These Kids Today: Conservative Politics Over?

Paul Waldman fleshes out a theme that many observers have made in passing: The young voters who helped propel Barack Obama to the presidency could create a “permanent” realignment in American politics.

In 1984, 59 percent of the nation’s Alex P. Keatons voted for Reagan, an extraordinary percentage for a Republican (and just over his proportion of the popular vote as a whole). What was going on? As E.J. Dionne, then a reporter for The New York Times, wrote near the end of Reagan’s tenure in the fall of 1988, “Academics and political consultants who have studied the youth vote have many explanations for their movement toward the Republicans, but the most powerful is the simplest: Young Americans have known only Mr. Reagan and Mr. Carter as President, and Mr. Reagan is the overwhelming favorite. Similarly, many people who first voted in the Depression still see politics in terms of the Democratic President Roosevelt and the Republican President Hoover.”

It was a remarkable shift, and one that helped shape politics for the ensuing two decades. Currently, we are beginning an even more dramatic turn. Today’s young people — often called the millennial generation — could pull American politics even further to the left, and for a longer time, than the Reagan generation pulled our politics to the right.

Start with the obvious: 67 percent of voters under 29 cast their ballot for Barack Obama, a result unequalled since exit polling began. (If you’re interested, exit-poll data dating back to 1976 can be found at the Roper Center.) Despite periodic proclamations that young conservatives are poised for a comeback (see, for instance, this lengthy portrait in The New York Times Magazine only six years ago of the “Young Hipublicans” who were ready to take the country by storm), young people aren’t finding much to like about today’s GOP. And as a pair of new reports from the Center for American Progress on the present and future of American ideology show, those feelings are likely to run much deeper than a single election or a single candidate.

While they cover a great deal of ground, the reports contain some particularly interesting points about the millennial generation. In “State of American Political Ideology, 2009,”, we learn that young people are the most progressive age group overall and the most progressive on social issues, which might not be surprising. But they are also the most progressive age group in their opinions about the role of government, which might be. And as the other report, “New Progressive America,” points out, this generation’s share of the voting population will increase every year until 2020, when they will represent nearly 40 percent of the electorate.

[…]

To paint with a broad brush for a moment: They know plenty of gay people, don’t find anything particularly notable about people of different races dating, and see the traditional family setup (a two-parent heterosexual couple in which Dad works outside the home and Mom doesn’t) as the exception rather than the rule. This may not be true for all of them, but it is true for enough of them that it has become their generational norm.

This is simply a fact of life that even most under-50 conservative intellectuals are coming to terms with.  Indeed, even some of the older set.  George Will recently remarked on a “This Week” roundtable that, for this generation, being gay was about as remarkable as being left-handed.

The fictional Alex P. Keaton was my contemporary; indeed, we both graduated high school in 1984.  I’m now older than Michael Gross, who played dad Steven Keaton, was when the show started.  So, it’s perfectly natural that today’s teens have different political views than I do.  (For that matter, I’m much less socially conservative now, at 43, than I was when the show first aired 27 years ago.)

Waldman anticipated my ready rejoinder to his thesis:

But how much the generation of which she is a part will continue voting for Democrats, and whether her social progressivism will be joined to similar views on economics and foreign affairs, depends on how things go over the next four or eight years. Just as the views of the Reagan generation were shaped by the seemingly ineffectual Carter presidency and the seemingly successful Reagan presidency, the current generation will be shaped by the Bush and Obama presidencies — one an unmitigated disaster, the other a story still being written.

Of course, this presidency could be a disaster as well; who knows what crises await tomorrow or next month or next year. But if Obama accomplishes his grand goals — pulling the nation through the economic crisis, reforming health care, confronting global warming, transforming our relationship with the world — the millennial generation will belong to him and his ideological heirs. And conservatives will find themselves in a very deep hole for many years to come.

That’s quite right.  But, frankly, even if Obama is a miserable failure, the country’s social mores will have evolved in four or eight years.  Further, American politics will naturally evolve along with the American public, just as it always has.  Presumably, the Republican Party will eventually do so as well — just as it always has.

We’ll always have a strong “conservative” movement.  It’s just that Ronald Reagan and Alex P. Keaton wouldn’t quite recognize it.

UPDATE: See my follow-up post, “Democrats Can’t Win for Losing.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    One thing about being in college, not having to earn a living. Another when play is over and life sets in. Once you get a paycheck with huge chunks of money removed by the government to pay for things you do not get. reality sets in. It is amazing how smart Rush Limbaugh sounds to someone who has just been ripped off by he liberal lying congress. Cap and trade should just about cause the violent upheaval festering just below the surface of America. Attack talk radio, force unions on us all, and then try to take away our guns. I like the fact Obama wants vets to pay for their own healthcare. Broke another contract. I wonder if he knows who flys the helicopter he likes to fly in?

  2. sam says:

    Academics and political consultants who have studied the youth vote have many explanations for their movement toward the Republicans, but the most powerful is the simplest: Young Americans have known only Mr. Reagan and Mr. Carter as President, and Mr. Reagan is the overwhelming favorite.

    I think that’s pretty much correct. Moreover, I think the Reagan generation’s commitment to conservative ideology followed their voting for RR rather than being the predicate for their vote. I remember in my last job (in hi-tech), many of my younger co-workers were self-identified conservatives. But when I probed, I found that their conservatism was pretty much exhausted after we got done talking about economics. If anything, they were far more libertarian than conservative on the social issues. In those attitudes, they often reminded me, in fact, of my counter-culture friends from the 60s and 70s (though of course without the mindless marxist cant). And I often wondered if Carter’s presidency had been much less the perceived failure it was, what their party and political affiliations would have then been.

  3. Jay C. says:

    “Sorry, couldn’t resist.” James, it’s those moments that keep me going back to OTB. It’s like an engagement ring in a glass of champagne; you never know your guy’s proposing to you until he’s performing the Heimlich on your sorry, inattentive ass and all the people at the restaurant think you two just can’t wait to get a room.

  4. steve s says:

    I’ve spent the last 12 years around several universities here in the south, some which were more conservative, some which were more liberal. When I was their age it was much more normal to be conservative. Plenty of young people back then didn’t mind the GOP much. Many of us voted for the moderate and sensible G.H.W. Bush. People thought of friendly Republicans like Ronald Reagan.

    That has changed quite a bit in the last 20 years with Newt, Rush, Karl Rove, Tom Delay, James Dobson, William Bennet, Pat Robertson, etc. Now the general perception among people in their teens and 20s that I’ve run into is that you’re a conservative if you hate their gay friends, can’t STFU about Jesus, aren’t very intelligent or well-read, are obsessed with giving rich people tax cuts, make absurd claims about Obama, and don’t believe in science. Because of this perception the people who are maturing over the last few years are voting 2-1 Democrat.

    According to political scientists, your political affiliation in your 20’s is a very strong predictor of your political affiliation in the decades afterward, so there’s a very big Dem cohort that’s been created in the last decade-plus.

  5. Floyd says:

    Great commentary!! nothing much of substance left to be said…. Perhaps a question for steve s.

    Your second paragraph describes a gullible generation with a huge appetite for equivocation,who gladly strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.

    Do think this is true of a majority or just the ones you ran into?

  6. odograph says:

    I got a kick out of being an Alex P. Keaton Republican and Reagan supporter. Before getting to the youth, let’s remember that not all of us are there anymore. (I’m now independent, centrist, a would-be rationalist, and critic of what I see as the worst of the New Right.)

    The youth? I wouldn’t really know. In the California tech circles they seem to be progressive and post-racial in the way Obama presents himself.

  7. steve s says:

    Further, American politics will naturally evolve along with the American public, just as it always has. Presumably, the Republican Party will eventually do so as well — just as it always has.

    I have no doubt that the GOP will eventually reform–no party will stick with the same principles through decades of electoral failure. I just wonder how fast it’s going to happen. So far it looks like the reformers, like Frum, Noonan, Salaam, Brooks, and my own Governor, Charlie Crist, are completely despised by the know-nothings in the GOP base. So it’s going to be at least a few more losing election cycles, I think, before the base is broken and the will to change arrives.

  8. James Joyner says:

    “Sorry, couldn’t resist.” James, it’s those moments that keep me going back to OTB.

    We aims ta please.

  9. mannning says:

    But, frankly, even if Obama is a miserable failure, the country’s social mores will have evolved in four or eight years. Further, American politics will naturally evolve along with the American public, just as it always has. Presumably, the Republican Party will eventually do so as well — just as it always has.

    What is the makeup of this social evolution you speak of, as if it is a certainty? Would it be:
    acceptance by the great majority of– gay marriage; abortion; the single parent family as norm; “hookups” by students; promiscuity; porn; use of dope; early teen sex; erotic sex practices; moral relativity; shoddy parenting; decline of religion; in short, open hedonism?

    Are we fated to be immersed in such a decadent social nightmare, no matter what? Or, are there countervailing forces in our society that will rise up in total disgust and revulsion to fight to recover and strengthen our traditional Christian morality?

    That is what I see happening in my community, more and more, especially when the emotional costs of such early-in-life decadence are visibly being paid for by sons and daughters that lose their way after some years of living in personal chaos and lack of discipline. It is a hard road back. This is the factor that is suppressed–the consequences of hedonism on people downstream from the pleasures of the moment.

    Why should anyone blithely accept such a social catastrophe as if it is beneficial?

  10. superdestroyer says:

    The two questions for the twenty somethings:

    1. Do they think that the U.S. will be better off as a one party state? They seem to have a severe double standard in that they do not want to associate with nut cases like Tom Delay but are accepting of nut cases like Maxine Waters. The beauty of the current Democratic party is that groups with opposite views such as greens and industrial labor unions can co-exist. Can a second political party function with the current Democratic party in existence?

    2. Do any of them plan for a career in politics in the coming one party state. Do any of the rich, white liberals really believe that blacks would ever vote for them if there is a black candidate to vote for? Do they think that many people will be employed in politics if the presidential election is decided sometime between the Iowa caucuses and Super Tuesday Democratic primaries?

  11. Floyd says:

    “”The country’s social mores will have EVOLVED.””
    “”””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””
    Nonsense; human nature is imootable. 🙂

  12. anjin-san says:

    Didn’t Bit play the weird kid on Family Ties who like Mallory but could not get the time of day from chicks?