ONTD Political

The Not-So-Liberal American Future

9:47 pm - 12/13/2012
Does ideology shape life experience, or does life experience determine ideology? The future direction of American politics depends on our response.

In response to the disappointing results of November’s elections, I have argued that conservatives should take heart from the undeniable aging of the electorate, which will tilt future contests toward Republicans. 2012 exit polls showed Mitt Romney sweeping voters 65 and older in a 12-point landslide, and among all those above age 30 (81 percent of the voting public) the Republican nominee prevailed by a solid margin. President Obama won the overall vote solely on the strength of his crushing 60-to-36 advantage with the 18-to-30 crowd. If official projections prove accurate, low birthrates and rising life expectancy will produce a much higher percentage of elderly Americans in the electorate, conferring a significant edge for conservative candidates in future close elections.

But Democrats hope that young Obama enthusiasts will maintain their overwhelmingly liberal orientation even as they grow older and their life circumstances change. In a provocative piece for New York magazine that calls conservatives “doomed,” Jonathan Chait argues that the president’s support from young voters in the last two election cycles went “beyond the usual reasons—social issues like gay marriage and feminism, immigration policy or Obama’s personal appeal—and suggest a deeper attachment to liberalism. The proclivities of younger voters may actually portend a full-scale sea change in American politics.” He goes on to cite a Pew survey suggesting that “Americans form a voting pattern early in their life and tend to hold to it.”

That conclusion, however, contradicts the evidence of 40 years of exit polls. In 11 presidential elections since 1972, voters over 65 have voted more Republican than voters under 30 in every contest but one (1988, for some reason). In none of the 11 elections did young voters tilt more Republican than the overall electorate; their levels of support for Democratic candidates in each campaign topped those of the general electorate by an average of five points.

These figures conclusively rebut the progressive hope that youthful liberals generally maintain their fervent commitment to liberalism as they age and mature. The voters who lean Republican in middle age and beyond are the same people, after all, who leaned Democratic in their younger years. For all their diabolical cleverness, Karl Rove and other cunning conservatives haven’t yet developed a scheme for creating new voters in a lab who emerge pre-aged to a seasoned 65 with an unstoppable instinct to vote for members of the Bush family.

My own experience could serve to illustrate the point.

I cast my first presidential ballot in 1972 for the Democratic nominee, George McGovern. (I also worked professionally in the McGovern campaign, but that’s another story entirely.) At the time, I joined my fellow baby boomers, then 18-29, in giving McGovern 46 percent of our support—vastly better than the truly pathetic 38 percent he received from the overall electorate on his way to crushing defeat in a 49-state landslide.

Twelve years later, my cohort had moved on, and so had I. The youngest of the old group had now reached age 30 and the oldest of us were well into their 40s. Like 58 percent of all voters between ages 30 and 49 in 1984, I proudly cast my vote for Ronald Reagan (I had also supported him in 1980.) This time, the boomers who had given McGovern an eight-point advantage compared to his showing in the broader electorate gave Democrat Walter Mondale only one point more, 42 percent, than his percentage of the nationwide popular vote. In other words, as we moved toward middle age, the progressive tilt that had characterized our youth had all but disappeared.

Of course it’s too early to determine with any certainty whether the same maturing process will work its magic on youthful Obama cadres from 2008 and 2012, but there is some indication that the shift has already begun. As the hope-and-change candidate of four years ago, Obama swept voters between 18 and 29 by a truly stunning margin of 34 points, 66 to 32 percent. Four years later, a significant portion of those true believers had moved into the 30- to 45-year-old segment of the population, a group that chose Obama with a much more modest majority of 52 percent. It was exactly the same percentage, by the way, that he received from the same age group four years before.

Chait suggests that the progressive inclinations of this year’s under-30s will remain steady and unshakable as the years pass, citing polling data showing 33 percent of young voters calling themselves liberal in 2012, compared to 25 percent of the larger electorate. But that’s a reflection of their circumstances as much as their ideological commitment. People under 30 are disproportionately single, religiously uncommitted, and earning incomes below the national median. Such voters combined to deliver Obama’s margin of victory.

Among the unmarried, who make up 41 percent of the electorate, Obama won by a margin of 24 percent. Among the 17 percent who say they “never” attend religious services, he won by 28 percent. And with those earning less than $50,000 a year, who comprise 41 percent of the voting public, he enjoyed a 22-percent edge.

The most salient point about all these characteristics is that, like youth itself, they count as temporary: the statistics show that few of those who are single, irreligious, and economically challenged before age 30 will stay that way as they progress through middle age and beyond. And it’s no accident that Romney won big majorities of those groups—the married, the religiously engaged, and the economically prosperous—associated so clearly with the middle aged and the middle class.

Chait expresses admiration for the 59 percent of young voters who agreed with the statement that “government should do more to solve problems” and assumes that this opinion stems from thoughtful analysis of the issues of the day. But it’s at least as plausible that the youthful preference for activist government stems from the relatively small number of those between 18 and 29 who’ve ever been asked to pay for such initiatives. IRS figures indicate that they are vastly under-represented among the bare majority of Americans who pay personal income taxes, and even more under-represented among those who pay at the highest rates. It’s also safe to assume that under-30s include a substantial number who benefit directly from subsidized student loans, either as current students or as recent graduates struggling with debt.

None of this means their liberal leanings are inappropriate or unworthy, but they are often fleeting, polling data suggest. And for those who suggest that the modern university provides such a thorough brainwashing that college graduates will never escape its influence, it might be worth considering that Romney, not Obama, won a majority of the 29 percent of voters with undergraduate degrees. The great majority of those students attended university since the 1970s, well after the loony left had captured control of the Ivory Tower. After all, it was 1986 when Jesse Jackson led 500 Stanford students in the memorable chant “Hey hey, Ho Ho, Western Civ has got to go!”

Not even the most incurably optimistic conservative could expect that all youthful leftists would make the liberating journey from darkness to light, from callow adolescence to responsible maturity, and join the enlightened armies of the right. But even a relatively small portion—say, 10 percent—managing to follow that well-worn path would push most elections in a Republican direction in a future nation where the percentage of the young remains steady or slightly shrinks, and the numbers of the old vastly and consequentially expand.

chaya 14th-Dec-2012 04:14 pm (UTC)
You need the opinion piece tag.
valarltd 14th-Dec-2012 04:27 pm (UTC)
On the other hand, many women grow more liberal as they grow older and find paths closed off to them for no good reasons. I was an unashamed fascist in my teens and twenties, using politics and religion to hold my own closet doors shut. As I grew up, came out and my kids came out, I rethought my positions.

Also, rightist idealogues are turning off older women, like my very conservative mother and sister, by attacking contraception and the franchise. (women's right to vote was questioned this election. I expect to see all-out attacks in the next)

OTOH, they may grow fearful of losing what they have, then they lean conservative. My husband is falling into this camp. He went from being a socialist in his teens and 20s to being libertarian now.

Edited at 2012-12-14 04:29 pm (UTC)
thelilyqueen 14th-Dec-2012 04:57 pm (UTC)
Also, I think there are certain issues at least where the change is just there. When my grandmother was a child it would have been 'liberal' to advocate for more equal funding for the segregated black schools. When my dad was a child it would have been 'liberal' to support desegregation. Etc. I can see my peers growing more economically conservative as we age, but I don't see us losing our support for same-sex marriage, as another example. Our kids will - I hope - be going us one better even.
amyura 14th-Dec-2012 11:32 pm (UTC)
I've gotten more economically liberal as I've gotten older. I was a libertarian asshole in high school. Being a parent, seeing how sometimes shit just happens to people and it's not their fault, has made me far more liberal.
thelilyqueen 14th-Dec-2012 11:54 pm (UTC)
That can happen too, sure. My point was more that there are certain shifts in society that are probably not going to reverse themselves anytime soon (increasing support for same sex marriage, increasing percentage of Americans that identify as POC, etc...) and others that might be more responsive to the current climate.
ohloverx 14th-Dec-2012 08:17 pm (UTC)
My mom falls into the second camp. As she gets older, she gets more conservative, and it seems to be because she's afraid of losing everything she has. Sadly, it's easier for her to blame poor people, minorities and immigrants than it is for her to blame the rigged system, the corruption in government, and greed.
idemandjustice 14th-Dec-2012 04:37 pm (UTC)
So, this article is assuming that people are going to just grow out of being democrats. I just don't think most people do that. The fact that older people tend to be more conservative, to me, means that eventually there will be fewer conservatives, not that the democrats will magically turn republican after reaching a certain age.
mirhanda 15th-Dec-2012 01:42 am (UTC)
This, exactly. ITA.
furrygreen 14th-Dec-2012 04:42 pm (UTC)
lulwut? OMG. This is funny and sososo biased. So, let's take this for a ride then.

1) Unless something majors happen, there will always be more youth than the elderly. The current ratio is 2.06 births per woman. This will be even more true if the various birth control crap goes through too AND if they managed to gut social nets and overturn Obamacare.

2) The author worked in politics. His friends are in politics. This judgement of going from Democrat to Republican in his 30s means nothing to me. Having his friends turn Republican from Democrat is also suspect. It's like those "three out of four doctors approve of this medicine" kind of stuff. Helps if you know where his data is coming from.

3) "And it’s no accident that Romney won big majorities of those groups—the married, the religiously engaged, and the economically prosperous—associated so clearly with the middle aged and the middle class."

LOL. Really? Who is economically prosperous? Where is this mythical middle class?

XD~ I'm... going to go away before I make myself sound even more stupid. XD
amyura 14th-Dec-2012 11:35 pm (UTC)
Having his friends turn Republican from Democrat is also suspect.

My aunt went to GWU in 1972. EVERYONE she knew was voting for McGovern. We're from Massachusetts.

The only two places McGovern won were Massachusetts and DC.

The "all my friends" thing is about the worst argument. I mean, we don't have to look far for another example-- in this election, everyone over at Fox kept insisting the race was either close or that Romney was ahead, and we liberals would be surprised at how much Romney would win. Because everyone they all knew was voting for Romney.
alketaire 14th-Dec-2012 04:45 pm (UTC)
Completely ignoring the political changes that happen within each party over time, of course.
maynardsong 14th-Dec-2012 04:58 pm (UTC)
thinkatory 14th-Dec-2012 06:43 pm (UTC)
free_spoons 14th-Dec-2012 04:48 pm (UTC)
Completely ignoring the different racial demographics in the younger voting bloc I see. And that won't change as the 18-30 year-olds become the 30-45 year-olds and the Republicans will (probably) still be racists assholes.
keestone 14th-Dec-2012 05:40 pm (UTC)
Not to mention the other demographic changes that he mentions and then ignores: the non-religious and the not married. social conservatives have been moaning enough about how folks just aren't getting married as much anymore to suggest that that's not just an age thing, and I sincerely doubt that many non-religious folks are suddenly going to become Southern Baptist or Evangelical when they hit 40 or 65 or something.
thinkatory 14th-Dec-2012 06:45 pm (UTC)
But don't you know it's a natural process wherein one becomes more racist and "family values-oriented" over the course of aging, because statistics.
maynardsong 14th-Dec-2012 05:00 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I'm pretty sure I'm not going to go pro-life or be in favor of tougher drug laws, or start blaming victims of domestic violence for their situation fifteen years from now. This article's stupid.
metanoiame 14th-Dec-2012 06:18 pm (UTC)
When I saw the part about how young, liberal voters support activist government only because they don't have to pay for it, the first thing that jumped to my head was older, retired, and staunchly conservative voters who hate big government but will riot in the streets for their Medicare and Social Security checks.

Anyway, it's especially untrue if you consider that the younger generation these days not only has to pay for bills incurred by Baby Boomers and neo-conservatives, but also that they're going to be paying off the debt for decades to come - unlike older voters.
thevelvetsun 14th-Dec-2012 09:27 pm (UTC)
Seriously, that myth is so backwards. Old people are the ones that don't have to pay for their shitty decisions because they're gonna be dead soon and they're footing us with the bill.
a_phoenixdragon 14th-Dec-2012 07:16 pm (UTC)
What's this horseshit? I hit 36 and start magically voting Republican? Whatever. The Rep. Party has done nothing but act like asses for the last 30 years. That is fact. It's finally caught up to them. That is also fact. The country ITSELF is significantly poorer than it ws thirty years ago - and eye-opening treatment of the poor and a healthy dose of cynicism has told most of the country where they stand: you aren't a corporation/wealthy? Screw you, then.

I (personally) don't like being told to fuck off by assholes who are suppose to be taking care of my affairs on a higher level. This is why this 'prediction' fails. This is also why this country will be a helluva a lot more 'liberal' than this puff piece is spouting. Democrats and Independants are riding high and the Republicans can't stand that. That's about the only statement that holds true in this idiotic article: The GOP needs to change - and fast - if they want to catch up to their 'constituency'.

Proudly voted for Reagan. Fuck you.
thevelvetsun 14th-Dec-2012 09:29 pm (UTC)
I read an article once with a hypothesis (and some statistical evidence) that the political climate when one comes of age is one of the determinants in shaping your lifelong political views. When you turned 18, if there was a Democrat in office that was perceived positively by society and the media, you were likely to become a Democrat. The same is true if there was a Republican in office, and the opposite if the party in power was perceived negatively by society and the media. I will have to see if I can hunt down the article.
tabaqui 14th-Dec-2012 10:14 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I was 18 in 1985 - Regan years. I am a *very* liberal Democrat.
paksenarrion2 15th-Dec-2012 01:28 am (UTC)
Yeah, I was 18 in 1982. Also a liberal Democrat. And that was halfway through Regan's first term.

omimouse 15th-Dec-2012 10:58 am (UTC)
I turned 18 in 1999; 2000 was my very first vote. And another very liberal Democrat.
tilmon 14th-Dec-2012 09:39 pm (UTC)
I'm 53, staring 54 in the face and no retirement or even Social Security to speak of for my old age because of my work history and health. If this wingnut thinks a magical fairy will make me more conservative rather than the reality fairy that has been kicking my ass leftward all these years, he's been drinking alllllllllllllllll the KoolAid. Not only that, but my parents have become more left wing, and I witnessed my now long-deceased grandparents become more liberal in their twilight years. So, my personal experience, at least as valid as his personal experience, is that people become more open-minded, personally courageous, socially conscientious, and left-wing as they age.
tabaqui 14th-Dec-2012 10:17 pm (UTC)
Oh, yeah, right. That's gonna happen.

mirhanda 15th-Dec-2012 01:44 am (UTC)
I'll be 50 on my next birthday, and I'm still as liberal as I always was. My dad went to his grave a card-carrying liberal union man. My mom, in her late 70s is still liberal. Basically what we're seeing is that the republicans aren't replacing their ranks with younger people. They are dying out. That doesn't mean that there are no old democrats/liberals/socialists/etc.
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