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Young Americans Are Actually Not Becoming More Progressive

5 minute read

For years, it has been said that Republicans have a “young-people problem” — the party, it was assumed, just couldn’t attract young voters. Yet despite predictions it would experience an “historic trouncing” in 2016, among young voters, 37% of young adults voted for Trump (about the same as voted for Mitt Romney in 2012), with Trump winning among white young adults by 48% to 43%.

Today’s young Americans, who include both Millennials (born 1980–‘94) and iGen (1995–2012), represent the future of the political landscape: 18- to 29-year-olds are now an equal or a larger percentage of voters than those over 65. Given that, it’s crucial to understand why nearly two out of five iGen’ers and young Millennials voted for not just a Republican candidate but a candidate affiliated with a white nationalism many thought had died out long before iGen was born.

First, young voters — especially iGen — are more conservative than is often assumed. In my analyses of the nationally representative yearly survey Monitoring the Future, the percentage of high school seniors who identified as conservative rose from 23% in 2000 to 29% in 2015, creating a group more conservative than the Reagan-era GenX teens of the 1980s. Raised during the Great Recession and anxious about getting good jobs in a time of income inequality, iGen is laser-focused on their economic prospects. “With all of the immigrants coming in, not only will there be a shortage of jobs but a shortage of land to live in… I would much rather have a wall and keep our economy going than try to help people we can’t help,” a 20-year-old Trump voter told me.

Nor is iGen the post-racial, post-prejudice group some have assumed. Although iGen and the Millennials stand apart from older generations in their support for LGBT issues, at the moment they are not much more supportive of gender or racial equality than Boomers and GenX’ers are. In data from the General Social Survey, young white people’s attitudes toward black people have barely budged since the late 1990s, and their support for diverse neighborhoods, schools and workplaces is virtually unchanged since the 1970s. There are some signs of progress, with a significant uptick just since 2013 in the number of white iGen’ers agreeing it would be desirable to have a boss, next-door neighbor or close friend of another race. Another encouraging sign: the number of white teens who favor all-white environments has been cut in half since the 1970s, sinking from 35% in 1983 to 17% in 2015. Still, with all of the progress in racial equality, it is distressing that one out of six white 18-year-olds still thinks it would be best if their day-to-day lives did not involve close contact with other races.

iGen’s other social and political beliefs also defy expectations. Compared to previous generations when they were young in these national surveys, iGen is more likely to support abortion rights, same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana and less likely to support the death penalty — usually considered liberal beliefs. But they are also less likely to support gun control, national health care and government environmental regulation — usually considered conservative beliefs.

How can iGen hold these seemingly contradictory beliefs? In short, because they’re libertarians (or at least more libertarian than their elders). iGen was raised in a highly individualistic culture favoring the self over the group; phrases such as “do what’s right for you” and “believe in yourself and anything is possible” echoed through their childhood. Libertarianism is as close to cultural individualism as can be found in the political arena, favoring individual rights and fighting against government regulation. Liberals tend to be individualistic about equal rights issues (say, same-sex marriage) but collectivistic about social programs (government-sponsored health care). Conservatives are individualistic about social programs (thinking people should help themselves) but collectivistic about equal rights issues (thinking traditional roles are more productive). But libertarians are individualistic about both.

Earlier this year, 24-year-old conservative firebrand Tomi Lahren found herself at odds with her anti-abortion employer (Glenn Beck’s The Blaze) after she said, “I can’t sit here and be a hypocrite and say I’m for limited government, but I think the government should decide what women do with their bodies. Stay out of my guns, and you can stay out of my body as well.” She later tweeted, “I will always be honest and stand in my truth… I have moderate, conservative, and libertarian views.” Lahren’s views may not be consistent with either liberalism or conservatism, but they are completely consistent with individualism — and thus not particularly surprising for someone born in 1992.

Individualism has also led iGen and Millennials to favor one thing above all else in politicians: Authenticity. Individualism promotes “come as you are” and “just be yourself,” and iGen’ers want their candidates to be — or at least seem — unwavering in their personal beliefs. Ever since Millennials came to dominate the block of young voters, candidates who seemed authentic (Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, John McCain) appealed to young voters, and those who seemed overly programmed did not (Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney). Donald Trump fit this as well: For all his prevaricating, many said they voted for him because he says exactly what he thinks.

Individualism has brought both equality and reactions against it, both support for individual rights and a dislike of group solutions. With 54% of young voters identifying as political independents, conventional politicians face an uphill battle trying to attract them. Yet the candidate who does — likely authentic, casual and libertarian in her positions — will hold the key to the next political era.

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