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?
(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.