The Politics Of The Millennial Generation

To an extent there is a divide among millenials — the Obama generation that rejected President George W. Bush and the younger cohort who came of age in the recession

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Larry Downing / REUTERS

President Barack Obama shakes hands before he speaks about the rising costs of student loans while at the University of Colorado at Boulder in Colorado, April 24, 2012.

This much is undeniable: In 2008, one recession and two long wars drove Millennial voters to the polls and helped elect Barack Obama. Millennials backed Obama again in 2012, but their future as reliable Democratic voters is far less certain.

Yes, Obama won 60 percent of the 18-29 vote last November, but that was down six percent from his victory in 2008. More worrisome for Democrats was that according to new data from the Census Bureau, youth turnout dropped precipitously between 2008 and 2012, from 51 percent of eligible 18-29 year olds to 45.2 percent.

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“They’ve been telling all of us that Washington is broken and they have less trust in the institutions by the day,” says John Della Volpe, who polls millennials for Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, “any many stayed home as a result.” Turnout among 18-21 year olds, who were ineligible to vote in 2008, was 38.1 percent compared to 45 percent in the same age bracket last cycle — and 10 points below the 2012 turnout of the 22-29 year olds who were eligible to vote four years before.

Last week IOP released its biennial survey of millennials, finding that 18-29 year olds trust in every public institution is down from last year, with only the military holding an above-water rating. Cynicism and negativity toward public officials are up five points since 2010 and a near majority, 47 percent, agree with the statement “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing. (36 percent said they neither agree nor disagree.)

“We’ve seen two sides of this generation,” Volpe says. “The side that helped Obama and the side that says they are fed up with politics as usual.”

To an extent there is a divide among millenials — the Obama generation that rejected President George W. Bush and the younger cohort for whom the comparison isn’t to Bush but to Obama the campaigner.

“The older part, who were of age to vote for Obama, they are more progressive, more liberal, more engaged in politics,” Volpe says. “The younger group who came of age in the recession — they are less active, more likely to be politically and fiscally conservative. The people who voted for Obama both times seem like they are sticking with him, it’s the younger portion of the generation who are less loyal to Obama and to Democrats and potentially a place for Republicans to make some inroads.”

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But standing in the way of Republicans is the fact that millenials are socially liberal — responsible for driving the nationwide movement to embrace gay marriage — and supportive of immigration reform. But on he spending issue, they tend to be more fiscally conservative.

Their distrust of public institutions has also made them more supportive of innovation and reform in government. “On education reform, they agree with Republicans more than Democrats [when it comes to charter schools and teachers unions],” says political commentator David Gergen, who has become fascinated by the generation’s politics. A plurality in the Harvard survey backed school choice, and education ranked among the top issues important to millennials.

But the issue the generation is most concerned about is the economy — fitting for the group best known for moving back in with their parents and struggling to find employment. The unemployment rate for 18-19 year olds was 22.6 percent in April and for 20-24 year olds, the only other category of millennials measured separately, the jobless rate is 13.1 — compared to 7.5 for all Americans. Just under 20 percent of 18-29 year olds in the Harvard survey said they are looking for work. Only 42 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the economy — a lower percentage than the nation as a whole.

“Democrats clearly have an advantage with millennials, but they can lose it if they can’t get the economy moving or are beholden to the same old interest groups that younger people are rejecting,” Gergen, a former top aide to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton says.

Working in Democrats’ favor, he added, is that historically voters whose first electoral experiences went into electing a president twice tend to stick with that candidate — most notably with FDR, Eisenhower, and Reagan voters.

“I increasingly believe that Obama is going to have a hard time getting a lot done in the next three years,” says Gergen. “But one of his legacies may be a Democratic majority that goes on, and that’s a substantial accomplishment.”

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18 comments
MarieBillanoStratas
MarieBillanoStratas

I have two millenials who discovered Obama while they were still in college, voted for Obama twice.  They are saddled with student loans yet both are diehard Obama supporters. Both  have jobs though their paychecks are not as good a their mother's in the 1990's. Nonetheless, my millenials do not whine and carp about Obama, they seem to understand how politics works, they are steadfast in their support and no amount of Republican attacks could shake it.  The millenials could see through the greed of the haves, they appreciate wealth but they can live on a budget too.

DanHaecker
DanHaecker

Millennials are the consequences of their parents' choices - in flesh.  I say this as an "older" millennial...the kind of millennial that spent most of the first decade of the new millennium in a uniform, overseas.

Millennials are largely confused as to what role they are to play in society.  They turn to social media and follow things trying to be part of what ever stokes their current passion but by latching onto large, national movements they actually make their voices weaker and less influential than they ought to be.  Big marketing wants millennials to focus on the national headlines so they can get ratings and sell ads but it doesn't actually help or empower the millennial - or anyone else for that matter.

Not long ago, it was said that "all politics is local."  Unfortunately, that era has all but passed.  Look for a millennial who has a clue about what is going on around them - in the places they can actually make a difference...you won't find one.  But look for a millennial who can recite right or left talking points on national politics in 140 characters or less and you'll find that they abound.

Technology could bring us together in meaningful ways.  It could, for instance, organize us around the communities we actually live in and wherein we can make a difference.  But, for a social network, this design is difficult because it is not as "fun" as lumping everyone together and encouraging us to poke each other or say what's on our mind.  Unfortunately, in the long run, we get used to these borderless networks and eventually we become unable to actually come together, engage each other around substantive ideas, and use our actual local presence to make a real difference.  That is the millennial burn out.

Modern social media is great for stirring up passion - OWS, Arab Springs, fill in the blank - but since it must remain "fun" to keep people interested, the hard work of coming up with good public policy in my county just can't compete with protests in NYC, riots in Cairo, or viral pictures of a cats.

This millennial thinks that its not too late to turn the tide.  First, we need to leverage our technology  to build something that can organize us around meaningful things - like around the actual jurisdictions we live in, the actual places we live and vote.  Next, its design needs to be less geared toward amusement but lend each of us a place to thoughtfully and publicly engage our neighbors about the issues we all face.  Finally, it needs to be able to show us quickly whom representatives us at all levels of government and facilitate our formal engagement with them.

I've taken on this challenge and recently launched www.Electorate.Me.  If we truly desire to be more than pawns in the great game and if we are going to actually tackle the problems we face as a society, we need appropriate tools to help us.

Electorate.Me is my humble contribution to the conversation

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

To be honest, I have no understanding of the Millennials.  They don't have the experiences of previous generations.  No depression, no big wars, no draft.  They are the sponge off mommy and daddy generation.  It's anybodies' guess where they may go. 

Irony
Irony

Yeah, we Millennials do tend to be 'fiscally conservative'. The fact that you believe that to be a boon for the Republicans is charmingly naive. Millennials are largely defined by growing up in the Bush presidency, so we know more than you think (quite possibly more than you do) about the 'fiscal conservatism' of the Republicans. Spending billions (trillions?) on pointless military posturing, not to mention the cost in lives, and gutting education, science, and infrastructure, where the money might have actually shown some return on investment is not 'fiscally conservative' policy.

Laureilie
Laureilie

Speaking as a Millennial from the older cohort of the generation, I can confirm that several of the assessments in this article are spot on.  I came of age under Bush II (heck, I grew up under his governorship in Texas), and I remember full well the travesties of the neo-conservative agenda.  I am registered as a Democrat, voted for Obama twice, and ironically consider myself more ideologically as an Eisenhower Republican than anything else.  The thing is, I vote with the "left" because that is where the parties are today.  

After the failure of McCain in 2008 was largely attributed to Palin's polarizing presence, I thought that the GOP would moderate, seeing what the hard-right Bush policies did to their approval rating.  Instead, we saw the rise of the Tea Party which made them even more extreme.  Never in my life did I think I would consider the Bush administration to be moderate!  Another commenter on this article mentioned that my generation is unlikely to leave the Democrats for the GOP, but rather as we rise in power we'll force the party further to the left.  I agree with this in a large sense.  We won't self-desctruct just because we don't get everything we want.

Furthermore, what I feel is hinted at but not fully explored in articles such as these is what my generation is really asking for.  We want education funding, social reforms, sensible gun control, and yes jobs... But what never gets said is that - more than anything - we want smart, informed policy.  We're more fiscally conservative - absolutely!  But that doesn't translate to blanket tax cuts, which is fools' policy.  Rather, we want smart spending, starting with easy items such as not forcing tanks on the military that it says it doesn't want.  We want investments in education and choices that will develop our unique talents - not the current factory-line assembly we have set up where each person is expected to perform the same task regardless of ability.  We want affordable cost of living and financial security - which we absolutely don't have, and no one seems to be  taking that seriously.

To use myself as an example: I'm 29, hold a Master's degree, make a good salary (well above the average American family of 4), and have no student or credit card debt whatsoever. My only debt is one (used) car payment.  A banker once told me that I'm "a dream" investment... and yet I can't figure out how I'm supposed to save up the capital to buy a house let alone start a family.  Every property that's even remotely decent in a modern U.S. city starts in the $200,000s - to save 10% that means I'll need over $20,000 - and they say ideally I should put down 20%! How can I possible save that while also saving for retirement at 10% and paying bills?  When I explained this to said banker, he actually looked me strait in the eye and asked me what my "vice" was.  New clothes? Vacations? Gambling?  No, none of the above. Everything goes to simply buying groceries, bills and insurance.  My only "vice" is going out to eat maybe twice a week.  The last time I went clothes shopping was November, and everything I bought was on sale.  The banker just looked at me dubiously. He couldn't possibly fathom that someone with my sterling credentials was just barely paying the bills, and THAT's my point.  Things have changed, a no one is addressing it.  And the GOP wonders why the 1% talking points resonated so effectively.  The American dream is no longer affordable, and Millennials are the first generation to come of age in this new reality.

So to come back to this article, I would say that the real answer to why my generation has become more fiscally conservative isn't only the recession, but also because we're beginning to understand that we can't afford the things that our parents and grandparents could and told us that we could too.  We're learning the hard way that we have spend more smartly, picking and choosing what to invest in and when.  As a result, we're going to demand the same of our government. I'd like to see Time craft an article on that.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

Fiscal conservatism is probably rising amongst that age group because they're getting fed up with government so they can't figure out why they're paying for government.  Fix the leadership problem and the fiscal conservatism problem likely disappears.  Convince them that Democrats are the only party that actually cares about actually fixing the deficit rather than the Republican garbage of "fixing" it through bad math, and the fiscal conservatism problem might just disappear completely.  Democrats have the luxury of good will since they aren't morally at odds with this age group and won't be for at least another cycle giving them another President to work with.

MrObvious
MrObvious

We shouldn't assume that young people are as ignorant as the Fox generation that get all their source material from one 'news' channel and hate from radio.

Young people not only get information from social media, but they have friends who are the target of 'wingers bigotry and misogyny. Not to say that young people are always in the know - but they have a lot more dimensions of information. And it's unlikely that if Dems doesn't match up to their ideals that they'll flock to the fossilized right.

destor23
destor23

I can see younger voters getting fed up with mainstream democrats, but it's more likely that they will drive the party leftward than that they will leave it for the alternative.  You can't seriously worry that today's young people are going to flock to the homophobic, anti-immigrant Republican party as it is now constituted and they are more likely to see the Democrats as possible to change and worth changing than the current Republicans.

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Trying to split Obama and Bush politics among the young 'uns, especially with the primary issue of jobs, won't work. Job growth is lacking now, but remember that the recession was created under Bush, not Obama ...and the R's deliberately holding back any recovery came from the same poisoned party that first created the Bush neocons (that created this recession, remember?) and now the even worse Tea Party sociopaths. Are people's memories that short? (that's both a serious and sarcastic question)

GarbeyJoe
GarbeyJoe

So they support the very thinking and policies that are destroying their futures by being statists. Brilliant. The millennials represent the coming to fruition of the overwhelming takeover of cultural Marxism in our society and we will all suffer for it.

MarieSarantakis
MarieSarantakis

@formerlyjames I am a Millennial and deeply concerned about the future. I don't often see the qualities that are requisite for leadership amongst my peers: strength, independence, and the ability to make a firm decision (especially if it cuts against the majority). Despite the sluggish economy, Millennials have been blessed. Technology is a great equalizer in opportunity. Many Millennials would prefer to blame their parents, the economy, and big-business. Obstacles always did, and always will, exist. The difference is that today its easier to play victim to the many pitiful narratives that are emphasized in our culture. I encourage children to stay close to their families, but the relationship should not be one of dependency. I write a column on the Examiner that explores this very issue. 

HeatherWight
HeatherWight

@formerlyjames I find that interesting, but not surprising for your generation to say that about mine...guess its easier to blame those younger, like you had nothing to do with raising them. AND not to mention that you say we had "no depression, no big wars, no draft"...what are the middle east wars going on right now, all soldiered by millenials? I graduated college in 2009, the peak of the recession... ongoing unemployment and underemployment is a BIG problem my generation is facing, because yours created it by letting private business run hay wire with greed and no responsibility. AND I was a freshman in high school on 9/11/2001...trust me, that event has made a huge impact on my generation and our overall aim of fixing the starving, polluted world YOUR generation has created.

SamGorelick
SamGorelick

@formerlyjames  

They are the future, you are the fading present. one day you will be dead and they will rule the world. They will be aware of people like you and they will be able to fix your mistakes and clean up the mess the baby boomers have left.

anon76
anon76

@formerlyjames 

My irony detector is going haywire.  Is it properly calibrated, or too sensitive?

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@carotexas

You'll notice that, as is typical of the Beltway press (and the Swamp), the issue of the anti-government obstruction and complete failure of Congressional Republicans is completely ignored in favor of presidential politics (and some generic party affinity). It's up to Democrats to "get the economy moving" while getting in line (with Republicans) on school privatization. As has also become typical, the commenters shame the blogger and general inside-the-Beltway sensibilities.