Since the election last month, we have seen a parade of analyses examining how Clinton supporters differ from Trump supporters by race, education and geographic residence. The persistence of partisan differences by age in American elections, however, has received somewhat less attention.
Younger voters, who first demonstrated a notable relative preference for the Democratic Party in the 2004 presidential election, swung even further toward the Democrats in the two Obama elections. Obama carried the under-30 vote by 34 percentage points in 2008 and by 23 points in 2012, according to the national exit polls. At the same time, voters over the age of 50 collectively preferred Republican nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney to Obama in both of his successful national campaigns.
Hillary Clinton may have lacked Obama’s (and Bernie Sanders’s) personal appeal among younger voters, but she still carried the under-30 vote by an 18-point margin over Trump, according to the 2016 exit polls, while voters over the age of 45 opted for Trump by nine points — confirming that the contemporary political generation gap will outlast the Obama era.
This is a significant divide by historical standards. None of the 1960s-era elections produced a comparable partisan difference, despite the decade’s prominent youth-led protest movements and memorable “don’t trust anyone over 30″ rhetoric. According to Gallup data, Hubert Humphrey led Richard Nixon in 1968 among voters under 30 by only nine points, 47 percent to 38 percent, while voters over the age of 50 preferred Nixon by just six points (47 percent to 41 percent). So Trump performed about as well among young voters in a two-person contest as Nixon did in a three-way race.
Many of the most prominent political issues of our time include a generational dimension separating the left-leaning young from their more conservative elders. Social issues such as gay rights and drug legalization divide Americans sharply by age. The Affordable Care Act drew its fiercest opposition from the elderly — who already enjoyed Medicare benefits and thus perceived little collective benefit in expanding health-care access to younger citizens. Climate change is of greater concern to those who stand to inherit the planet than to those who rule it today. Democratic candidates frequently tout their plans for enhancing college affordability and access to child care; Republicans seldom discuss these topics. Conservative efforts to lower federal tax rates on high incomes also stand to primarily benefit older — and disproportionately wealthier — voters.
More broadly, the 2016 election exposed a key divide in the American electorate between nationalism and internationalism, between a preference for traditional social hierarchies and an attraction to new social norms. The themes of cultural nostalgia and alienation adopted by the Trump campaign were particularly primed to appeal to older generations feeling increasingly out of place in contemporary society and preferring a bygone past of perceived American “greatness” defined by a rejection of “political correctness” at home and an adherence to military and economic unilateralism abroad.
Just as the Brexit referendum in Britain passed over the opposition of a younger generation of Britons much more at ease with European integration than their parents and grandparents, the oldest incoming president in American history assembled a narrow electoral coalition that is heavily weighted toward his own age cohort. There’s no particular reason to believe that he will govern in a manner that increases his appeal to those who did not support his candidacy. A Pew survey released this week found Trump with a favorable rating of just 24 percent among respondents aged 18-29 and 25 percent among those aged 30-49, compared with 47 percent among 50-to-64-year-olds and 54 percent among the 65-and-over population.
Ronald Reagan’s famous “optimism” was to some degree an assured belief that the future belonged to conservatives. A more extensive elucidation of this view, complete with accompanying data, can be found in any number of the essays written by Michael Barone in the 1980s for the Almanac of American Politics. Barone viewed Reagan’s electoral success as proof that a majority of American voters had come to recognize the fundamental flaws of liberalism and were acting together to push their country in a rightward direction. The Democrats, according to Barone, were the party of declining central cities, out-of-fashion hippie relics, and Rust Belt anachronism; the Republicans were the party of burgeoning suburbs, private-sector innovators, and Sun Belt futurism.
Importantly, in Barone’s view, conservatives were winning the hearts and minds of younger Americans, who could be expected to take up Reagan’s torch and advance it still further through subsequent decades. As Barone and Grant Ujifusa wrote in the 1990 edition of the Almanac, “[t]he young voters of the 1980s, Republican strategists hope, and Democratic strategists fear, will carry their sunny Republicanism into the 2030s and 2040s.”
Young people may still be sunny these days, but Republicanism is decidedly not. The victories of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama damaged conservatives’ confidence that they spoke for an enduring popular majority, and the main conservative objectives of shrinking the size and scope of government, establishing American military supremacy abroad, and promoting morally traditionalist attitudes among the American public have all, to varying degrees and for varying reasons, remained unfulfilled in the years since Reagan departed the national stage.
When combined with the continuing leftward evolution of American culture in the realms of race, gender, religion and sexuality, these developments have left many conservatives — including the current president-elect — warning darkly of the imminent destruction of the United States as we know it, which in turn justifies increasingly aggressive challenges from the right to established political norms and institutions.
Now that it is the Democratic Party that is becoming more Sun Belt than Rust Belt, that is the favored party of revitalized urban metropolises and centers of innovation such as the high-tech sector, and that is more attuned to the millennial-generation cultural zeitgeist, older conservatives exhibit a shaken faith in the wisdom of popular majorities. Barone himself has taken to explicitly arguing in favor of the electoral college precisely because it might act — as it did in 2016 — to thwart the will of a national plurality that he finds ideologically and demographically uncongenial. Other Republicans have responded to social change by advocating restrictions on access to the ballot that disproportionately affect young and nonwhite citizens, to further tilt the electoral system away from their political opponents.
As the Republican victories of 2014 and 2016 confirm, there is no youth-led “permanent Democratic majority,” in part because our electoral rules and institutions tend to provide Republicans with a built-in advantage in close elections. Plus, there are simply lots and lots of baby boomers and pre-boomers, and they vote more reliably than their children and grandchildren.
But if the young will respond to Trump’s ascendance by resenting the disproportionate political and economic power of the right-leaning old, the old will continue to resent the increasing cultural power of the left-leaning young. The power of the presidency simply does not extend to authority over the national culture, and the institutions that do exert substantial cultural influence — the news media, entertainment industry, educational system, and so forth — can be expected to serve as centers of resistance to Trump and Trumpism.
Cultural backlash can be a powerful tool for winning elections, but it’s very hard to actually deliver on promises to move an entire society back in time.
David A. Hopkins is an assistant professor of political science at Boston College. This post originally appeared on Honest Graft.