It took all of about two hours after President Barack Obama delivered his victory speech at McCormick Place before conservative pundit Fred Barnes dismissed the outcome as a “status quo election.” Superficially, Barnes is right. Obama will occupy the Oval Office for another four years. John Boehner will remain Speaker of the House. The Senate will still be Democratic, albeit slightly more so. Divided we stand.
Look ever-so-slightly closer, however, and it’s hard to miss the significant changes heralded by the November 6 election. Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin is set to become the first openly gay senator in American history. A record number of women—a still pitifully low 20—will assume seats in the Senate. In conservative-leaning Indiana and Missouri, voters repudiated once-favored Republican Senate candidates after they expressed troglodytic views about women and rape. Voters in Maryland, Maine, and Washington granted same-sex couples the right to marry while Minnesotans defeated a proposed ban on marriage equality. Meanwhile, Colorado and Washington emphatically rejected the U.S.’s misguided war on drugs, becoming the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
Behind these progressive victories lies a dramatically shifting electorate. At the center of the nation’s ideological evolution are young voters. A Washington Post–ABC News poll conducted in the immediate aftermath of the election shows just how robust these voters are in their support for progressive policies. While a bare 51 to 47 percent majority of the general population endorses same-sex marriage rights, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 support marriage equality by 66 to 33 percent. On marijuana, Americans are evenly split in the debate over whether legalization is the right approach. But young voters approve of legalization by 55 to 45 percent. They are especially out of step with conservative Republicans on immigration. 57 percent of Americans support a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. That figure rises to a remarkable 69 percent among young voters.
On marriage equality, marijuana prohibition, and immigration reform, there are wide discrepancies between young voters and the GOP’s most loyal voting bloc: those over 65. Older voters oppose both same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization by nearly two-to-one margins, while a slight majority rejects a path to citizenship for immigrants. As the GOP bleeds support among socially liberal and Latino voters, this gap between a core constituency and clear social trends presents party leaders with quite the quandary.
Of course, many young voters don’t look at gay rights, the drug war, or immigration policy through a left-or-right prism. It’s not inconceivable that we could witness the emergence of a socially tolerant, immigrant-friendly Republican Party in the near future. Undoubtedly, this would boost GOP performance with Millennials. But it’s not just social issues on which young adults display a preference for left-leaning policies.
Having come to public consciousness amid a financial meltdown, corporate crime scandals, and soaring income inequality, young voters are much less sanguine than their older counterparts about American capitalism. In late 2011, the Pew Research Center revealed the scale of their disillusionment with our present political and economic arrangements. 47 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds expressed an unfavorable view of capitalism, while 46 percent indicated they were favorably disposed to it. And despite the fact that it’s a pejorative word in mainstream political discourse, socialism earned slightly better reviews. 49 percent of young respondents saw socialism in a positive light, while 43 percent viewed it negatively. By contrast, respondents overall viewed socialism negatively by a two-to-one margin.
Say what you will about “Obamacare”—contrary to right-wing distortions, its faults lie in the fact that it wasn’t far-reaching enough—but young voters judge it far better than the GOP’s do-nothing alternative. In this month’s exit polls, 18 to 29 year-olds preferred Democratic health care policy over that of the Republicans by 54 to 35 percent. Many of those voters have taken advantage of a provision of the health reform law that allows young adults to remain covered by their parents’ health insurance policies until the age of 26. While many of their parents imbibed Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric about government being the source, not the solution, of our problems, Millennials recognize just how vital government is to a healthy and well-functioning society.
But isn’t there something to Winston Churchill’s reputed quip that if you’re under 30 and not a liberal, you have no heart, while if you’re over 30 and not a conservative, you have no brain? Actually, there’s almost no research to support the notion that we become more conservative as we get older. A 2007 study cited by Discovery News found that the historical contexts in which people grow up play far more of a role than age itself in determining political views. In fact, numerous participants in the study reported becoming more left-leaning as they got older. Moreover, given the strength of Millennial support for progressive policies, it’s unlikely that today’s young voters will undergo a wholesale ideological transformation as the years pass.
Observers of recent political history note that, at least since Reagan’s election, the terms of our political discourse have shifted rightward. Therefore, a Democratic president whose policies are reminiscent of the moderate Republicans of yore appears to his opponents as a left-wing radical intent on upending the American way of life. Whereas Democratic senator Ted Kennedy could credibly propose a single-payer health care system in the 1970s, now the incrementalist “Obamacare” looks leftish. This state of affairs won’t be permanent, however. The shifts are hardly seismic, but if you pay attention closely enough, you’ll notice the political ground moving underneath us.
Luke Brinker is a graduate student in the MAPSS program.