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 younger than 40, has some serious vulnerabilities, too.
In the simplest terms, the Democrats control the White House (and, for now, the Senate) at a time when the country is struggling. Economic growth has been disappointing for almost 15 years now. Most Americans think this country is on the wrong track. Our foreign policy often seems messy and complex, at best.
To Americans in their 20s and early 30s — the so-called millennials — many of these problems have their roots in George W. Bush’s presidency. But think about people who were born in 1998, the youngest eligible voters in the next presidential election. They are too young to remember much about the Bush years or the excitement surrounding the first Obama presidential campaign. They instead are coming of age with a Democratic president who often seems unable to fix the world’s problems.
“We’re in a period in which the federal government is simply not performing,” says Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center, the author of a recent book on generational politics, “and that can’t be good for the Democrats.”
Academic research has found that generations do indeed have ideological identities. People are particularly shaped by events as they first become aware of the world, starting as young as 10 years old, as a new analysis by the political scientists Yair Ghitza and Andrew Gelman notes. (My colleague Amanda Cox has created an online interactive graphic, based on the analysis, that lets you track the political views of every birth year since 1937. Because race adds a variable, it applies most reliably to whites.)
The generation that came of age during the five presidential terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman leaned Democratic for its entire life. So have those young liberals of the 1960s, who learned U.S. politics through the glamour of John F. Kennedy. The babies of the late 1960s and early 1970s, who entered political consciousness during the Reagan years, lean Republican. Think Alex P. Keaton, the conservative child of hippies from the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties.”
These identities are a more useful guide to U.S. politics than the largely useless cliché about adults starting off liberal and slowly becoming more conservative. Like a broken clock, that cliché can seem accurate at times, mostly thanks to luck.
Among today’s teenagers, Democrats do start with some big advantages. For one thing, the next generation of voters is an ethnically diverse group: About 45 percent of U.S. citizens in their teenage years are either Latino or a member of a racial minority, compared with only 29 percent of citizens 20 and older.
And Republicans continue to struggle mightily among nonwhites, in ways that may transcend generational identities. Almost 35 years have passed since Reagan reportedly said: “Hispanics are already Republican. They just don’t know it.”
His point was that Hispanic voters would follow the same political path as earlier immigrant groups, like Italians and Irish, and move right as they assimilated.
But Reagan appears to have been wrong on this score: Even as Hispanics — and Asian-Americans — are assimilating, they are remaining Democratic. Many still seem decidedly turned off by the attitudes of today’s aging, white Republican party. If those groups remain liberal, as blacks and Jews have, demographic arithmetic dictates that Democrats will be favored to win presidential elections for the foreseeable future.
With that advantage, however, comes a funny kind of problem. The Democrats are the majority party when the country is in a bit of a funk.
President Barack Obama and many other Democrats argue that they could help lift this funk if congressional Republicans weren’t blocking nearly every Democratic proposal. The Democrats essentially won that debate in 2012 and will probably be favored to win it again in 2016. But the case will become harder to make with each passing year if living standards do not start to rise at a healthy clip for most households — which has not happened since the 1990s.
This dynamic is likely to be Hillary Clinton’s biggest weakness, either as a candidate or as a president. Talking about the Clinton-era 1990s boom — as she’ll surely do, to distance herself from today’s economy — will go only so far with voters too young to have any memories of the 1990s.
Some political analysts believe that teenagers are already showing less allegiance to the Democratic Party than Americans in their 20s, based on recent polling data. My own sense is that their argument rests on small, noisy sample sizes, and Taylor, of Pew, is also skeptical. The larger point, however, remains: The Democrats face challenges with today’s teenagers that they did not face with today’s 25- or 30-year-olds.
By any measure, Obama’s second term lacks the political drama of his first, when Democrats were passing sweeping legislation and the Tea Party sprang up in reaction. But the generational nature of politics means that the second Obama term still has enormous political import.
If he can execute his basic goals — if the economy improves and his health care, education and climate policies all seem to be basically working — it will pay political dividends for decades to come. We may not yet know who will be running for president in, say, 2024. We do know that Obama, like his predecessors, will still cast a shadow over the campaign.