
They have constructed an ethos that is mostly about dealing with difference. They are much more sympathetic to those who identify as transgender. They are much more likely than other groups to say that racial discrimination is the main barrier to black progress. They are much less likely to say the U.S. is the best country in the world.
These days the Republican Party looks like a direct reaction against this ethos — against immigration, against diversity, against pluralism. Moreover, conservative thought seems to be getting less relevant to the America that is coming into being.
Matthew Continetti recently identified the key blocs on the new right in an essay in The Washington Free Beacon. These included the Jacksonians (pugilistic populists), the Paleos (Tucker Carlson-style economic nationalists), the Post-Liberals (people who oppose pluralism and seek a return to pre-Enlightenment orthodoxy). To most young adults, these tendencies will look like cloud cuckooland.
The most burning question for conservatives should be: What do we have to say to young adults and about the diverse world they are living in? Instead, conservative intellectuals seem hellbent on taking their 12 percent share among the young and turning it to 3.
There is a conservative way to embrace pluralism and diversity. It’s to point out that there is a deep strain of pessimism in progressive multiculturalism: blacks and whites will never really understand each other; racism is endemic; the American project is fatally flawed; American structures are so oppressive, the only option is to burn them down.
A better multiculturalism would be optimistic: We can communicate across difference; the American creed is the right recipe for a thick and respectful pluralism; American structures are basically sound and can be realistically reformed.
So far that’s not visible. My mentor William F. Buckley vowed to stand athwart history yelling “Stop!” Today’s Republicans don’t even seem to see the train that is running them over.
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