‘Millenials’ and Partisanship


The under-30 crowd is something of a problem for the GOP. This isn’t news. Youths are traditionally more liberal than their elders. And having George W. Bush and Barack Obama as the two parties’ respective spokesmen during this generation’s coming of age certainly hasn’t done Republicans any favors.

But as the Economist points out, there’s something more to the current trend.

A number of commenters suggest that this is simply a reflection of the universal verity that young people are liberal, or of youthful enthusiasm for Barack Obama. Neither hypothesis stands up to scrutiny. Under-30 voters went for House Democrats in 2006 almost as strongly as in 2008. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, younger voters were no more likely to identify as Democrats than as Republicans. It may well be that all cohorts drift more conservative as they age, but contemporary young voters are starting out significantly more liberal than their Gen X predecessors.

The numbers largely bear this out. I won’t bore you with the Pew graphs, but those in Generation X (1965-1976) have more conservative views on social values, national security and the scope of government than their Generation Y (1977+) counterparts — both now and when comparing X-ers to Y-ers at the same age (except for national security).

Gallup has some more anecdotal evidence (via The Atlantic):

In the Gallup tracking polling that’s been conducted since January, Obama’s approval rating among voters younger than 30 has never fallen below 66%. His approval rating among young voters consistently runs somewhere between six and nine points higher than his overall showing: today, Obama receives positive approval ratings from a dizzying 75% of voters under 30, compared to 66% from the country overall.

Now, one thing to note about partisanship is that, across the board, as people become more politically active, they become increasingly partisan. Most people look at the Generation Y, or “Millenials” trends and come to the simple conclusion that this spells doom for the Republican Party among this generation of voters. And that may very well be. But what I find far more interesting are the other possible implications of the “becoming more partisan” pattern.

To “become more partisan” one would presumably have to start out disagreeing with (or being apathetic to) aspects of a party’s platform, only to believe in its policies more and more later in life.

The most obvious real world example of this I can think of is the Evangelical Right. As a group, they presumably could care less about Reaganomics; their political participation, generally speaking, is predicated on opposition to abortion rights, stem cell research and the like. They are social conservatives at heart. But make no mistake, they are now Republicans, through and through. And that means they subscribe to Republican economic theories. As an example, a plurality of Evangelicals say they’d prefer a “smaller government, with fewer services” to a bigger one with more services (via Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey). On its face, one might think that Evangelicals would feel the other way, wanting welfare programs and the like to help the poor. But as they’ve become more politically active, they’ve also become more Republican.

Now, back to Millenials. The current generation of youngsters is very socially liberal, supporting gay marriage, marijuana legalization and other social issues at higher rates than the rest of the population. And, generally speaking, one would think that the average 20-something cares a good deal less about economics than about civil rights. The same, I would think, could be said for conservatives in this age bracket; it’s a hell of a lot more fun debating abortion and affirmative action than supply-side/demand-side. But if the partisanship theory holds true, as Millenials become more politically active (which they are) they will subscribe more and more to the economic theories of their ideology of choice as well.

This, above all else, should worry Republicans, and one would think should make them more likely to rally behind the Jon Huntsmans (the socially moderate GOP governor of Utah) of the world than the Sarah Palins. I daresay the Party’s elders care more about limited government than holding the line against Adam and Steve.

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About the Author

Brian Eason is a University of Missouri graduate with bachelor degrees in Journalism and Political Science. He has covered Congressional elections and local government for the Columbia Missourian and worked as a general assignment reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL. Brian has also had articles published in Roll Call.

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