The Progressive Shift
Posted by: eric on November 25, 2009 at 2:46 am
The political attitudes of Generation We reveal a distinct pattern that is markedly different from that of their immediate predecessors, the Gen Xers—the most politically conservative cohort in American history. Thanks to their open-mindedness and their overwhelming embrace of the greater good, Generation We is developing strongly progressive views on a wide range of issues and is poised to lead the most dramatic leftward political shift in recent American history.
On the political stage, Generation We is already beginning to make their influence felt. The oldest Millennials were eligible to vote for the first time in 1996. In their first few elections, Generation We has voted more heavily Democratic than other recent generations. For example, in 2002 (otherwise a terrible year for Democrats), Millennials (then 18- to 24-years old) voted Democratic by 49 to 47 percent. In 2004, Millennials age 18 to 24 favored Democrat John Kerry for president by 56 to 43 percent. (Polling data for the entire Millennial cohort aren’t available.) If young people ruled America, Kerry would have been elected with a landslide victory of 372 electoral votes to 166 for Bush. In 2006, Millennial voters (then 18- to 29-years old) favored Democrats for Congress by a margin of 60 to 38 percent. They were the swing vote role that delivered the Democratic takeover of Congress during that year’s midterm elections.
The Democratic leanings of Generation We extend beyond voting choices into party identification. According to the most recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (released in April, 2008), Americans age 18 to 29 identify themselves as Democrats (or “lean” Democratic) over Republicans by a 58 to 33 percent margin.
This is the largest progressive shift since the New Deal—the movement launched in the 1930s by Franklin D. Roosevelt that earned him four terms in the White House, a rewriting of the social contract between Americans and their government, and nearly a half-century of political dominance for the Democratic Party, buoyed by the loyalties of voters whose sensibilities were shaped by the politics of the New Deal. Thus, the progressive shift of Generation We isn’t going to be an important trend for one or two years or even one or two elections. It’s likely to shape American politics for several decades to come.
You might wonder whether the Democratic preferences of Generation We simply reflect their youth. After all, it’s a common folk belief that young people are generally liberal and gradually become more conservative as they get older. But that’s not the case. When we compare today’s Generation We with their predecessors the Gen Xers, we see a huge crash in Republican support. Back in the 1990s, when the Gen Xers were the same age as Generation We is today, they identified with the Republicans at a 55 percent rate. Those same Gen Xers, now in their thirties, continue to be the most Republican generation today.
The fact is that party identification and other voting behaviors formed in a generation’s twenties tend to persist for a lifetime, as demonstrated by many political science studies. This is good news for the Democratic Party. On Election Day in 2006, the exit polls showed the Democrats with a 12-point lead in party identification among 18- to 29-year-old voters. Polls taken since then typically give the Democrats even larger leads in party identification among this age group, as well as substantial leads in generic presidential and congressional voting intentions for 2008.
Of course, party preference is one thing—political attitudes are another. Does the Millennial leaning toward the Democratic party merely represent a swing in “brand preference” from one vaguely defined collection of positions to another—or does it reflect a real shift in attitudes?
My research demonstrates that the latter is true. In fact, Generation We is far more wedded to progressive political andsocial views than to the Democratic party. On issue after issue, Generation We favors progressive positions, even as they resolutely reject familiar labels, party banners, and ideological straitjackets. For example, in the GMS, fully 70 percent of respondents agreed with this statement:
Democrats and Republicans alike are failing our country, putting partisanship ahead of our country’s needs and offering voters no real solutions to our country’s problems.
And more Millennials surveyed described themselves as independents (39 percent) than either Democrats (36 percent) or Republicans (24 percent).
The fact is that the progressive shift of Generation We is not about party politics. It’s about a belief in the future; about embracing possibility and hope (the themes that have driven Barack Obama’s popularity among the young); and about rejecting the divisive rhetoric, penchant for social control, and protection of entrenched interests that young Americans identify with the conservative movement.
Members of Generation We see their friends coming home from war with permanent injuries; they find themselves unable to afford healthcare, to save for retirement, or to fill up their tanks with gas. They blame the right for these problems, and they see the obstinacy and narrow-mindedness of conservatives as being antithetical to their own optimism and spirit of innovation. So they reject the failed solutions of the right, even as they refuse to commit themselves wholeheartedly to any political party.