Political Animal


November 27, 2012 3:20 PM Liberal Horizons

By Ed Kilgore

I mentioned late yesterday a new Pew analysis of the under-30 vote in the 2012 elections, suggesting a generational trend to the political Left unlike anything we’ve seen since the early 1970s. Jonathan Chait takes a closer look, and is more confident than I am that he’s seen the future:

More than four decades ago, Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril identified the core of Americans’ political thinking as a blend of symbolic conservatism and operational liberalism. Most Americans, that is, oppose big government in the abstract but favor it in the particular. They oppose “regulation” and “spending,” but favor, say, enforcement of clean-air laws and Social Security. The push and pull between these contradictory beliefs has defined most of the political conflicts over the last century. Public support for most of the particulars of government has stopped Republicans from rolling back the advances of the New Deal, but suspicion with “big government” has made Democratic attempts to advance the role of the state rare and politically painful.
This tension continues to define the beliefs of American voters. Among the 2012 electorate, more voters identified themselves as conservative (35 percent) than liberal (25 percent), and more said the government is already doing too much that should be left to the private sector (51 percent) than asserted that the government ought to be doing more to solve problems (44 percent). But this is not the case with younger voters. By a 59 percent to 37 percent margin, voters under 30 say the government should do more to solve problems. More remarkably, 33 percent of voters under 30 identified themselves as liberal, as against 26 percent who called themselves conservative.

The reason I’m not so confident of Our Liberal Future is that we’re only talking about one cohort of young voters (like those that tilted left in 1972), and their successors could be different—though certain cultural trends, most notably secularization, are unlikely to be reversed. But Chait is right: today’s under-30 voters are relatively unattached to the basic parameters of politics as they have existed since the Reagan Era. If nothing else, there should be a larger constituency for unapologetic liberalism moving forward, and additionally, the false equivalence the MSM so often attributes to the vehemence and political power of Left and Right could eventually come true.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Tom Q on November 27, 2012 4:10 PM:

    Maybe the simpler explanation is that, for those younger folk who never lived through busing/welfare/all the wedge issues of the Nixon/Reagan era, there's no cognitive dissonance involved: they understand they benefit from government, and want that status quo maintained. For the older crowd, it's important to pretend they don't want government (even while depending on it) because they associate the government-needers with the black/brown other who they've been demonizing/looking down upon for decades.

  • jjm on November 27, 2012 4:26 PM:

    I believe that Obama is breaking the back of both the GOP's southern strategy to win elections, and the psychological hold that Reagan/imaginary riches has held over our collective imaginations for far too long.

  • Matt Taylor on November 27, 2012 5:28 PM:

    I think this analysis also misses the natural inclinations of younger people, the shortage of jading life experience, and a smaller stack of "stuff" and responsibilities that must be met by that "stuff".

    I would be more interested in how this Lib/Con breakdown compares to earlier cohorts that were the same age in say 1980, rather than comparing them to older cohorts. Only by measuring lateral shifts in side each vertical age group can you assess whether an era is changing.

    Kids grow up.

    This will also be heavily influenced by cohort percentage of the total. The baby boomers are over-weighting our politics to that of the retiring senior citizen looking at their later years. That influence will naturally wane some as cohorts rebalance some with the full passing of that surge.

  • libfreak48 on November 27, 2012 5:52 PM:

    Those hippie voters from the 60s and 70s are the old people who are now watching Fox and listening to Limbaugh.

  • Kija on November 27, 2012 10:11 PM:

    I would be more hopeful if so many of the far right crazies did not come from the Sixties generation.

  • G.Kerby on November 28, 2012 12:29 AM:

    Those hippie voters from the 60s and 70s are the old people who are now watching Fox and listening to Limbaugh.

    Some are, but most that I hung with back then are STILL very progressive. From what I've seen, it's the 1950s "greasers" who now form the repub/right wing base. They hated the hippies then and still do. Hence the culture wars.

  • MuddyLee on November 28, 2012 9:20 AM:

    I voted for McGovern in 1972 - as did most of my friends - and most of these people that I'm still in contact with are Obama supporters today. And we're mostly all from the South. I know some of the neocons were once pretty liberal, but I'd say these were the people who were reading too much political theory and not listening to music enough. captcha: peace onimrus - a tribute to McGovern?