Remember Soccer Moms (“suburban female voters” that liked Bill Clinton) and Patio Man (David Brooks’s Republican archetype from the “fast-growing suburbs mostly in the South and West that are the homes of the new style American Dream”)? It’s been a while since we’ve had to read about a new voting bloc that explains everything about American politics. Maybe the Tea Party — a good, old-fashioned political faction instead of a vague demographic — temporarily put a stop to the silliness. Sadly, the bill has come due for our respite from loopy (or “comic”) sociology.
Now it’s time to oversell the importance of generational groups. Earlier this month the Pew Research Center, which does some valuable work but has to make headlines to justify its existence, released a big, chunky report called “Millennials in Adulthood” (subtitled “Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends”). In its press release, Pew called the Millennial generation, which includes Americans now aged 18 to 33, “relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry — and optimistic about the future.”
The “unattached” label is indeed a headline grabber. It’s based on the 50 percent of Millennials who call themselves independents* and the 29 percent who say they are religiously unaffiliated. (The latter figure is high by historical standards, but we don’t know if it will drop among Millennials as they age and start to raise children, something that Americans have been doing later and later in life.)
The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank cited the Pew report on Friday in a column headlined “Why Millennials Have Abandoned Obama.” Milbank warned that young people may doom the Affordable Care Act by not signing up for health insurance in sufficient numbers. “Part of the problem also is the inability of the millennial generation to remain attached to a cause,” wrote Milbank, who also declared, “As a group, the generation’s attachment is fickle.”
On Saturday, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat dug deeper into the report and came up with his own characterization of the data on Millennials: “The common denominator is individualism, not left-wing politics: it explains both the personal optimism and the social mistrust, the passion about causes like gay marriage and the declining interest in collective-action crusades like environmentalism, even the fact that religious affiliation has declined but personal belief is still widespread.”
The New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner pushed back, arguing that the Pew report indeed indicated a leftward shift among young voters: “Overall, Americans believe in a ‘smaller government with fewer services’ over a ‘bigger government with more services’ by a 51%-40% margin. Among millenials, however, the numbers are more than reversed: Only 38% favor a smaller government, and 53% favor a bigger one.”
None of these columns mentioned the most striking finding from the report: On the big questions, Millennials show no significant changes in attitude from previous generations. But Millennials are less likely to be white and non-Hispanic, so simple demographic changes can be misinterpreted as changes in generational “attitude.” Here is a relevant passage from the report (PDF):
White and non-white Millennials have different views on the role of government. … On balance, white Millennials say they would prefer a smaller government that provides fewer services (52%), rather than a bigger government that provides more services (39%). Non-white Millennials lean heavily toward a bigger government: 71% say they would prefer a bigger government that provides more services, while only 21% say they would prefer a smaller government. The racial gaps are about as wide among Gen Xers and Boomers.
Surveys conducted this year underscore the sharp racial differences in Obama’s job rating among generations. Just 34% of white Millennials approve of Obama’s job performance. That is little different from the shares of white Gen Xers (33%), Boomers (37%) or Silents (28%) who approve of Obama’s job performance. Fully two-thirds of non-white Millennials (67%) approve of Obama’s job performance, so too do 59% of non-white Gen Xers and 65% of non-white Boomers. (There are too few non-white Silents in the surveys to analyze.)
Yes, the overall findings are ominous for conservatives and the Republican Party, which has yet to figure out how to appeal to non-white voters. But it’s misleading to imply that the changes in the electorate are due to Millennials having short attention spans or being “fickle.”
On Sunday, the New York Times’s Paul Krugman wrote, “race is the Rosetta Stone that makes sense of many otherwise incomprehensible aspects of U.S. politics.” He didn’t even mention the Pew report (writing instead about “claims that liberals are taking away your hard-earned money and giving it to Those People”), but race seems to explain a lot of generational change. Maybe that’s such an old story that we’d rather talk about anything else.
*Note: The first chart in the Pew press release shows that Millennials are more likely to call themselves political independents (50 percent of that generation, compared with 32 percent of the “Silent Generation” now over 68 years old). This is catnip to journalists who like to speculate about the decline of the two major parties, but there’s always a danger in analyzing data about self-identified independents.
For example, Third Way, which champions nonpartisanship in the “vital center,” recently published a report on party registration by state; its data show that 53 percent of Massachusetts voters but only 18 percent of Maryland voters are registered independents. This makes no sense unless you consider that independents in Massachusetts are eligible to vote in either party’s primary, while independents in Maryland are barred from voting in any partisan primary. You can’t really track the “independent” label without taking into account laws and institutions (such as fundraising groups) that encourage or discourage people to identify with a party. Maybe California will see a surge in people identifying as independents, but would that be due to generational attitudes or to a recent change in the law that essentially eliminated partisan primaries?