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.”