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Losing The Future

One of the things that many people have noticed since the release of the Mount Vernon statement on Wednesday is the sharp contrast between the youth of the creators of the Sharon statement and the notable absence of students and young people from the latest gathering. Christopher Buckley quotes Sam Tanenhaus on this point, “The new/old submission seems more like Geriatrics Against Obama.” Fifty years ago, one could have written, as Nile Gardiner does today, that “conservatism is the future” with some reason for believing the claim to be true, and in the decades that followed there was a significant conservative political coalition that seemed to be growing in strength over time. Today it is increasingly difficult to believe anything of the kind.

Pew released a survey on Thursday showing that Millennials have soured a bit on Democrats in the last year. Despite this, they remain the one age group with 50%+ Democratic party ID and the one age group in which 50%+ say they will vote Democratic this fall. The percentage of self-identifying conservatives among Millennials is basically equal with that of self-identifying liberals (28% vs. 29%). The youngest generation of voters is unusually ill-disposed towards movement conservatism of the sort on display at CPAC, which is the event Gardiner hails not only as proof that conservatism is the future but as an “intellectually vibrant” gathering.

Gardiner can believe what he wants, but the evidence we have available right now suggests that conservatism is losing, indeed has already lost, most of the next generation, and that conservatism as we know it today is going to keep losing ground in the future. It is possible that something could happen in the next few years that could change that significantly, but typically once a cohort attaches itself to one party or the other its later voting habits become fairly predictable. The generation that came of age during the Bush years and overwhelmingly backed Obama is not going to become receptive to movement conservatism.

On average, Millennials’ underlying social and political views put them well to the left of their elders. If you dig into the full report, you will see that the recent Republican resurgence owes almost everything to the dramatic shift among members of the so-called “Silent Generation,” whose voting preferences on the generic ballot have gone from being 49-41 Democrat in 2006 to 48-39 Republican for 2010. There have been small shifts in other age groups toward the Republicans, but by far it is the alienation of voters aged 65-82 that has been most damaging to the Democrats’ political strength*. As we all know, these are the voters who are far more likely to turn out than Millennials, which is why Democratic prospects for this election seem as bad as they do even though the Pew survey says that Democrats lead on the generic ballot in every other age group. Among Boomers, Democrats lead 46-42, and among Gen Xers they barely lead 45-44. In other words, the main reason why the GOP is enjoying any sort of political recovery is that many elderly voters have changed their partisan preferences since the last midterm. Republicans remain behind among all voters younger than 65. That does not seem to herald the future revival of movement conservatism of the sort Gardiner is so embarrassingly praising.

* It is mainly among these voters that the conventional wisdom is half right that that the push for health care legislation has proved to be very damaging to the Democrats. Of course, this is not because of some instinctive horror at excessive spending, which does not exist on a large scale in any age group, but because health care legislation is seen as a threat to the entitlement spending from which voters from this age group benefit. As a matter of pure electoral politics, the GOP’s transformation into the defenders of the sanctity of Medicare has been completely in line with the interests of the elderly voters who have come running back to the GOP in the last year. Of course, this is exactly not the profile of a party and movement of the future, but one attempting to preserve the status quo for the benefit of the oldest among us at the expense of our future.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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