Race, gender and class may be shaping our society, but increasingly generational change drives our politics.
Over time this suggests a major realignment of America’s party system that could create either whole new parties or transform the current, and failing, political duopoly.
One must look just at the results in New Hampshire. Bernie Sanders won by winning roughly half of voters under 30, according to exit polls, almost twice the percentage he gained among the rest of the electorate.
In contrast, Bernie did poorly among voters over 35, who overwhelmingly chose either the well-scrubbed boy next door Pete Buttigieg, or the emergent suburban mom candidate, Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar. Both did poorly with younger voters but much better with middle-aged and older cohorts, with Klobuchar winning those over 45 and scoring particularly well among seniors.
The Millennial Moment?
According to the Harris survey, all generations are similar in their views of the country’s direction, about evenly split between pessimists and optimists. But different generations may not be dissatisfied by the same things and have different solutions to pressing problems.
For a decade now, progressives have been counting on millennials, already the largest portion of the current adult population, to shove American politics to the left. This generation follows left-leaning positions on a host of issues including gender, race, immigration and the environment. In fact, they are the most Democratic-leaning of generations, notes Pew, with almost 60 percent fealty to the Democrats.
The key issue here may not be culture but economics. Roughly two in five millennials see the current robust economy as not being on “the right track,” roughly 10 percent more than older generations. In 2012, I labeled them the “screwed generation,” and, even in the current strong economy, they continue to struggle, with wages well below those of previous generations at the same age.
Property ownership may be the defining difference with older generations. In 2016, only a third of people under 35 owned a house, far below previous generations, where that percentage was closer to half. Their noted lack of enthusiasm for capitalism is understandable; according to projections by the Deloitte Center for Financial Services, they will own barely 15 percent of the nation’s assets by 2030, when most will be well in their late 30s or 40s.
This explains the appeal of the septuagenarian, not too removed from octogenarian, socialist. If your prospects to start a successful business, buy a home and raise a family are dim, the appeal of rent control, housing subsidies, guaranteed income and government make-work are understandably appealing. Nearly one-third of Sanders backers nationally, according to Pew, are under 30, more than twice the percentage for Warren, and four times as much as Buttigieg, Bloomberg or Biden.
The big challenge for Sanders may lie in the difficulty of motivating younger voters, who tend to turn out at considerably lower rates than older generations. But Sanders and other Democrats may also be encouraged by the 2018 results, which saw a 20 percent spike over the previous off-year election; in that election younger voters cast more votes, for the first time, than the boomers and those older than them.
The X mark
Sandwiched between two giant generations, the boomers and the millennials, the Generation X, now mostly in their late 30s to late 50s, may end up determining both the Democratic and ultimately the November election.
Xers have done comparatively better than millennials, but not nearly as well as the Boomers. Their ascent is somewhat inevitable; by 2030 they will own 30 percent of the nation’s assets, doubling their share in 2015.
As property and business owners, as well as parents, Xers are caught between their somewhat liberal social views and their interest in preserving their assets. These have grown under Trump and done so far more quickly than in Obama’s second term.
X generation voters, particularly the more affluent and well-educated, may want Obama-like changes, but not the kind of “revolution” that Sanders epitomizes. “They don’t want a revolution,” observed Matthew Walther in The Week. “They want more of the same, but without the mean tweets and with the approval of their neighbors.”
Trump does only slightly better with Xers than millennials and almost half identify as Democrats. But Sanders’ leftist agenda has done poorly among these middle-aged voters so far, and it is not inconceivable that many Xers may, albeit reluctantly, rally to the president, choosing offensiveness over catastrophic change. After all, Xers have already paid off their college debts and worked hard to buy a house; a socialist revolution would essentially devalue these investments and make a mockery of their thrift.
As generational chroniclers Mike Hais and Morley Winograd point out, we owe our current dysfunctional polarized politics to the Boomers. This far from “greatest” generation continues to fight over the same culture wars that animated the 1960s and 1970s, with strong coteries on the right and left.
Traditionally Boomers divide their votes, and are about even in their partisan affiliation. Trump’s ill behavior and boorishness has offered Democrats an opportunity to gain among them, as was clear in the 2018 election. But this is also a wealthy generation — owning roughly half of all assets — besides enjoying high rates of homeownership. Although some are poor, many in this generation are middle class and overwhelmingly suburban.
Left-wing Democratic plans to increase income taxes, undermine homeownership and wipe out whole industries, such as energy, agribusiness and much of manufacturing, will not have much appeal to many Boomers who depend on these for a living. Sanders, for example, did very poorly among Boomers in New Hampshire. But with a more moderate candidate, it’s likely more people in the 30 to 50 age range will, as in 2018, abandon the GOP.
Still not silent
They may be fading in numbers, but the Silent Generation, those born before the post-World War Two boom, remain politically and economic consequential. They continue to hold some 30 percent of America’s assets and right now include three of the most likely candidates in November, including Trump himself, Sanders and “Moneybags” Mike Bloomberg.
No surprise then that Silents are the one majority pro-GOP generation. But many are still Democrats or independents and their influence will be felt through the primaries. In New Hampshire very few supported their fellow Silent generationer Sanders, opting for younger and less divisive candidates. Biden, who one would think would appeal to older voters, also did comparatively poorly there.
Even when the Silents are mostly gone, aging will continue to influence our politics. All ethnic groups, according to the Census, are now aging — more than four out of every five counties were older in 2018 than in 2010. Issues of Social Security and the “safety net” will only grow, which could provide an opportunity for Democrats given Trump’s politically deaf talk of cutting these programs.
What the future holds
Perhaps the biggest question mark, however, may be the direction of the so-called Z generation, who are just now getting to voting age. Unlike the millennials, the Zs did not enjoy growing up in the relative boom periods before the Great Recession; they and their parents went through difficult times, making them what analyst Winograd describes as a “grit generation,” a characteristic that may arguably make traditional GOP approaches more attractive to younger voters.
To be sure, Zers share many social and environmental views of Millennials, but 63 percent, according to one recent survey, identify as something other than liberal. Similar research by AEI conducted by Sarah Lawrence’s Sam Abrams found that Zers do not fit easily into the liberal monoculture.
Over time the new generational politics could be to redefine our current political parties, and even lead to the rise of new ones. According to a recent Harvard survey, over 70 percent of Americans already would like to replace every member of Congress, including their own. This could foreshadow the kind of fragmentation already happening in Europe as the Greens win over the old social-democratic constituencies while many others embrace the Trumpian politics of far-right parties.
Even if new parties do not emerge, generational politics will continue to shape our politics, dragging the Democrats to the left, particularly in the increasingly neo-feudal states along the coasts. This could nudge more Xers and Boomers toward the GOP just long enough to prevent them ending up in the near future like the 19th-century Whigs, cast into a memory hole of forgotten history.
This piece first appeared at The Orange County Register.
Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, is now available to preorder. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin