The Looming Political Battle of the Ages

October 25, 2015 | By Joel Kotkin

The old issues of class, race and geography may still dominate coverage of our changing political landscape, but perhaps a more compelling divide relates to generations. American politics are being shaped by two gigantic generations – the baby boomers and their offspring, the millennials – as well as smaller cohorts of Generation X, who preceded the millennials, and what has been known as the Silent Generation, who preceded the boomers.

Both the boomers and the Silents gradually have moved to the right as they have aged. Other factors underpin this trend, such as the fact that boomers are overwhelmingly white – well over 70 percent compared with roughly 58 percent for millennials. People in their 50s and 60s have seen their incomes and net worth rise while millennials have done far worse, at this stage of their lives, than previous generations.

Although millennials are more numerous than boomers, the elderly are a growing portion of the population, and they tend to vote in bigger numbers. Voters over age 65 turn out at a rate above 70 percent, while barely 40 percent of those under 25 cast ballots. That may be one factor in why this presidential campaign is dominated not by youth, but by aging figures like Donald Trump (69), Hillary Clinton (67) and Bernie Sanders (74).

The Silent Generation

Leading generational analysts – Neil Howe, Morley Winograd, Mike Hais – have suggested that the experiences people have growing up shape political beliefs throughout their lives. This does not mean that people do not change as they age, but where they started remains a key factor in determining how far these changes spread within a generation.

The now-passing Greatest Generation – the group that survived the Depression and the Second World War – were largely shaped by the experiences of the New Deal and the boom of the postwar era. This has made them consistently less conservative than successor generations, and they have retained their Democratic affiliations.

In contrast, the Silents – many of whom grew up under President Dwight Eisenhower and during the Cold War – have gradually moved toward the Republican column. After generally supporting the Democrats in 2006, they have backed GOP candidates but remain surprisingly balanced in their affiliations; Pew estimates Silents who at least lean Republican constitute 47 percent, versus 44 percent Democratic.

Surprisingly, Silent Generation Democrats are not much more socially conservative on issues – such as gay marriage, abortion and climate change – than the younger generation. But Silent Generation Republicans are far more socially conservative than their younger counterparts, particularly on immigration. This may be one factor that keeps the Donald Trump energizer bunny animated.

Boomers Move Right

Although now outnumbered by millennials, 83 million to 75 million, boomers, those born from 1946-64, remain the largest voting bloc, accounting for some 35 percent of the electorate. Despite being closely identified with the 1960s hippie movement and the counterculture, this group has been heading right for at least 30 years. This may be traced to their experience with the inept and depressing Jimmy Carter presidency and their support for the more self-assured optimism of Ronald Reagan.

Since the second term of the first boomer president, Bill Clinton, that generation has favored the GOP in virtually every election. And they are getting more conservative over time. Since the 1970s, the percentage identifying themselves as liberal has dropped consistently while those holding conservative views have steadily climbed. In 2011, 42 percent of boomers identified as conservative, more the twice the number who considered themselves liberal.

Focus on Generation X

Generation X, smaller than the boomer and millennial demographic behemoths, with roughly 65 million, occupies a particularly critical, if unappreciated, niche in our evolving political structure. Born from the mid-1960s to early ’80s, this generation will produce our next generation of leaders.

The politics of the X’ers are complex. On social issues, they are notably more liberal than boomers but considerably more conservative than millennials. Younger X’ers, many of whom grew up under the generally successful era of Bill Clinton, are notably more liberal than their older counterparts, but a strong majority do not approve of President Obama.

Overall, the X’ers represent something of a swing vote and could be a source of some moderation on social and environmental issues. As a group, they are widely seen as more pragmatic than boomers, who tend to embrace ideological politics. Although likely to support the GOP nominee in 2016, the margin may not be great and, if the Republicans remain committed to embracing clownish candidates, the X’ers could even end up in the Democratic column.

Millennials: Game changers?

With the exception of the Greatest Generation, the millennials are the only age cohort that can be said to be solidly Democratic. Given their huge numbers and relative youth, they will ultimately dominate our political system. By 2030, there will be 78 million millennials and 56 million boomers. But, as in other generations, their political affiliations could shift, at least somewhat, depending on how the parties shape their message over the next decade or two.

Millennials’ social views strongly benefit Democrats. The Republicans have turned off a large portion of a generation that embraces gay marriage by a huge margin and is heavily pro-immigration. The shift to the Democrats could be supercharged if Trump, disliked by four-fifths of Latinos in some surveys, gets the GOP nomination.

Millennials also could push the Democrats even further to the left. They have become a major base of support for socialist candidate Bernie Sanders. The Vermont septuagenarian has played well to this generation’s latent anti-capitalism (about as many of them favor socialism as the free market system; his call for free college no doubt appeals to those worried about college debts). More than three times as many millennials like Sanders’ Facebook page as Hillary Clinton’s, and he is polling about even among them with the former secretary of state, well ahead of his national rankings.

Although smaller in numbers, Republican millennials have gained some ground in recent elections, with most white millennials now in favor of a GOP takeover of the White House in 2016. Their expanding presence could have a potentially moderating impact on a party that appears committed to engaging in ideological and demographic suicide. Young Republicans tend to be more socially liberal – 64 percent, for example, embrace broad acceptance for homosexuality, compared with 45 percent of GOP boomers – and more often define their conservatism in economic terms, a potentially strong issue after seven years of generally anemic, and highly concentrated, income and job growth.

Who wins?

Generational politics pose both risks and rewards for each party. A Trump candidacy may excite older voters and many younger white voters, but the cost among a pro-immigrant, heavily minority millennial voting bloc could prove damaging over the longer run.

Democrats, too, face risks, particularly if they continue on the path of radical wealth redistribution and draconian climate change regulation. Although still strong, support for Obama has been steadily weakening since 2008. Millennials are the only age group to still approve of President Obama’s record, but by only 49 percent, not exactly a ringing endorsement.

The future may be determined by the extent that millennials feel that Democratic policies inhibit their ability to move up economically. Younger millennials, having grown up during a weak economy under a progressive president, are notably more conservative than older ones, notes a recent Harvard study.

They increasingly share some attitudes with conservatives, having become notably more deeply distrustful of many of the nation’s political institutions. Nearly half describe themselves as independents, far more than any other age group.

To be sure, mllennials will likely stay more liberal than boomers (about as many are conservative as liberal), but they could shift further to the right once they enter their 30s and start earning a living. Once they are accumulating such things as a house and starting families, they may not easily embrace policies that would see much of their income taken away – radical redistribution is more appealing when you have little and know even less.

To take advantage of these trends, Republicans first need to adjust their views on social issues, notably on immigration and gay rights, and come up with policies to address rampant income inequality. If they fail to do so, generation dynamics will likely allow the Democrats to dominate electorally for the next decade or more.

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