A recent article got me thinking about America’s vast political divide. A few weeks back I published a trilogy of articles on the divisions in this country with an emphasis on the generational divide broadcast in recent elections. I want to revisit these thoughts and add a few new thoughts here in this post.
My last article concluded with the thought that the modern issue set American voters associate with their voting habits could change over time. Indeed, on gay marriage the issue set is changing as both parties have moved quite rapidly to embrace it. Of course our modern issue set is not the only thing that has impacted our politics. The terrorist attack of 9/11 brought national security to the forefront. Demographic changes and the economic collapse of 2007 have also deeply impacted our politics.
Yet these examples are not enough to explain America’s generational political divide. Perhaps a political theory is in order. Or two. In electoral/demographic political circles there are two schools of thought on what shapes generational voting patterns. The first is what I term the “Presidential Impact” Theory. Under this theory, young voters preferences are formed depending on how the current President is doing. For example, if you grew up under Reagan you are likely to be a Republican. If you grew up under Clinton you are likely to be a Democrat, though perhaps less liberal than “New Democrats.”
The other theory, what I coin the “Political Environmental Impact” theory, posits that voters habits and preferences are formed by the environment of the times. So if you came of age at a time of the financial crisis you are likely to be more liberal as opposed to being more conservative if you grew up during the Reagan-Clinton years when the economy largely hummed along with few major glitches.
Both of these theories can explain some of the recent trends in American politics. The voting habits of young voters since 2004 has been increasingly Democratic. Most young voters in surveys identify this as because of the financial crisis. On the other hand these same voters still blame Bush for the bad economy, though they are tiring of Obama’s economic policies as well. So they identify what has shaped their views and show they are predisposed to policies advocated by the party that preaches social welfare.
It is little secret older voters are more conservative than their younger counterparts. On a range of issues both social and economic, younger voters are decidedly more left. After 2012 these voters drove the national conversation to what the nation may be in the future, as well as the usual “The GOP is doomed” theory from a number of leftist columnists and analysts. What is less discussed however are two important considerations.
1. Share of the electorate: Millennials made up a huge share of the electorate in 2012. Their size and voting patterns handed Obama the White House. Yet, Millennials are increasingly saying they are disenfranchised and do not view traditional forms of civic participation in high regard. For a voting bloc that many posit will reshape America (see hyperlinked article above) this is not a good way to do so. Also keep in mind that in 2012 younger voters leaned more to the right than 2008. It might be only 8% points but that is a notable shift. If the shift continues in 2016 it could mean the next generation of younger voters are entering politics and not in as left a way as their counterparts.
2. Course Correction: Assuming for the moment that Millennials remain extremely left of center and continue to swing elections in that direction, with accompanying leftist policy victories. Assuming this the question must be asked how the next generation, the Facebook Generation, will behave in response? Throughout American political history generations have always had distinct differences between one another. Baby Boomers have a distinctly different world view than the Depression Generation, ditto Generation Y and Generation X. If the pattern holds up one can expect their to be a backlash, in some form, to the Millennial Generation’s leftist course. Whether this is good or bad for the country’s two major political parties depends on how they respond.
These are important factors to consider in any scenario envisioning the future of politics. Sadly, they are often lacking in any analysis. As I have said before, politics does not stay stagnant. Issue set changes, events can roil the political environment and political coalitions come and go. This is a reason why I laugh at the idea that a political party or even ideology is doomed. Politics has proven far to unpredictable to assume a consistent result far into the future. Think anybody from FDR’s tenure could imagine 68-92 when the GOP dominated the electoral landscape? Not likely.
Ideologically, there is a vast gap between Millennials and other generational groups. That gap could well be seen again when the Facebook Generation comes of age. And if they do not agree with the for now left leaning inclinations of the Millennial Generation, in several short years we could be talking about how they are overwhelming the electorate and driving the national political dialogue.