The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can young voters break the cycle of polarization?

Robert Y. Shapiro is a professor of political science at Columbia University. His most recent book is “Selling Fear.”

In recent years, there has been no end to the hair-pulling by political scientists and other commentators about the ideological and partisan conflict that has gripped American politics and government. Is there any way out of this mess? To answer that question, we need to look to the attitudes of young Americans, who are the voters the parties will be chasing in the years to come. If there is a way of today’s political polarization, it is likely to come from how the parties—and the Republicans in particular—respond to the attitudes of young people.  Here, I take take a preliminary look at young adults (a.k.a. “millenials”), drawing on the Pew Center’s “The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election.”

As is well-known, 18- to 29-year-olds have been the age group most supportive of President Obama and  Democrats. Their enthusiasm, however, has fallen off from its 2008 high, and they have been less engaged in politics and have voted at lower rates than other age cohorts.

On traditional bread-and-butter Democratic entitlement issues, younger voters do not stand out from other age groups. On the one hand, they seem to be more open to certain types of privatization and also give more priority to the budget deficit and to avoiding tax increases to maintain Social Security and Medicare (although their opinions may change as they approach retirement age). On the other hand, younger voters appear somewhat more supportive of government responsibility to help people in need (though such support has been declining), and have been the most supportive of health-care reform and of spending to stimulate the economy.

According to the Pew and other similar data, Democrats are most advantaged politically by their more liberal positions among younger age groups — not just the youngest — on several issues: gay rights and gay marriage; racial issues and attitudes toward interracial dating and marriage; immigration, border and citizenship issues; as well as women in the workforce and the growing variety of family and living arrangements. The latter could be related to their being less religious. Young people are the least likely to say government has gone too far in pushing equal rights. They are also the most supportive of making marijuana legal and least supportive of the death penalty for murderers. They respond with the greatest support for environmental protection and the pursuit of alternative energy sources.

On foreign policy and national security, young people express the greatest support for multilateral engagement with allies and for diplomacy instead of reliance on military force. They are the most supportive of promoting human rights and protecting civil liberties in responding to the threat of terrorism. Consistent with these issue positions, young people are the age group most likely to describe themselves as “liberal” (although there are close to equal numbers of “conservatives”), and when asked about bigger versus smaller government overall, the age group most supportive of big government.

What has perhaps not been sufficiently recognized are the issues for which opinions of the young do not look much different from other age groups: abortion and gun control. They are also no different from others in their attitudes toward whether the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were worth fighting. They have been more optimistic regarding U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. They have been more likely to take particular Republican positions in the cases of support for neoconservative-sounding “nation-building” in foreign policy, for a national ID card and, arguably, for free trade.

If these generational differences hold, there could well be no change in the existing pattern of partisan conflict, as long as the Republican Party can attract sufficient numbers from new cohorts through its positions on economic and entitlement issues, gun control and abortion. Otherwise, it is poised to lose them on issues of equal rights and social values issues, immigration, the environment and possibly foreign policy and other areas.

If, however, the Republicans shift gears on many of these issues, this could break the existing partisan divisions on them and moderate the overall partisan divide in a visible way. As we saw in Monday’s earlier post, we can go through the same exercise for the opinions of immigrant groups — and new generations of them. Whether responding to these changing demographics is the way out of the current state of partisan conflict and its consequences — if there is any way out — is in the hands of the parties.

Further Reading

This is the latest post in our ongoing series on political polarization. The previous posts include:

What we do know and don’t know about our polarized politics.

American politics is more competitive than ever.  That’s making partisanship worse.

Polarization we can live with.  Partisan warfare is the problem.

How political polarization creates stalemate and undermines lawmaking.

Electing more women to Congress isn’t a solution for polarization.

How U.S. state legislatures are polarized and getting more polarized (in 2 graphs).

How ideological activists constructed our polarized politics.

Our politics may be polarized.  But that’s nothing new.

Our politics is polarized on more issues than ever before.

How race and religion have polarized American voters.