The Younger Generations Still Want a More Activist Government

There is a lot of information to digest in the new Pew Research Center social & demographic trends poll. They explore in great detail the political opinions of each generation of Americans. At first glance, most of their results confirmed what I already believed to be the case, which is that younger generations are much more liberal or progressive in their social attitudes than their parents or grandparents, and that this holds even among young Republicans and non-Hispanic whites. One obvious conclusion is that integration works, and that the more that white people live, study, and work with people from different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, the more they see them as nonthreatening and fully equal citizens.

The surprising news for me came in a different area of inquiry. I’ve been watching the performance of our government with growing alarm at least since the Republican retook control of Congress in the 2010 midterms. My main concern has been that a new generation of kids is growing up in an era of government shutdowns, credit defaults, and relentless gridlock and that they’re going to conclude that the federal government is worthless as a resource for solving their problems. On the one hand, I’ve been hopeful that they’d be resourceful enough to come up with new ways to address social and economic challenges, but on the other hand I have been worried that they’ll develop anti-government or libertarian views that will empower the right.

The polling data does not show this effect. In fact, the data shows the exact opposite.

Every day, new members of Generation Z become eligible to vote and members of the Silent Generation pass away. So, just based on static public opinion, there is currently an inexorable movement toward support for more activist government.

It’s true that the older that people get and the more income that they have, the more they develop a self-interest in low levels of taxation and regulation. This explains the consistent trend line you see in the chart on the left. It strongly suggests that Generation Z will become less enthusiastic about government as it ages.

What I thought we might see in this data was an erosion of support among Millennials and (especially) Generation Z based on the fact that they’ve really seen very little positive action from the federal government in their lifetimes. Outside of President Obama’s first two years in office, there has been very little transformative legislation coming out of Washington.

It often seems to me that the Republicans benefit when the federal government is incapable of taking action because it reinforces their message that government is bad and inefficient. I think this helps explain why they don’t pay a higher price for taking hostages, shutting down the government, and causing downgrades of the national credit rating.

But, apparently, the young generations aren’t buying this. They want to see more government action and they still believe that the government can be a vehicle for positive social change. Seven in ten members of Generation Z feel this way and only three in ten think Donald Trump is doing a good job as president.

I’m not sure why they haven’t fallen victim to cynicism, but I’m grateful to see that they still express optimism. Hopefully they will come to understand that to get the federal government to work, they need to reproduce the conditions that prevailed in 2009-2010, which means they need to elect a Democrat president who can work with a Democratic Congress. That’s the only condition under which our government can function, let alone accomplish anything of real value.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com