A quarter-century ago, political observers marveled at a new phenomenon: an enormous wave of conservative young people. Instead of tuning in, turning on, and dropping out, they were donning polo shirts, keeping their hair cut short, and waxing eloquent on the wonders of the free market. Their exemplar was Alex P. Keaton, the hero of the television show Family Ties, whose ex-hippie parents shook their heads at their son's affection for Ronald Reagan. The series ran from 1982 to 1989; in its finale, Alex leaves home to take a job on Wall Street.
In 1984, 59 percent of the nation's Alex P. Keatons voted for Reagan, an extraordinary percentage for a Republican (and just over his proportion of the popular vote as a whole). What was going on? As E.J. Dionne, then a reporter for The New York Times, wrote near the end of Reagan's tenure in the fall of 1988, "Academics and political consultants who have studied the youth vote have many explanations for their movement toward the Republicans, but the most powerful is the simplest: Young Americans have known only Mr. Reagan and Mr. Carter as President, and Mr. Reagan is the overwhelming favorite. Similarly, many people who first voted in the Depression still see politics in terms of the Democratic President Roosevelt and the Republican President Hoover."
It was a remarkable shift, and one that helped shape politics for the ensuing two decades. Currently, we are beginning an even more dramatic turn. Today's young people -- often called the millennial generation -- could pull American politics even further to the left, and for a longer time, than the Reagan generation pulled our politics to the right.
Start with the obvious: 67 percent of voters under 29 cast their ballot for Barack Obama, a result unequalled since exit polling began. (If you're interested, exit-poll data dating back to 1976 can be found at the Roper Center.) Despite periodic proclamations that young conservatives are poised for a comeback (see, for instance, this lengthy portrait in The New York Times Magazine only six years ago of the "Young Hipublicans" who were ready to take the country by storm), young people aren't finding much to like about today's GOP. And as a pair of new reports from the Center for American Progress on the present and future of American ideology show, those feelings are likely to run much deeper than a single election or a single candidate.
While they cover a great deal of ground, the reports contain some particularly interesting points about the millennial generation. In "State of American Political Ideology, 2009,", we learn that young people are the most progressive age group overall and the most progressive on social issues, which might not be surprising. But they are also the most progressive age group in their opinions about the role of government, which might be. And as the other report, "New Progressive America," points out, this generation's share of the voting population will increase every year until 2020, when they will represent nearly 40 percent of the electorate.
Which means that the electorate will change profoundly. The "Progressive America" report contains a provocative section called "An End to the Culture Wars," a title that may be a tad optimistic (in fact, you can look at the entire history of domestic controversy in America as one long culture war). But there is a shift taking place, and it's one that the cleverest Republican strategists and most charismatic conservative politicians will be powerless to stop. Simply put, today's young people have grown up in an environment far different from those their parents and grandparents experienced, and nearly all those changes will push them in a more progressive direction.
To paint with a broad brush for a moment: They know plenty of gay people, don't find anything particularly notable about people of different races dating, and see the traditional family setup (a two-parent heterosexual couple in which Dad works outside the home and Mom doesn't) as the exception rather than the rule. This may not be true for all of them, but it is true for enough of them that it has become their generational norm. As the report says:
Accompanying these structural shifts have been dramatic changes in attitudes toward sexuality, marriage, and gender roles. In every case, they have moved from less tolerant, traditional views to more tolerant, less traditional views, with much greater openness toward sexuality outside of heterosexual marriage and a strong belief that women are equal in every respect and should work outside the home if they wish. This evolution away from traditional family forms and family values will continue unabated in the future. This is because the trends away from tradition reinforce one another -- nontra¬ditional family forms promote nontraditional values and vice versa -- and because younger generations such as the millennials are so much more likely to embrace nontraditional values than older generations.
There are plenty of other notable facts about this generation -- it is much more racially diverse than any in American history and is less religious than other generations, for instance. This is particularly true when compared with older generations, especially the oldest. Somewhere today or tomorrow, a white, socially conservative 85-year-old from a rural area who liked Ike, considered himself part of the "silent majority," and pined for Reagan's "City upon a Hill," will pass to the great beyond. That same day, a new voter will reach her 18th birthday -- only that new voter is half Hispanic, lives in an urban center, and is progressive on nearly every social issue. To paraphrase the key political figure of her youth, she is the change we've been waiting for.
But how much the generation of which she is a part will continue voting for Democrats, and whether her social progressivism will be joined to similar views on economics and foreign affairs, depends on how things go over the next four or eight years. Just as the views of the Reagan generation were shaped by the seemingly ineffectual Carter presidency and the seemingly successful Reagan presidency, the current generation will be shaped by the Bush and Obama presidencies -- one an unmitigated disaster, the other a story still being written.
Of course, this presidency could be a disaster as well; who knows what crises await tomorrow or next month or next year. But if Obama accomplishes his grand goals -- pulling the nation through the economic crisis, reforming health care, confronting global warming, transforming our relationship with the world -- the millennial generation will belong to him and his ideological heirs. And conservatives will find themselves in a very deep hole for many years to come.