The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Are millennial leftists aging into right-wingers?

Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Bemidji, Minn., on Sept. 18, 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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I was listening to a podcast the other day featuring two hard-left Americans in their late 30s. I won’t name names, but you know the type — socialist intellectuals who use terms like “dissident” to describe themselves.

The conversation mainly centered around a few themes:

1. The kids today are too self-righteous and judgmental.

2. The Democratic Party is corrupt and uninspiring.

3. Donald Trump wasn’t nearly as bad as everyone said.

4. I miss the good old days.

It came off as a portrait of the millennial generation midlife crisis-ing its way into voting Republican.

Many millennials (of which I am one) are now entering their 40s. It’s a firmly adult phase of life that tends to correlate with a recalibration of priorities, expectations and resentments. A substantial migration of millennial voters from left to right — including a significant chunk of those who might appear the unlikeliest of converts — will surely be one consequence.

Every generation of American progressive has seen it happen. Ronald Reagan created “Reagan Democrats” from aging members of the war generation who supported Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy but grew disillusioned with statism. One faction of boomer leftists aged into neoconservatives as they became more anxious about the Cold War; another made peace with neoliberal economics once they left college and got good jobs in the prosperous 1980s and ’90s.

Spend any time listening to left-wing millennials on their vast archipelago of blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels and Twitch streams and you’ll hear hints of the terms on which this generation’s shift will unfold; their growing distaste for their own political tribe seems as much a product of cultural alienation as anything.

Many millennial leftists say it openly: They’re apathetic about “social issues.” It’s the economic stuff that really concerns them — and certainly there are plenty of metrics that can be cited to argue millennials face generationally unique economic hardships. But if engagement with this reality rarely rises above a rote denunciation of the capitalist system itself — the continuation of which isn’t exactly an active debate in U.S. politics — then economic malaise probably isn’t going to dictate many votes one way or another.

Unless, that is, apathy toward social issues is seen as a form of economic justice unto itself.

America’s biggest brands have received a lot of fire from the millennial left in recent years for ostentatious virtue signaling — rainbow Oreos, Black Lives Matter shirts at Walmart, that sort of thing. There is rage at this imagined disingenuousness; corporate America is assumed to be full of a bunch of greedy hypocrites who don’t believe in the causes they’re exploiting to pitch products. Yet at some point this anger becomes indistinguishable from purely aesthetic distaste — instinctive revulsion at a new highly visible evolution in the culture that finds common cause with a populist right equally contemptuous of “woke capital” and the liberal politicians they finance.

Further overlap comes from a shared perception that the social causes of today simply aren’t worth much. Just as some boomers felt their progressive views on civil rights and feminism justified indifference — or hostility — to the gay rights movement that came later, aging millennials who feel they’ve proved themselves supportive of gay rights may find prissy and frivolous the younger generation’s insistence on things such as pronoun introductions and perfectly race- and gender-balanced workplaces. Layer on that most disorienting anxiety of middle-age — not knowing what’s offensive anymore — and you have a generation primed to be at least a little reactionary-curious.

However, a shared loathing of the liberal establishment is probably the right’s most convincing case for leftist conversion.

In the days of Reagan, or even Newt Gingrich, conservative politics was philosophical and policy-driven. Theoretically at least, voters either supported the “Contract with America” or didn’t. Today, however, the Republican Party has abandoned the idea of even offering a platform: You either hate the cringey, crooked lying libs or you don’t. A left that already enjoys dwelling on the misdeeds of the Democratic elite — “denying” Bernie Sanders the presidency and so on — is an open door for conservatives to push. In time, Democrats devolve in the millennial leftist imagination from being “no better” to objectively worse; the GOP rises from “making some good points” to being actively necessary.

Fueled in part by anti-liberal animus, Sanders-to-Trump voters were a well-documented phenomenon that helped Republicans retake the White House in 2016. Many of those voters never came back, and the Sanders coalition became smaller and more ideological in 2020. Yet the Sanders-to-Trump migration continued, with some polls taken before the 2020 vote suggesting the number of converts could be as high as 15 percent. Doubtless this played a role in Trump increasing his share of the millennial vote by 8 percent.

Fast-forward a decade or two and imagine millennials in their 50s and 60s. Do you suppose we’ll find a crop of seniors still interested in being on the bleeding edge of left-wing politics? Or a generation that’s simply settled into a kind of conservatism they would have recognized in their parents and grandparents — a conservatism born from confidence that they did their part when it mattered, but what the nation needs now is a strong Republican government capable of keeping a new, illegitimate progressive movement from ruining the nation with its immature nonsense?

The second scenario strikes me as a matter of “when,” not “if” — and the “when” is already underway.

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