generation Z protest
Credit: Lorie Shaull/flickr

Since the Parkland students ignited the discussion about the need for gun reform in this country following the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, the political world has started paying attention to what some call “Generation Z” (others call them “post-millennials”). Ron Brownstein, who tends to focus on the demographics of politics, has a good run-down of what we know about this generation.

First of all, there is disagreement about dating the transition from millennials to Generation Zers. Some people define the latter group as starting with those born after 1998 and others after 2001. Based on which date you use, this cohort is either slightly larger or smaller than millennials, who are set to become the largest generation of eligible voters this year, displacing the baby boomers. As Brownstein points out:

By 2024 — just two presidential elections from now — the generation of young people that includes the students organizing a march on Washington next month to demand gun control will represent 1 in every 10 eligible voters.

As we’ve seen with the Parkland students, Generation Zers are digitally savvy, having spent most of their lives in a world connected via technology and social media. They also continue the trend of increasing racial diversity.

Brownstein spends some time summarizing the few polls we have about this generation’s political views. But those are likely to develop over time. One thing we do know is that they are increasingly less religious, with 45 percent identifying themselves as “religiously unaffiliated or non-Christian.”

What is perhaps most relevant for politics is to recognize that almost everything Donald Trump and Republicans are doing right now is likely to alienate huge swaths of Generation Zers.  Here’s what that means:

“The millennial generation is just the cutting edge, the front line of what this country is going to be becoming,” says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who has extensively studied the millennial and post-millennial generations. “The millennials are the tip of the iceberg, but rushing through for the next several decades with the post-millennials is going to be much more diversity and a very different America than we’ve known in the past. I think this is a big sea change for our country.”

That sea change is the meta issue that is defining our politics these days. I am reminded of something white supremacist Richard Spencer said back in 2015 as Donald Trump’s candidacy was just developing.

“Trump, on a gut level, kind of senses that this is about demographics, ultimately. We’re moving into a new America.” He said, “I don’t think Trump is a white nationalist,” but he did believe that Trump reflected “an unconscious vision that white people have – that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren’t able to articulate it. I think it’s there. I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon.”

As we’ve seen, the Trump administration’s xenophobic immigration policies are meant to delay the inevitable, if only for a few years. In short, this is what the politics of resentment that fueled nostalgia voters is all about.

For Democrats, this might not be an issue that will directly impact elections immediately. But make no mistake about it, for the party to be viable in the future, it is critical to understand that this sea change is underway. The primary concern must always be for the party to do what’s right in response to Republican attempts to push their agenda designed to inflame nostalgia voters with lies and fear-mongering. But Democrats must also show that they are prepared to have these young people’s backs—be that on gun reform, the fate of Dreamers or alignment with the demand that black lives matter.

In 2012, after the re-election of Barack Obama, David Simon might have been a bit ahead of the curve when he declared “the death of normal.” But as Generation Z winds its way into this country’s politics, it is inevitable.

No longer will it mean more politically to be a white male than to be anything else. Evolve, or don’t. Swallow your resentments, or don’t. But the votes are going to be counted, more of them with each election. Arizona will soon be in play. And in a few cycles, even Texas. And those wishing to hold national office in these United States will find it increasingly useless to argue for normal, to attempt to play one minority against the next, to turn pluralities against the feared “other” of gays, or blacks, or immigrants, or, incredibly in this election cycle, our very wives and lovers and daughters, fellow citizens who demand to control their own bodies.

…We are all the other now, in some sense. Special interests? That term has no more meaning in the New America. We are all — all of us, every last American, even the whitest of white guys — special interests. And now, normal isn’t white or straight or Christian. There is no normal. That word, too, means less with every moment. And those who continue to argue for such retrograde notions as a political reality will become less germane and more ridiculous with every passing year.

In 2016, Republicans went in the opposite direction and are doing everything they can to hang on to the idea that “normal” means white Christian male. But their day of reckoning is coming. We’re already starting to see signs of that in states like Arizona and Texas. The remaining question on the table is whether or not Democrats see what’s coming and are prepared to build the party of the future.

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