Liberal Horizons

I mentioned late yesterday a new Pew analysis of the under-30 vote in the 2012 elections, suggesting a generational trend to the political Left unlike anything we’ve seen since the early 1970s. Jonathan Chait takes a closer look, and is more confident than I am that he’s seen the future:

More than four decades ago, Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril identified the core of Americans’ political thinking as a blend of symbolic conservatism and operational liberalism. Most Americans, that is, oppose big government in the abstract but favor it in the particular. They oppose “regulation” and “spending,” but favor, say, enforcement of clean-air laws and Social Security. The push and pull between these contradictory beliefs has defined most of the political conflicts over the last century. Public support for most of the particulars of government has stopped Republicans from rolling back the advances of the New Deal, but suspicion with “big government” has made Democratic attempts to advance the role of the state rare and politically painful.

This tension continues to define the beliefs of American voters. Among the 2012 electorate, more voters identified themselves as conservative (35 percent) than liberal (25 percent), and more said the government is already doing too much that should be left to the private sector (51 percent) than asserted that the government ought to be doing more to solve problems (44 percent). But this is not the case with younger voters. By a 59 percent to 37 percent margin, voters under 30 say the government should do more to solve problems. More remarkably, 33 percent of voters under 30 identified themselves as liberal, as against 26 percent who called themselves conservative.

The reason I’m not so confident of Our Liberal Future is that we’re only talking about one cohort of young voters (like those that tilted left in 1972), and their successors could be different–though certain cultural trends, most notably secularization, are unlikely to be reversed. But Chait is right: today’s under-30 voters are relatively unattached to the basic parameters of politics as they have existed since the Reagan Era. If nothing else, there should be a larger constituency for unapologetic liberalism moving forward, and additionally, the false equivalence the MSM so often attributes to the vehemence and political power of Left and Right could eventually come true.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.