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Intelligencer - May 30, 2019

Republicans have long known that millennials were going to be a problem for their party. The only questions were “How big?” and “How soon?”

The bulk of Americans born between 1981 and 1996 saw Bill Clinton preside over an age of (relative) peace and prosperity — and then George W. Bush steer their nation into failed wars and economic collapse. Political science research suggests that a voter’s partisan preferences tend to be deeply informed by their evaluations of presidential performance in adolescence and early adulthood. Americans who came of age during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon presidencies leaned Democratic for years after. Those who attained a sense of self amid Jimmy Carter’s losing battle against stagflation — and/or Ronald Reagan’s boom times — remained disproportionately Republican as they aged.

Thus, millennials were likely to lean left, even if their generation wasn’t more diverse, highly educated, and atheistic than its predecessors. But it is. And since all of those traits correlate with ideological liberalism (broadly defined), it’s none too surprising that millennials are far more progressive in their policy preferences — on virtually all issues — than their parents or grandparents.

So, the problem for the GOP has been clear. And for a moment there, Barack Obama’s 2008 election appeared to confirm that said problem was massive: As the “emerging Democratic majority” continued to emerge, the Republican Party would need to move left, or accept a rapidly declining share of the vote. After all, by 2014, virtually all millennials would attain voting age.

Of course, reports of the conservative movement’s impending death were greatly exaggerated. In fact, the first two elections in which (virtually) all millennials could vote would first give Mitch McConnell control of the Senate, and then Donald Trump command of the White House.

The reasons for the right’s revival are too myriad to comprehensively catalogue here. But two important ones were that millennials voted at woefully low rates, and the boomer generation shifted (even further) right.

That first development wasn’t really a surprise. Younger Americans have always tended to be less-than-diligent about civic participation. The 2014 elections were the third midterms for which at least some millennials were eligible to vote. And while their turnout rate was an abysmal 22 percent that year, Generation X’s showing in its third midterm (1998) wasn’t much better. So, even after the disappointment of 2014 and 2016, it was still possible to believe that my generation would one day enter the electorate en masse — and promptly lay waste to the Republican Party. As the pollster William Jordan wrote in 2017:

[A] voter stops being under-represented in the electorate at about age 40 — which is the age of some of the oldest Millennials in around 2022 … It’s not obvious that the Millennial Reckoning will come in 2018, or even 2020. That said, based on data from past elections, it’s when a cohort starts to nudge up against their fourth or fifth presidential election cycle that they start seeing real improvements in turnout rates — and that’s about where Millennials are now. Looking just at how Boomers and Gen-Xers behaved around a similar time, we’d expect Millennial turnout to increase by around 5 or 6 points between 2016 and 2020.

We haven’t yet seen what it looks like when Millennials come into their own as a voting bloc, and it will almost certainly happen. The only question is, will it happen gradually, or suddenly? Is there anything going on in American politics that might spur an unusual lurch forward among the nation’s youngest, most diverse and most educated generation? ...
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