In a recent New York Times editorial, David Leonhardt questioned future generations’ seemingly certain allegiance to progressive politics. Using statistical and historical evidence, he argues that children and teenagers growing up today will likely be tomorrow’s young conservatives.
While millennials’ more progressive tendencies are rooted in memories of the Bush administration, the next generation will have in its place memories of a similarly disappointing Democratic presidency that they don’t remember electing. The data is tremendously interesting and well worth digging into, but the article suggests that young people’s disillusionment with the Democrats will inevitably make them lean towards the GOP. As Leonhardt points out, the Reagan administration managed to capitalize on disappointment with Jimmy Carter to win the youth vote in 1980, with similar trends playing out even further back in U.S. electoral history.
Presidencies are certainly a large part of a generation’s political consciousness, but there are other factors to consider. For many older millennials, it was the antiwar movement, rather than simply a disastrous Bush presidency, that catalyzed them into lives as organizers. Some spent time in high school or college organizing in groups like New SDS, which at its peak had over 150 active chapters nationwide. In 2003, an estimated 300,000 took to the streets of New York City in a global day of action against the war in Iraq. Three years later, more than 500,000 people marched in Los Angeles in support of immigrant rights as part of a similarly massive wave of protests.
Undoubtedly, recent progressive victories on same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization have benefited from the experience of organizers who grew up in these movements, as well as those who came of age in the slightly earlier wave of mobilizations during the global justice movement against multinational corporations and international institutions like the World Bank. Through popular pressure, these movements shifted the national debate and helped to define both the Bush presidency and the broader political context of a decade. In other words, the fact that millennials are more progressive than the generation before them is not only about who was in the White House, but also who was in the streets.
An article in the Washington Post this spring made a similar argument to Leonhardt’s, saying, “The dominant party identification of any new generation depends on the political and economic fundamentals in the country when that generation enters young adulthood.” Fittingly, there were two prominent social movements to emerge out of the 2008 financial crisis, one of the most fundamental events of the last decade: Occupy and the Tea Party.
Conservatives have shown themselves more than capable of capitalizing on popular discontent with the status quo, and using this discontent to crystallize popular, grassroots support into decision-making power at the highest reaches of government. If the studies are right, then the left now faces a similar challenge if it hopes to avoid an ultra-conservative future. The challenge is not necessarily to focus on building another party or even strengthening the ones that already exist. However, it does mean making the most of recent victories, as well as the country’s political and economic morass to present a sustained, alternative forum for political engagement.