Voting Republican has become an activity analogous to reminiscing about air-raid drills or complaining incessantly about back pain: ordinary for boomers, but a marker of eccentricity among the young.
In 2016, Donald Trump commanded the support of only 28 percent of voters under 30, according to Pew Research. His disapproval rating among Americans under 35 currently hovers around 70 percent. And millennials’ antipathy for our Republican president isn’t personal; the Fox News grandpa-in-chief might be especially unappealing to the rising generation, but the kids don’t have much use for the GOP’s kinder, gentler reactionaries, either. Less than 30 percent of millennials wanted Republicans to retain control of Congress last year. And in broader measures of generational opinion, both millennials and Gen-Zers evince higher levels of support for liberal ideological premises and policy proposals than any older cohorts.
This is a big problem for the GOP. For a while, a rightward drift among boomers — combined with millennials’ woeful turnout rates — kept Republicans from paying much of a price for refusing to update its agenda for the rising generations. But in 2018, the oldest Gen-Zers entered the electorate, and millennial turnout surged. As a result, for the first time ever, millennial, Gen-Z, and Gen-X voters collectively cast more ballots than boomers or “silent types” for the first time ever in a midterm election.
This state of affairs leaves the Republican Party with three options for preserving its medium-term competitiveness in national elections: Adjust its platform to better meet the demands of younger voters, ramp up voter suppression efforts, or pray that the kids will age out of their liberalism.
Thus far, the GOP appears to be opting for a combination of two and three. But their hopes that millennials will be “mugged by reality” look increasingly dim. For one thing, political science research suggests that a voter’s partisan preferences tend to be deeply informed by their evaluations of presidential performance in adolescence and early adulthood. Americans who came of age during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon presidencies leaned Democratic for years after. Those who attained a sense of self amid Jimmy Carter’s losing battle against stagflation — and/or Ronald Reagan’s boom times — remained disproportionately Republican as they aged. The bulk of Americans born between 1981 and 1996, meanwhile, saw Bill Clinton preside over an age of (relative) peace and prosperity, and then George W. Bush steer their nation into failed wars and economic collapse. Meanwhile, the available evidence strongly indicates that President Trump was not the ideal ambassador for the GOP to offer Gen-Z during its formative years. Thus, millennials and Gen-Zers were likely to lean left in perpetuity, even if their generations weren’t more diverse and highly educated than their predecessors, demographic attributes that are associated with higher levels of liberalism.
Now, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll provides further cause for thinking the conservative movement isn’t long for this Earth: Millennials and Gen-Zers don’t just reject the GOP’s policy preferences, but also lack enthusiasm for its (supposed) core values. In the survey, 79 percent of voters of 55 listed “patriotism” as a “very important” value, 67 percent said the same about “belief in God,” and 54 percent about “having children. Among the electorate’s youngest two generations, those figures were 42, 30, and 32 percent respectively.
As the chart above makes clear, younger voters’ views on these subjects are far more similar to those of the median Democrat than the median Republican. But the values millennials and Gen-Zers espouse in this survey may be less alarming for Republicans than what those values imply about how their future political development. Across generations, nonreligious Americans tend to be more liberal than the observant. And recent political psychology research suggests that parents tend to be more conservative than adults without children (to the extent that aging is associated with any modest rightward drift in political opinion, this may be the causal mechanism). If younger voters live their values, and pray and reproduce less than their parents, they will be highly unlikely to outgrow their liberalism.
It is ironic, given these polls’ results, that the most significant reform movement in the GOP today is one aiming to make the Republican Party more nationalistic, theocratic, and (patriarchal) family-oriented than it is already.