Fueled by a recent spate of unnerving headlines and discomfiting polling data, the nation has been collectively sounding alarms over the next generation of Americans just coming of age.
The millennial generation has given their elders plenty of cause for concern. In colleges across the United States, young people seem much more energized by scholarship related to their identity than they are excited by more traditional academic achievement. They are apt to view the world through the prism of their skin color or gender, which often leads them to adopt a distorted worldview premised on victimization and characterized by cynicism. The most conspicuous of these perpetual adolescents have taken to screaming at their administrators for failing to create a “home” for them and instead turning college into an “intellectual space.” Imagine that? On campuses, some students are engaged in an ongoing and almost violent protest against the notion that their assumptions should be challenged and that their peers may be allowed to encounter ideas that run contrary to the preferred dogma of their like-minded friends and professors. Make no mistake; this is all quite dangerous. But are members of the next generation really deserving of the near universal scorn of their elders? Perhaps not.
First, a concession: There is reason for fear. A Pew Research Center survey of millennial generation respondents age 18 to 34 (born between 1980 and 1997) recently became indicative of the rot eating away at the nation’s intellectual foundations. In that survey, young voters were asked if they supported allowing the government to “prevent people from saying” things that could be interpreted as offensive to minority groups. Only 28 percent of all Americans backed this blatantly unconstitutional initiative, but that number was buoyed by a staggering 40 percent of millennial voters who said that the government should censor speech. This finding prompted older Americans to declare their generation the last generation; a predictable exercise in which virtually every age group indulges in their twilight years. While this finding is disturbing, it is hardly a prelude to the death of the Republic.
While a disturbingly large number of millennials backed censorship, they represent a substantial minority. 58 percent of this age group supported the First Amendment’s freedoms. Moreover, the 40 percent of millennials who backed censorship tracked relatively well with the number of self-described Democrats (35 percent) and non-white minorities (38 percent) who agree. Furthermore, support for censorship in countries without a tradition of free and protected speech is much larger than in the United States. The median among European nations surveyed revealed a plurality, 49 to 46 percent, support limits on free expression. The conclusion is clear: Censorship is not so much a millennial value as much as it is a “liberal” one, albeit in the most perversely modern sense of that word.
While America’s distant future might be in doubt, the near-term is equally uncertain. The likely Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, has made a habit of appealing to the worst instincts of this coddled cohort of voters. She has backed the bizarre notion that attending state college should be a debt-free proposition, and that those who had the misfortune to apply and be admitted to a private four-year institution should have some of that associated debt relieved. Clinton has also sought to bow to the most militant practitioners of gender and racial identity politics. For example, her claim that those who accuse their peers of violent sexual assault have the “right to be believed,” reinforces the hidebound idea that due process and the presumption of innocence is a chauvinistic concept. Clinton will likely be rewarded by young voters for such base pandering, but how much of a reward she recoups remains in doubt.
According to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, young voters age 18 to 29 (born between 1986 and 1997) still give wildly high marks to Democrats like Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Young voters continue to view both politicians favorably at 60 percent each. Hillary Clinton, however, does not enjoy the trust of these voters. Only 35 percent of young respondents rate the former secretary of state favorably. 57 percent do not. 19 percent of the 2012 electorate was composed of voters in this age group, and it’s reasonable to expect that Clinton will carry them as Democratic candidates traditionally do. 60 percent of these voters backed Barack Obama over the 37 percent who voted for Mitt Romney in the last election cycle. That’s a substantial margin of victory, but it is approximately how much of the youth vote a Democrat must win in order to secure the White House. In May, a Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP) survey of young voters found that respondents age 18 to 24 were less favorable toward a hypothetical Democratic successor to Barack Obama than were voters age 25 to 29. While it’s only a snapshot, that poll found that 55 percent of young voters age 18 to 29 would have voted for the Democratic Party’s nominee in May. That’s almost exactly how much of the youth vote John Kerry captured when he lost the 2004 election.
Democrats might succeed in demonizing the Republican nominee next year, but Hillary Clinton will have a harder time casting the GOP as the party of older, whiter, richer voters in 2016 than Obama did in 2012. With the exception of Donald Trump, the GOP’s nominee is likely to be younger than Hillary Clinton on Election Day. If the betting markets are correct and that nominee is Senator Marco Rubio, he will be much younger and enjoy a positive racial contrast that will resonate uniquely with a group of center-left voters myopically focused on identity. In concert with the other face of the party, House Speaker Paul Ryan, the GOP gets to benefit from an age gap that favors the Republicans. That’s a virtually unprecedented condition, and it’s unclear what effect that might have on the race for the White House.
No, young voters are unlikely to become a conservative voting bloc in 2016, but nor are they so militantly liberal that they deserve to be written off. A curmudgeonly GOP nominee, one that appears hostile toward minorities, could certainly push fence-sitting millennial voters into the Democratic camp. Without an irascible septuagenarian at the top of the ticket, however, the GOP could make a play for a substantial minority of young voters – maybe even enough to alter the outcome of the race. It has become fashionable among conservatives to write off the next generation as a lost one, but this is as much self-importance as it is dispassionate analysis. The data does not suggest that millennials are a lost cause, but they will be if Republicans resign themselves to losing them.