“There is a mysterious cycle in human events,” said Franklin Delano Roosevelt, accepting the Democratic nomination for president in Philadelphia in 1936. “To some generations much is given. Of others much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”
In the 20th century, many sociologists and historians flirted with the idea that generational changes could explain U.S. politics. The historians Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and Jr. wrote about “cycles of American history,” arguing that, as the generations turn, American politics rotates inexorably between liberal and conservative consensus. More recently, a new generational scheme has come into vogue. William Strauss and Neil Howe’s theory of the “fourth turning” predicts a crisis and a major political realignment every 80 to 90 years. (Strauss and Howe were briefly in the spotlight in 2016 after Steve Bannon praised their work.)
We are skeptical about cyclical theories of history. We are also aware of the slipperiness of generations as categories for political analysis. As Karl Mannheim pointed out more than 90 years ago, a generation is defined not solely by its birth years but also by the principal historical experience its members shared in their youth, whatever that might be. Nevertheless, we do believe that a generational division is growing in American politics that could prove more important than the cleavages of race and class, which are the more traditional focuses of political analysis.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is often described as a radical, but the data show that her views are close to the median for her generation. The Millennials and Generation Z—that is, Americans aged 18 to 38—are generations to whom little has been given, and of whom much is expected. Young Americans are burdened by student loans and credit-card debt. They face stagnant real wages and few opportunities to build a nest egg. Millennials’ early working lives were blighted by the financial crisis and the sluggish growth that followed. In later life, absent major changes in fiscal policy, they seem unlikely to enjoy the same kind of entitlements enjoyed by current retirees.
Under different circumstances, the under-39s might conceivably have been attracted to the entitlement-cutting ideas of the Republican Tea Party (especially if those ideas had been sincere). Instead, we have witnessed a shift to the political left by young voters on nearly every policy issue, economic and cultural alike.
As a liberal graduate student and a conservative professor, we rarely see eye to eye on politics. Yet we agree that the generation war is the best frame for understanding the ways that the Democratic and Republican parties are diverging. The Democrats are rapidly becoming the party of the young, specifically the Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z (born after 1996). The Republicans are leaning ever more heavily on retirees, particularly the Silent Generation (born before 1945). In the middle are the Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980), who are slowly inching leftward, and the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), who are slowly inching to the right.
This generation-based party realignment has profound implications for the future of American politics. The generational transition will not dramatically change the median voter in the 2020 election—or even in 2024, if turnout among young voters stays close to the historical average. Yet both parties are already feeling its effects, as the dominant age cohort in each party recognizes its newfound power to choose candidates and set the policy agenda. Drawing on opinion polls and financial data, and extrapolating historical trends, we think that young voters’ rendezvous with destiny will come in the mid to late 2020s.
Today, the older generations have a lock on political power in Washington. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are members of the Silent Generation. So are Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who lead in nearly every poll of the 2020 Democratic primary. President Donald Trump and the median senator and representative are Boomers. Of the nine justices on the Supreme Court, two are from the Silent Generation and six are Boomers. Yet the median American is 38—a Millennial.
Over the past year, the Democratic Party’s geriatric leadership has begun to feel the ground moving beneath its feet. For decades, moderate Democrats have kept a tight grip on the party’s platform. The 2018 midterm elections were a watershed. Boomers and members of the Silent Generation still make up more than three-fifths of the party’s House members and hold all major leadership roles. But newly elected members—including 14 Millennials and 32 Gen Xers—are driving the conversation on policy, from Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal to a recent resolution to withdraw support from Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
Younger voters are also far left of center on most other economic and social policies. They are particularly opposed to the Trump administration’s handling of immigration. Americans 35 and older are nearly evenly divided on the issue of President Trump’s border wall. Among voters under 35, this is not even a question. Nearly 80 percent oppose the wall.
Gen Z are not a trusting bunch. Students tend to believe that their college or university administration will do the right thing “always” or “most of the time.” Contrary to conventional wisdom, young Americans trust the military and law enforcement more than other institutions. But they take an extremely dim view of Trump, Congress, Wall Street, the press, and the social-media platforms where they get their news: Twitter and Facebook.
When the question is posed as an abstraction, most Gen Zers don’t trust the federal government either. But they favor big-government economic policies regardless because they believe that government is the only protection workers have against concentrated corporate power.
Philosophically, many Gen Zers and Millennials believe that government’s proper role should be as a force for social good. Among voting-age members of Gen Z, seven in 10 believe that the government “should do more to solve problems” and that it “has a responsibility to guarantee health care to all.”
Young voters are also far more willing than their elders to point to other countries as proof that the U.S. government isn’t measuring up. Gen Z voters are twice as likely to say that “there are other countries better than the U.S.” than that “America is the best country in the world.” As Ocasio-Cortez puts it: “My policies most closely resemble what we see in the U.K., in Norway, in Finland, in Sweden.”
Will Gen Z voters moderate their views after they enter the labor force? Probably not. Irving Kristol once joked that conservatives are liberals who have been “mugged by reality.” But the data don’t support this hypothesis. Most Millennials have already been mugged by reality: competing in the job market, paying taxes, and—for those 26 and older—taking responsibility for their own health care. In the process, they have lurched left, not right. On questions of political philosophy, Millennials are far closer to their juniors in Gen Z than to their elders in Gen X.Even young Republicans have been caught up in this philosophical leftward drift. Gen Z Republicans are four times as likely as Silent Generation Republicans to believe that government should do more to solve problems. And only 60 percent of Gen Z Republicans approve of Trump’s job performance, while his approval among all Republicans hovers around 90 percent.
In short, Ocasio-Cortez is neither an aberration nor a radical. She is close to the political center of America’s younger generations.
Negative views of immigration are based on more than just the economic argument that newcomers are lowering the wages of native-born workers or exacerbating shortages of housing or public goods. Such views have a significant cultural component, too. Needless to say, Donald Trump specializes in whipping up the anxieties of older voters about what they see as alarmingly rapid social change.
But the Republicans need to find ways of winning over aging Boomers, many of whom are squeamish about being branded as racists. That is why it makes political sense for them to broaden the culture war, making it about much more than immigration.
According to a Marist poll last December, a sizable majority of Americans under 29 want to see the country become “more politically correct.” But voters over 30 oppose the rise of political correctness by a factor of nearly 2 to 1. This is a wedge issue that Republicans will exploit with gusto.
Republicans will be happy to note that middle-aged voters are even more strongly opposed to political correctness—and all that they believe this entails—than retirees. This trend is unlikely to reverse as the Democratic Party, under the influence of the Ocasio-Cortez cohort, brings issues of cultural and social justice closer to the core of its platform. Nor will it resolve itself as these middle-aged voters’ children become teenagers and go to college, where the culture of social justice is most explicitly disseminated.Liberals may retort that social values can change with surprising speed. Couldn’t PC culture follow the same trajectory as interracial relationships, gay marriage, and legal marijuana—once taboo, now mainstream?
Perhaps it can, but we think it probably won’t. The gay-marriage debate was about the legal status of a minority. The PC debate is about norms of expression that affect everyone. For many older voters—and not just conservatives—campus politics has become a wholly alien parallel world of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and gender-neutral pronouns. That helps explain the president’s recent executive order to cut off federal funding to colleges that fail to uphold free speech. By taking campus politics national, the GOP will try to pry centrist Boomers and older Democrats away from a party more and more driven by the values of progressive academia.
Generational conflict likely won’t swing national elections until the 2020s, depending on turnout rates and attitudinal shifts among the Boomers. In the short run, this is probably good news for the GOP, as Democrats lurch to the left on identity-based issues that turn off older voters.
Yet Trump’s strategy of single-mindedly courting members of the Silent Generation with issues such as immigration, the evils of socialism, and campus free speech is not a long-term solution for the Republican Party. The more the GOP belittles the preferences of younger voters, the more it risks forging them into a left-wing bloc.
In the 2020s, the Silent Generation will fade from the scene. This will happen at precisely the same time that history suggests younger, more left-wing voters will start to vote at higher rates. To attract more Boomers, and some Gen X men, the GOP may paint the Democrats as radical socialists and do all it can to fan the flames of the culture war. To avoid splintering along generational lines, Democrats will likely redouble their focus on health care, a rare issue that unites the party across all age groups.