Most Americans lament the fact that politics has become so partisan. Rarely can the left or right come together on issues, and usually only at the last instant through shady backroom deals. But buried under this divide is another division that is only covered up by partisan politics.
Dig through the poll numbers on a number of social and economic issues and the split becomes clear. There is an age divide in terms of stances on these issues. And this age divide points to a deep generational divide. This divide tends to split the Depression and Baby Boomer generation against Generations Y and the millennial Generation.
This divide can easily be seen on key economic issues. While the baby-boomer generation and elderly seniors see the debt as a major issue there is quite a drop-off in concern among millennials and Generation Y. On entitlement reform many Baby-boomers and seniors, regardless of their partisan affiliation or ideological beliefs, want to preserve Social security and Medicare. These voters express deep concern on any idea to reform or fix these programs. By contrast, younger voters do not see reforming these programs as paramount.
On social issues this divide can be seen as well. Baby-boomers and seniors tend to take hard left or right stances on abortion. But since 2000 the millennial generation has started to enter the political scene as a voter bloc and they have taken more libertarian views on the issues. Younger voters are more likely to say they are pro-life than pro-choice (the number has been going up since 2000) but they are also less likely to say they would ban abortion in all instances. They are also less likely to say they wanted government involved in the institution of marriage as well. By contrast seniors and baby-boomers have more entrenched and absolutist views on the issues of abortion and marriage as an institution.
Gay marriage defines the generational divide on social issues. As more and more millennials enter the political scene they have started to shift the debate on gay marriage. Over half a dozen states have legalized gay marriage since 2000 and NJ, Delaware and WA state are on the cusp of joining the club. The movement on gay marriage has been especially dramatic in 2008. Over 50% of the public according to numerous polls show support for gay marriage. And the President and his AG have basically said they would not defend the Defense of Marriage Act perhaps reflecting this shift.
Lastly, on foreign policy there is deep generational divide. Many seniors and baby-boomers express strong support for the military, protecting Israel and not wanting to see the military cut. In contrast younger voters seem to be more libertarian to liberal on foreign policy. These younger voters do not have the same connection to Israel that baby-boomers and seniors do nor the context of the Cold War. Younger voters want to see a diminished or at least more limited role for the US in the world. They also want the US to keep its distance from Israel especially on the issue of Iran and if Israel attacked Iran.
Partisan divisions tend to cloud these differences. But these differences are real and generational. While younger Americans, just like their older counterparts are likely to fall into the same traditional partisan camps, the generational divide could perhaps help the country. If younger voters feel less connected to entitlements perhaps politicians can reform them. Likewise, if social issues become less contentious than perhaps the country can begin to find a consensus on these issues. Foreign policy however is the one issue where the generations may eventually come together. Experience shapes views of the world and if younger Americans feel the brunt of a major terrorist attack or a nuclear Iran they may rethink their libertarian views on foreign policy.