Millennial Madness: What Happens If Young Voters Bolt Both Parties?

New study shows choosiest voters itching to disrupt two-party system.

Students and other attendees listen as US President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on January 27, 2012 expanding on his State of the Union proposals to keep college affordable and within reach for all Americans. AFP Photo/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
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Ron Fournier
March 24, 2014, 6:09 a.m.

When I was the age my kids are now, tele­vi­sion net­works offered three, barely dis­tin­guish­able choices. In­clud­ing In­ter­net video, my kids’ op­tions are al­most in­fin­ite. I walked to a lib­rary. My kids down­load books. I owned a few dozen cas­sette tapes. Their iPods stream thou­sands of songs.

A quarter-cen­tury ago, ed­it­ors de­cided what news I read. My kids are their own ed­it­ors and pub­lish­ers. My kids are Mil­len­ni­als, raised in an era of rap­id change and bound­less amounts of in­form­a­tion, choice and cus­tom­iz­a­tion. Born roughly between 1981 and 2000, the Mil­len­ni­al Gen­er­a­tion’s life ex­per­i­ences will shape where they live, how they work, what products they buy, how they wor­ship and, of course, how they vote.

My gen­er­a­tion had just two op­tions polit­ic­ally — Demo­crats or Re­pub­lic­ans, and that made sense to us. To my kids’ gen­er­a­tion, bin­ary choices are ab­surd, es­pe­cially when the choices are bad, which is why the two ma­jor parties are in danger of los­ing the fu­ture.

In a must-read study, polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Michelle Diggles of the mod­er­ate Demo­crat­ic think tank Third Way, cre­ated a so­ci­olo­gic­al pro­file of the Mil­len­ni­al Gen­er­a­tion and pro­jec­ted how those at­ti­tudes might af­fect U.S. polit­ics when young voters age and dom­in­ate.

Mil­len­ni­als have come of age in a peri­od of in­creas­ing avail­ab­il­ity of in­form­a­tion and ex­pans­ive cus­tom­iz­a­tion of goods and ser­vices. Their ex­per­i­ences have led them to an `a la carte world­view, in­clud­ing in polit­ics. They may be vot­ing for Demo­crats in wider mar­gins than Re­pub­lic­ans, but there’s no in­dic­a­tion that they have bought the “prix fixe” menu of policy op­tions his­tor­ic­ally offered by the Demo­crat­ic Party, nor that brand loy­alty to the Party will ce­ment them as Demo­crats forever. Yet while Re­pub­lic­an claims that these voters are win­nable in fu­ture elec­tions are plaus­ible, they, too, have been ask­ing young­er voters to agree to a multi-course tast­ing menu with lim­ited op­tions. Mil­len­ni­als are prag­mat­ic — they want to know what works and are will­ing to take ideas from each side. They es­chew ideo­lo­gic­al pur­ity tests of the past. In short, they are win­nable by both parties, if only poli­cy­makers un­der­stood and re­flec­ted their val­ues.

What Diggles has done is vir­tu­ally un­heard of in polit­ics today: She set aside her ideo­lo­gic­al pref­er­ences and pre­con­ceived no­tions to ruth­lessly as­sess at­ti­tu­din­al data in a polit­ic­al va­cu­um. Un­like many in Wash­ing­ton who seem to be­lieve that so­cial changes start with polit­ics, Diggles knows the re­verse is true: A fast-chan­ging popu­lace, driv­en by a hard-to-peg rising gen­er­a­tion, will change polit­ics in ways we can’t fully fathom.

For in­stance, a rule of thumb in Wash­ing­ton is that when a voter sides with a party in her first couple of elec­tions, she’s likely to stick with that party for years. His­tor­ic­ally, that ax­iom is meas­ur­ably true. But, wait, says Diggles:

Much to the chag­rin of many in mar­ket­ing, Mil­len­ni­als are much more will­ing than pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions to switch even from their most favored brands if they can bet a bet­ter deal or more of the fea­tures they want. Mil­len­ni­als don’t feel lim­ited by brand loy­alty — true in the mar­ket­place of goods and ser­vices as well as polit­ics.

“The abil­ity to cus­tom­ize their soda, or shoes, or even their en­ter­tain­ment ex­per­i­ence means that Mil­len­ni­als want to have real in­put in­to the design pro­cess. They ex­pect brands to genu­inely en­gage with con­sumers and won’t be sat­is­fied with simply be­ing ig­nored or hav­ing someone sell them a pre-made product. Liv­ing in an ‘a la carte world with un­lim­ited op­tions, Mil­len­ni­als don’t feel they have to choose between two lim­ited choices. If they don’t like a product, think the price is too high, or don’t agree with the com­pany’s role in so­ci­ety, they are likely to switch brands. Con­versely, Mil­len­ni­als may re­ward good com­pan­ies with a ‘buy­cott’ “¦

In polit­ics, Mil­len­ni­als re­war­ded Pres­id­ent Obama in 2008 be­cause they liked what he was selling. But he quickly dam­aged his post-par­tis­an brand, and young voters drif­ted away in 2012. Go­ing for­ward, Diggles says her be­loved Demo­crat­ic Party can’t take Mil­len­ni­als for gran­ted. This is a choosy bunch, a gen­er­a­tion of dis­rup­tion.

After es­tab­lish­ing a so­ci­olo­gic­al pro­file, Diggles pulls to­geth­er a vari­ety of polling (in­clud­ing sur­veys I wrote about here and here) to show how young voter at­ti­tudes are already de­fy­ing con­ven­tion­al polit­ics.

  • Since Obama’s elec­tion, the num­ber of self-iden­ti­fied in­de­pend­ents among the Mil­len­ni­al Gen­er­a­tion has in­creased by 11 points, nearly twice the pace of all oth­er gen­er­a­tions. “They aren’t sat­is­fied with either side,” she says.
  • More than oth­er gen­er­a­tions, they be­lieve gov­ern­ment can play a pos­it­ive role in people’s lives. That could be good news for Demo­crats, but think of the events that have shaken Mil­len­ni­als’ faith in gov­ern­ment: Ir­aq, Kat­rina, the fin­an­cial crisis, and the Af­ford­able Care Act rol­lout. More than half of young voters think something run by the gov­ern­ment is usu­ally in­ef­fi­cient, up 9 points since 2009. The per­cent­age of Mil­len­ni­als who “trust the gov­ern­ment to do what’s right” all or most of the time fell from 44 per­cent in 2004 to 29 per­cent in 2013.
  • They’re skep­tic­al of big in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing cor­por­a­tions and churches. In a warn­ing to Demo­crats, Diggles writes, “Mil­len­ni­al voters are un­likely to align with a polit­ic­al party that ex­pects blind faith in large in­sti­tu­tions — either gov­ern­ment­al or non­gov­ern­ment­al.”
  • They are so­cially tol­er­ant, which raises severe prob­lems for the GOP.

However, both parties should cau­tion against ste­reo­typ­ing Mil­len­ni­als as lib­er­als or liber­tari­ans on so­cial is­sues by ex­tra­pol­at­ing their sup­port for a broad gay equal­ity agenda or marijuana leg­al­iz­a­tion. Re­pub­lic­ans may be able to re­vital­ize their con­nec­tion to Mil­len­ni­als voters by soften­ing their lan­guage around im­mig­ra­tion, gay and les­bi­an people, and single moth­ers, without com­prom­ising their po­s­i­tions on core is­sues to the party, such as abor­tion. If the GOP can meld some more liber­tari­an views with re­li­gious ones and ad­voc­ate for smal­ler, more ef­fect­ive gov­ern­ment rather than no gov­ern­ment, they may have a chance to close the mar­gin with Mil­len­ni­als. Short of these steps, though, it is hard to see how Re­pub­lic­ans will gain sig­ni­fic­ant ground with this mod­ern gen­er­a­tion in the near term.

Look­ing at the fu­ture of U.S. polit­ics through the prism of Mil­len­ni­als’ at­ti­tudes today, you’d much prefer the Demo­crat­ic Party’s prob­lems over the GOP’s. But the safest best is against both parties — at least as they’re cur­rently aligned against mod­ern­ity. Mil­len­ni­als, Diggles con­cludes, “have the po­ten­tial to shake up Amer­ic­an polit­ics as we know it — and both parties must re­as­sess their mes­sage to ap­peal to them.”


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