According to The New York Times, new social science research says that for American whites, the year you were born is strongly predictive of your lifelong political affiliation. Reportedly, what the average American white person experiences between the ages of 14 and 24 has a lot to do with their general political orientation for the rest of their lives. And, “events at age 18 are about three times as powerful as those at age 40, according to the model.”
There was a time not so long ago when the young seemed destined to be liberal forever. Americans in their teens and 20s were to the left of their elders on social issues. They worried more about poverty. They voted strongly Democratic.
In retrospect, we refer to this period as the 1960s, and it didn’t last long, let alone forever. Less than a generation after young people were marching for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, they voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan.
Today, of course, the young are liberal again, and it seems as if they will be forever. They favor same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, stricter gun laws, citizenship for illegal immigrants and an activist government that fights climate change and inequality. The Republican Party, as you have probably noticed, does not.
But the temporary nature of the 1960s should serve as a reminder that politics change. What seems permanent can become fleeting. And the Democratic Party, for all its strengths among Americans under 40, has some serious vulnerabilities, too.
Leonhardt goes on to say that a number of young people are coming of age politically at a time when the Democratic president doesn’t seem to be able to fix the country’s problems. For many young today, those problems are rooted in the presidency of George W. Bush. But not all will be able to remember him.
For me, the ages of 14 to 24 corresponded to the years 1981 to 1991 — the Reagan/Bush years. It was during that time that the feel-bad 1970s were dispelled (the first significant political memory I have was the Iran hostage crisis), and the Cold War concluded with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The liberalism of that era was thoroughly ossified and reactionary. John Paul II was at the height of his influence, and that did a lot to bring me into the Catholic Church.
What shattered my faith in my 1980s conservative worldview were three things that happened in the 2000s: the Catholic sex abuse scandal, the Iraq War, and the financial collapse. These things happened from 2002 – 2008, a period that takes in ages 35 to 41. The connecting thread of these three events is how they all destroyed my belief that the Roman Catholic Church and the Republican Party could be trusted to exercise sound judgment — on moral matters for the Church, and on social, economic, and foreign policy matters for the GOP — and strong leadership.
Though the Clinton Democrats were every bit as guilty as the G.W. Bush Republicans in setting the stage for the financial collapse, it must be observed that it was a reaction to Reaganism that created the Clinton Democrats: pro-market liberals who were more open to conservative critiques of the Great Society. The point is that events of the 2000s devastated the conventional wisdom of the Reagan years (which, for me as a Catholic, included the conventional wisdom of the John Paul II years).
This did not make me a liberal or an atheist, but it did make me an ex-Republican and an ex-Catholic. I suppose I’m grateful for my formative years having laid such a strong foundation in conservatism and Christianity that I’ve managed to hang on despite the ideologically pulverizing effects of events that occurred in my late 30s and early 40s. Having read about the new study, I can imagine that Americans whose formative years occurred during the Bush II era — roughly, those born from 1986 to 1996 — will find it very hard ever to be strongly conservative. It is hard, I find, to convey to people who didn’t live through them how confident things felt for conservatives who came of age in the Reagan/Thatcher/JP2 years.
David Leonhardt speculates that young Americans coming of political age now are doing so during a time in which a Democratic president seems relatively weak and ineffectual, and that this will affect their ideological foundation. Yes, probably so. But there is no strong, compelling alternative on the Republican right to draw their confidence and loyalty. And on the religious front? Pope Francis is popular, but really, there’s no one on the current scene who is remotely the galvanizing figure that John Paul II was.
This will be a fascinating generation to watch. Get your poli sci dissertations started now.
Question to readers: when were your formative years (that is, when were you ages 14-24), and how well does the general theory apply to your experience? Explain.