Saturday night I sat watching “We were Soldiers.” For those who have not or do not want to see the movie it is based off the book “We were soldiers once, and young.” The movie chronicles the battle in the Ia Drang Valley, the first major engagement between American forces and North Vietnamese regulars in the Vietnam War. Americans won, losing 57 soldiers to hundreds for the NV’s, but the victory fed false hopes the US could stop the spread of Communism in the region.
The movie led to me thinking about the political differences between the generations on domestic policy and especially foreign policy. The Greatest Gen/Silent Generation grew up during a time when Hitler, Stalin and Japan were conquering large swathes of territory and committing atrocities unmatched in history. Despite this generation being incredibly liberal domestically (think War on Poverty, Great Society, etc.) they were extremely interventionist in terms of foreign policy. This generation gave FDR 4 terms in the White House, Truman 2, and Eisenhower 2 terms. All these Presidents practiced interventionist policies in the fullest sense.
The Silent Generation’s views stood in stark contrast to those of their kids. The baby-boomer generation is best known for protests against the Vietnam War, Woodstock and an extremely nuanced view on foreign policy. This generation came of age during a time when the Vietnam War raged and their political views hardened as the war became worse and worse. Today, the baby-boomer generation is more conservative than it has ever been but that does not equal being conservative on foreign policy. Indeed, many boomers are more worried about domestic issues (Social Security, wealthy inequality, Medicare) than North Korea or Iran.
Following the Boomers came Generation Y. This Generation came of age at a time when the Watergate Scandal had demolished Americans trust in the Executive Branch. They also began to incorporate the debates of their age (Roe vs. Wade, Civil Rights, deregulation taxes, etc.) into their political paradigm. This generation saw the successes of the Reagan administration as well as its failures. Today, Generation Y appears to be the strongest generation in terms of support for the military and defense spending. This is likely a legacy of growing up under Reagan’s tenure.
The Millennial Generation is by far the most liberal generation since the Silent Generation. They have handed Barack Obama 68% and 60% of their votes in 2008 and 2012. They have also railed against foreign intervention and worry more about problems at home than abroad. In both the Democratic and Republican Parties, the tail-end members of Generation Y and beginning of the Millennial Generation argue the US military is overstretched and should focus more at home. Among the GOP these members include Senator Rand Paul (KY), Ted Cruz (TX) and to a lesser extent Marco Rubio (FL).
Now one can believe that whichever party promotes a “home-first” agenda will win Millennial voters. But in truth their political views have yet to be fully formed. It took the Baby-boomer generation well into the 70’s to become entrenched in their views. Generation Y did not until the 90’s. The Silent Generation firmly adopted their views early on, likely because of the massive impact of the Great Depression on their lives. However, the Millennial Generation is a generation seeing the country undergo a massive change. The Internet, social media, growing wealth inequality, gay marriage Iraq, Afghanistan, the breakdown of two-parent marriage is impacting them in ways obvious and not obvious.
The growing diversity of America bodes well for arguments between the age cohort theory and racial diversity theory. The age cohort theory, of which I am a fan, argues that voters political views and attitudes come into being under the reigning President. For the Millennial Generation that would be President Bush and to a lesser extent President Obama. For Generation Z it would be Obama and the next President of the country. The racial diversity theory argues that voters attitudes are heavily influenced and determined by their race. In other words, if you are a minority, odds are good you will be a Democrat and if you are white you will likely grow up to be a Republican. The racial diversity theory however assumes that racial political attitudes will stay stagnant and that neither political party will ever shift. Tell that to the GOP and Democratic Parties who have shifted on immigration reform in order to court Hispanics and Asians.
How Generation Z goes is anybody’s guess. Generation Z, to which my niece belongs, is a question mark. Every single child of this generation is to young to vote and will have to navigate the pitfalls of a struggling society and growing technology. Not surprisingly this generation has been named the Facebook Generation. How social media impacts this generation could influence heavily their political views. Social media could drive them to be more accepting different standards, desensitize them to violence (it does btw) and encourage isolationism abroad. On the other hand current evidence suggests they will be more interventionist than their parents as threats abroad percolate, Al Qaeda regroups, North Korea becomes more belligerent, Iran develops the bomb, and Israel continues to be threatened.
The one thing these generations all have in common is that their political views will or did come of age in a time of political or geo-strategic crisis. It has heavily impacted their views not just at home and abroad. Vietnam left an indelible mark on this country. The first counter-culture was born, American invincibility was dealt a serious blow and Watergate soon followed, smashing faith in governmental institutions. Every generation has come of age at times like these and every generation into the future will as well. The impact of these views on young voters attitudes should not be forgotten.