The mystery of Millennial politics

Millennials are politically weird. If it were just that they’re generally more liberal than older folks, that wouldn’t be weird. In fact, that might be a reasonable thing to expect from a racially diverse and less religious group that has been unduly punished by the Great Recession. But the weirdness comes in the detailed pattern of their liberalism—in the issues on which the do (and do not) show unusual liberal tendencies. This pattern, as far as I can tell, is genuinely new and remains almost wholly unexplained.

First I’ll show the pattern. Then I’ll talk about it, though it’ll mostly be about how the usual ideas fail to make sense of it. The chart below shows the extent to which Millennials are more liberal (bars to the left) or occasionally slightly more conservative (bars to the right) on ideology measures and on specific issues in public opinion. The green bars show simple correlations—without taking anything else into consideration, to what extent are Millennials different from the rest of the public? The blue bars show what’s left over in these correlations when the statistical model also takes into account standard demographics such as race, immigrant status, religion, education, and income—to what extent are Millennials different from the rest of the public after taking standard demographics into account?

PewSlide62316(Technical note: I created the various issue measures by combining a number of individual items from the Pew political surveys. Only the self-labelled ideology measure has been asked consistently (N = 57,719). The number of individuals included for issue-based measures varies from 11,502 to 34,172. So, yeah, these are pretty good numbers.)

Here’s the deal. Millennials are more liberal on general ideology measures. But their liberalism is specifically concentrated in a particular set of issues: Homosexuals (e.g., items on same-sex marriage and whether homosexuality should be accepted or discouraged), Middle East (i.e., opinions about use of military force and various conflicts in Middle East), Immigration, Marijuana legalization, Environmental regulation (e.g., whether stricter environmental laws are worth the cost), and general attitudes towards the Federal government (e.g., whether they trust the government and think the government generally does a good job).

But their liberalism on these issue items ends there. Millennials are only marginally or no more liberal than older folks when it comes to Big business (e.g., whether corporations make too much profit or whether the economic system unfairly favors powerful interests), Support for the poor (e.g., whether government aid to the poor is a good idea), Racial issues (e.g., whether the U.S. needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights), Gun regulation, and Abortion rights.

All the obvious theories fall apart. Has Obama led them to be pervasively liberal? No. Are they pervasively “social” or “cultural” liberals? No. Are they anti-discrimination liberals? Yes on gays and immigrants; no on blacks. Are they secular lifestyle liberals? Yes on gays and pot; no on abortion. Have their experiences in the Great Recession led to an unusually leftward tilt on rich-poor issues? Really no. Is their liberalism a statistical side-effect of the fact that they contain higher proportions of minority, immigrant, non-religious, or economically struggling folks? That’s part of it (i.e., the blue bars in the chart are generally shorter than the green bars) but clearly not the whole story.

Millennial liberalism isn’t their parents’ liberalism. I’m not sure what it is. It’s something new.

But aren’t all the kids big Sanders supporters?

There is a mythology that has developed in the wake of the widely reported Millennial support for Bernie Sanders. Because Sanders’ supporters were so young on average, it created the mistaken impression that the large majority of Millennials align with Sanders-style democratic socialism. That’s not true.

In fact, as far as I can tell, most Millennials who voted in the 2016 primaries and caucuses didn’t vote for Sanders. If you think that sounds crazy, you’re forgetting that, in addition to the Clinton-Sanders race, the Republicans had contests as well. My back-of-the-envelope calculation is that Sanders got the support of about 3.5 million voters under 30 to Clinton’s 1.5 million (a blowout, to be sure), but there were also around 3 million voters under 30 on the Republican side. So, sure, Millennials are more likely to be Democratic rather than Republican voters, and way more Millennials voted for Sanders over Clinton on the Democratic side, but that doesn’t equate into a landslide majority of Millennial primary voters favoring Sanders. And even this leaves out the roughly 60 million eligible Millennials who didn’t vote in the nominating contests.

Further, the general picture of Millennial politics in the chart above shows that two of the key components of socialist support and opposition—views on big business and assistance for the poor—are among the issues on which Millennials are really not more liberal than older folks, particularly once basic demographic features are taken into account.

Someday we will figure it out, but this is not that day

It’s important to keep in mind that while there is a unique Millennial pattern, it doesn’t replace the old divides. Millennials have the same powerful internal racial and religious divisions as their elders, such that, for example, white evangelicals are especially conservative while educated non-Christians are especially liberal. Yet the Millennial pattern does suggests something about how prior generations had their defining fights—Vietnam, civil rights for African Americans, communism, abortion, guns—and now Millennials have theirs—the war on terror, gay rights, immigration, climate change, marijuana legalization. There might be something there that helps make sense of Millennial politics, something about how the particular issues that are on the move in one’s youth can create a kind of unique generational seasoning to old stew. Or it might be something in the air generally blowing Americans to the left on Millennial issues, and it’s just that the young—who haven’t yet developed weighty partisan anchors—get pushed farther and faster than others. Or it might be something else entirely.

A defensible answer, I think, will have to wait. Mainly, we need to get a better look at how things unfold over time. Right now, it’s the youngest of the young-adults who are showing the most robust (but selective) liberal skew. It really could be temporary—some trendy adornment of youth destined for a dusty attic box. But it also really could stick, signaling (perhaps not fundamental but still significant) shifts in the landscape of public opinion.

12 thoughts on “The mystery of Millennial politics”

  1. Crossposted from my tumblr:

    Individualist your-right-to-swing-your-fist-ends-where-my-nose-begins tendencies seem like they could explain everything here.

    – Gonna ignore self-labeled ideology and Pew Ideology Scale to focus on specific issues.

    – Federal government: more of an issue for ancaps or tea partiers rather than social libertarians.

    – Big business opposition goes away after confounds are removed.. The belief that people ought to be able to form contracts so long as they don’t directly affect anyone else fits the hypothesis.

    – Support for the poor is generally opposed to non-aggression-principle libertarianism, so it makes sense that we wouldn’t be especially liberal here either.

    – Differences on racial issues go away after controlling for confounds. Libertarians aren’t normally big on racial justice (or social obligation to others or oppression based morality more broadly) except when it lets them complain about cops. Every-man-for-himself morality makes sense here.

    – Support for immigration (i.e. the belief that people should be able to move wherever they want without the government interfering) is another social libertarian position. Note in particular how this contrasts with beliefs about racial issues as seen above, indicating that a general pro- or anti-minority stance doesn’t work here.

    – Opposing interventionism is also a libertarian thing.

    – Gun regulation is also associated with libertarian politics and support for personal freedoms.

    – Environmental regulation is basically just regulating externalities, a.k.a. direct harms to other people’s bodies and property. Maybe I’m reaching too far here, but it makes sense in my head.

    – Gay rights = more social freedom. Not much else to say here.

    – Abortion is hugely controversial because no one can decide whether it counts as an exercise of bodily autonomy or an act of harm toward another human being, so it’s not surprising that there’s no consensus here.

    – People want to be able to 420 blaze it every day without other people interfering, which also fits.

    The real test would be to see whether you could predict what side of various issues people would fall in with a personal autonomy ethos in mind. I kinda wanna run this experiment now.

  2. Seems to me the idea they care most about whats the hot topics du jour warrants a closer look.

    If we hypothesize that millenials are intensely influenced by media and in particular social media, we indeed see a list of issues that were trending heavily at some point on their iphones via targeted social media campaigns and activism.

    This explains guns and abortion i think. Which as far as i am aware have not seen intense organizing or legislative battles. Which is also true re business perhaps, which is always a topic but not really focussed specifically.

  3. Unless I am misreading your chart, you are mischaracterizing the results. Millennials, you show, are to the left (per your definition) of their elders on all issues. More so on some than on others. That is what all your correlations show, except guns which is zero.

    Some of the partial correlations go the other way, but what is this supposed to mean?

    It might mean the following, if education were the only control variable: Millennial age correlates with supports for the poor… but the correlation is less than the product of the mill-age/education correlation and the education/poor-support correlation.

    That is not some grand puzzle. It is, if meaningful, an insight into how millennial views are being formed. Lots of schooling gets you lots of pinkos.

    I would find it more interesting if you controlled only on things that were likely predetermined at time of birth: race (maybe!), immigration status (but that is self-selection), parents religion (if available), state of origin. Then at least we could speak of changing attitudes within populations. But when you throw in two certainly concomitant variables (income and education) I don’t know what to make of it at all.

  4. Am I understanding this right: that you dummy-coded millennial status (1=millennial) and computed a Pearson coefficient of that IV against your various DVs? Just trying to make sense of the analysis.

    1. Yes, exactly, those are the green bars. The blue bars are standardized coefficients from OLS regressions including the demographic variables mentioned. FYI, if you want a more meaningful gauge of effect size, the largest correlations in the set are equivalent to just under a .4 SD difference between millennials and non-millennials.

  5. Would be interesting if you tested each DV separately. Nevertheless, still pretty interesting. Thanks!

  6. Having grown up in the Reagan Era and the subsequent age of right-wing talk radio, they absorbed then and still retain rather stronger in beliefs in, on the positive side, self-reliance and the idea that their life success is a function of their own decisions, and on the negative side, personal responsibility and the idea that other people’s life failures are the result of their own actions.

    Without rationally understanding it (or, at least, not having been consciously indoctrinated in it the way earlier generations of liberals were) millennials have little but intuitive understanding of collective action, systemic effects or aggregates.

    There’s something about picket lines they don’t get despite being college educated that their grandfathers did get despite being high-school dropouts.

    That explains pretty much all the anomalies above except environmentalism. I can’t figure it all out!

  7. One perhaps has to treat income as a separate demographic category: millenials are, by definition, young and perhaps will move up the income scale as they get older. On the other hand, many of the indicators like sex, race, religion and even education (to a large extent) will not change as they get older.

    What happens if you leave out income and keep all the other factors there, when controlling for demographics?

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