Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Generation Gaps in Political and Social Views

There will be an important midterm election this year and pundits are making predictions daily.  The results will be critical for the Democratic Party.  It must regain control of at least one house of Congress if democrats are to have any leverage on events in the subsequent two years of Trump’s term.  Should they move to the center on political issues and to the right on social issues in an attempt to recapture blue collar workers who have turned republican?  Or should they stick to their long-term agenda and hope that history is on their side?  A recent summary of polling performed by the Pew Research Center, The Generation Gap in American Politics, suggests that the latter option might be the best bet.  The report provides this these summary comments.

“Generational differences have long been a factor in U.S. politics. These divisions are now as wide as they have been in decades, with the potential to shape politics well into the future.”

“From immigration and race to foreign policy and the scope of government, two younger generations, Millennials and Gen Xers, stand apart from the two older cohorts, Baby Boomers and Silents. And on many issues, Millennials continue to have a distinct – and increasingly liberal – outlook.”

Before discussing the data that supports those comments, it is necessary to know how the various generations are defined in the report.

The Post-Millennial generation consists of those born in 1997 or later.  These are voters aged 18-21 in 2018.  They contribute 5% of the adult population, and they are 53% non-Hispanic white.

The Millennial generation consists of those born from 1981 to 1996.  These are voters aged 22-37 in 2018.  They contribute 28% of the adult population and are 56% non-Hispanic white.

Generation X consists of those born from 1965 to 1980.  These are voters aged 38-53 in 2018.  They contribute 26% of the adult population and are 61% non-Hispanic white.

The Baby Boom generation consist of those born from 1946 to 1964.  These are voters aged 54-72 in 2018.  They contribute 29% of the adult population and are 72% non-Hispanic white.

The Silent generation consists of those born from 1928 to 1945.  These are voters aged 73-90 in 2018.  They contribute about 11% of the population and are 79% non-Hispanic white.

The full article provides a wealth of graphs and charts to illustrate how the different generations view various topics.  Only a few examples will be presented here.  There is a general trend that emerges: The Millennials are considerably more liberal in their views than the other generations, while Generation X through the Silent generation trend from liberal to conservative.

The chart below plots the party voting preferences of the major generations as expressed in recent midterm elections.

Note that Millennials have always had a liberal lean as long as their preferences have been recorded.  The Generation X seems to have drifted to the left beginning in 2014.  The Boomer generation indicates no particular trend, although it, like all the others, saw a slight Democratic shift in 2006, presumably, due to Iraq War.  The Silent generation shows a small but definite shift in preference to the Republicans.  This is presumably related to the rise in white unease at the cultural shift implied by a black president.  Obama’s assumption of the presidency initiated a dramatic growth in hate groups, armed militias, and so-called “Patriot” groups as tallied by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  One could argue that it was the response to Obama that made possible the election of Trump.

Just as Obama’s presidency hardened white cultural concerns, the ascendency of Trump has hardened the concerns of the younger generations driving them toward the democrats.  The chart below illustrates the degree to which Trump has polarized the generations.

The Millennials have had a liberal inclination as long as they have been around.  The other three generations have tended to move similarly in their judgement of presidents until Trump’s arrival which seems to have moved Generation X farther away from the republican path as well.

Social issues are important in determining voting patterns.  Numerous studies have indicated that racial bias, anti-immigrant attitudes, and firm religious beliefs are strong indicators of a republican voter.  The PEW report tallies generational attitudes on relevant issues. 

The chart below addresses the issue of whether or not blacks have been disadvantaged by white racial attitudes.

The younger Millennials lead the way in accepting this preference, but in recent years Generation X and the Boomer generation have also begun to accept this notion.  It could be that the republican response to the election of Obama and their tolerance of Trump has made clear to more people that racial prejudice is alive and well in this country.

The next chart illustrates the views f the various generations on whether immigration is beneficial to us as a nation.

The change in attitudes is not as dramatic as in the case of race, but it seems the republican intolerance of the Obama years may have generated a greater tolerance for others in the general population.  In any event, tolerance of immigrants is increasing in spite of the best efforts of Trump and his republican enablers.

The last chart addresses the question of whether religiosity and the living of a moral life need be correlated.

Changes here are not as dramatic as with other issues, but in recent years Millennials have indicated they are becoming less likely to see religion as a necessary component of their lives.

People like to speculate on why voters vote the way they do.  Popular assumptions are that people become more conservative as they grow older, that young people to assume the political attitudes of their parents, and that young people form their political views based on the issues that are critical as they come of voting age.  There is probably a bit of truth in all those generalizations.  However, an analysis of just the data presented here suggests that political preferences can change over time and political parties better remain flexible if they wish to remain relevant.

For the republicans, the clock seems to be ticking as they are on a furious race to the bottom.  For the democrats, they seem to be on the right side of history, at least for now.  It is not clear that they are responsible for their positive position, but if they wish to return to political power they better figure out a way to take advantage of the momentum history and demographics have provided them.

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

The Decline in Support for Democratic Institutions: Use Them or Lose Them

The Obama Effect: A Plague of Haters, Antigovernment "Patriots," and Militias

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