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Race and Beyond: Millennial Voters Aren’t Conservatives in Waiting

Freedom Summer students listen

SOURCE: AP/Rogelio V. Solis

High school students participate in a national youth summit at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson, Mississippi.

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Predicting the future is a fool’s errand.

Witness David Leonhardt’s ridiculous column this week in The New York Times, in which he gazes into a murky crystal ball to see that today’s teenagers may grow up to be—clutch your pearls, dear lady readers—conservatives. His specious argument rests upon a wobbly premise and ignores the sweeping power that demographic change will have over today’s young people as they become tomorrow’s voters.

According to Leonhardt, the Millennial generation—young people born between 1977 and 1992, who developed their political awareness primarily during the decade after the turn of the 21st century—“are coming of age with a Democratic president who often seems unable to fix the world’s problems.” As a result, he argues, President Barack Obama’s political challenges may be seen as a reason for future Millennial voters to have less affection for Democrats. “Some political analysts believe that teenagers are already showing less allegiance to the Democratic Party than Americans in their 20s, based on recent polling data,” Leonhardt writes, pointing to a Washington Post analysis of Pew Research Center data.

In fact, the fundamental point of Leonhardt’s column is summarized within the Post article, which goes to great lengths to show how those who came of age under different presidents have voted. As for the upcoming cohort, the article notes:

Lurking within this broad category of millennials is a group that isn’t quite as keen on liberalism, Democrats, or President Obama: Millennials who actually entered the electorate during the Obama presidency. These youngest millennials may yet demonstrate why it is dangerous to assume that subsequent generations will be loyal Democrats.

The reason is this: The dominant party identification of any new generation depends on the political and economic fundamentals in the country when that generation enters young adulthood. A booming economy and a popular president will push young people toward the president’s party. A recession and an unpopular president will push young people toward the opposite party.

Such simple-minded thinking masquerading as political insight is—in a word—horsefeathers! Any sentient person—young or old—should recognize that political identification is made of sterner stuff than the political vagaries of who sleeps in the White House when one comes of age.

Diversity is the hallmark of this generation. Millennials have friends of many races, ethnicities, religions, and genders—and they prefer it that way, as messy and awkward as getting to know people who are different from themselves can be. Unlike any previous generation, Millennials are comfortable with change and ambiguity. They reject the rigid norms that demand adherence to a Democratic left or a Republican right. They know that, at times, both sides of the political aisle have failed them, and they refuse to embrace easy and old-fashioned categorizations that don’t produce results.

To be specific, the members of the Millennial generation will rightly recognize that despite their current hardships with finding jobs and global insecurity, the source of their woes didn’t begin with and won’t end with the Obama administration. Leonhardt knows this too. “To Americans in their 20s and early 30s,” he writes, “many of these problems have their roots in George W. Bush’s presidency.” But he refuses to allow this reality to seep into his case, suggesting that Millennials “are too young to remember much about the Bush years.”

That’s a convenient pivot and an opportunistic effort to whitewash history and let young people off the hook for being ignorant of their past. It won’t work: They’re smarter than that.

Similar to my generation of Baby Boomers, Millennials will be studied from cradle to grave, with speculation about their behaviors and ideologies following in the wake of their lives. So much of it will be speculative nonsense. As the father of one among their ranks, I’m convinced that young people are savvy enough to bear witness to the world around them and make intelligent decisions in a context that fits with their unique lives and personalities.

Rob Shepardson—co-founder and partner of SS+K, a New York-based creative marketing and communications firm that specializes in social engagement issues—understands the complexity of the upcoming generation better than most. Writing recently in the Huffington Post, Shepardson argues the progressive instinct is strong among Millennials because they’re more attuned to President Obama than any other political figure, something his critics seem determined to ignore repeatedly at their peril. He writes:

The hard part for Washington to admit is that young Americans think politics and politicians aren’t worthy of their time. Typical politics, and political speech, alienates them. Yet, for them, President Obama is different. They feel he ‘gets’ them and the way their modern world works. His life speaks to them: his international, mixed-race roots; the fact that he and his wife finished paying off their student loans only a few years before entering the White House; his comfortable use of technologies like Reddit, Twitter and YouTube.

What Shepardson knows and Leonhardt misses is the power of culture in the alchemy of political identification. It might make a clever graph to illustrate how young voters followed and identified with popular presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. But it was more than their personalities and the surrounding politics of the day that attracted voters.

In the 1960s, for example, the Civil Rights Act, the Vietnam War, and the moon landing liberalized my Baby Boomer peers. So much of that occurred after President Kennedy had been killed and when he was more of an iconic memory than a presence in most of our political lives. Similarly, the rise of Reaganism coincided with an era of flattering, muscular Americanism. In both cases, the movement toward liberalism and conservatism was a reflection of the culture less than an embodiment of personality. It’s what Shepardson calls young peoples’ “unique value system molded in the blast furnace of our changing world.”

And make no mistake—the world is changing. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, the Millennial generation isn’t growing more conservative. If it were, conservative politicians would not work so hard to prevent them from voting in state and local elections across the nation. “We millennials may be fickle in our loyalties, generally distrustful of government institutions and unaligned with any political party, but our generation’s motley, liberal-to-libertarian-leaning ideological preferences still threaten red-state leadership,” wrote blogger and Washington Post opinion writer Catherine Rampell.

Arguments that young Americans may jerk suddenly to the right in some lockstep way are pure hokum, based upon a hope of delaying the reality of our nation’s increasing diversity—and the promise of the greater progressivism that is sure to accompany it.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

Applications are now open for the next class of the CAP Leadership Institute. For more information about the program or to apply, please follow this link. The deadline for applying is July 18, 2014.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

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