Millennials Are Down on Government

That may be good news for Republicans.

President Barack Obama talks to millennials
National Journal
Emma Roller
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Emma Roller
March 19, 2014, 10:12 a.m.

Two re­cent stud­ies — one re­leased by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter and one by Third Way — show that the gen­er­a­tion that helped elect Pres­id­ent Obama in 2008 now iden­ti­fies as in­de­pend­ent more than ever. Mil­len­ni­als who may have voted with youth­ful ex­uber­ance in 2008 seem to have grown fa­tigued with the gov­ern­ment’s in­ab­il­ity to get things done.

In 2009, 42 per­cent of mil­len­ni­als said gov­ern­ment pro­grams are usu­ally in­ef­fi­cient and waste­ful, ac­cord­ing to Pew data. By 2012, that num­ber had in­creased to 51 per­cent. And young people say they’re los­ing trust in the gov­ern­ment to Do the Right Thing. In 2009, 44 per­cent of mil­len­ni­als said they trust the gov­ern­ment to do what’s right all or most of the time. By 2013, that dropped to 29 per­cent.

Per­haps as a res­ult of this polit­ic­al fa­tigue, more and more mil­len­ni­als are start­ing to identi­fy as polit­ic­ally in­de­pend­ent. Third Way — a think tank that ad­voc­ates for cent­rist pub­lic policy — says mil­len­ni­als may lean Demo­crat­ic, but more are opt­ing to pick and choose their polit­ics:

They may be vot­ing for Demo­crats by 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.

The study also found that mil­len­ni­als are more open to switch­ing brands than past gen­er­a­tions. Third Way found that 85 per­cent of mil­len­ni­als would be will­ing to switch brands if it aligned with a cause they sup­port.

You could ar­gue that the Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an parties are two of the biggest brands in the U.S. And like any good com­pany, they need to work to show the coveted 18-to-29-year-old pop­u­la­tion that they’re bet­ter than their com­pet­i­tion. (Pew defines mil­len­ni­als as people born between 1981 and 1996.)

Then again, mil­len­ni­als are opt­ing out of the Demo­crat­ic/Re­pub­lic­an brand war al­to­geth­er. Ac­cord­ing to Pew, each suc­cess­ive gen­er­a­tion has grown in­creas­ingly weary of strict party polit­ics. Since 2004, the por­tion of mil­len­ni­als who identi­fy as in­de­pend­ents has grown from 38 per­cent to 50 per­cent — more than the per­cent­age who identi­fy as Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic com­bined.

But just be­cause more mil­len­ni­als identi­fy as in­de­pend­ents doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily mean they’re more mod­er­ate than past gen­er­a­tions. The Pew study found that, over the past 10 years, mil­len­ni­als “have re­mained the most lib­er­al and least con­ser­vat­ive of the four gen­er­a­tions.”

Al­most a third of mil­len­ni­als identi­fy as lib­er­al, versus 39 per­cent who identi­fy as mod­er­ate and 26 per­cent who identi­fy as con­ser­vat­ive. The Si­lent Gen­er­a­tion iden­ti­fies as more Demo­crat­ic, but mil­len­ni­als are more lib­er­al.

Mil­len­ni­als have long been the car­buncle on the GOP’s back­side, but these stud­ies sug­gest some ways that Re­pub­lic­ans can make in­roads with young­er voters. Twentyso­methings today are less ideo­lo­gic­ally “pure” than older voters, and there­fore more likely to be swayed to one side or an­oth­er.

What lar­ger les­sons can we take from these stud­ies? Like Walt Whit­man, the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion con­tains mul­ti­tudes. Twentyso­methings today can’t be sim­pli­fied to the kef­fi­yeh-wear­ing, selfie-tak­ing hip­ster that graces a magazine cov­er story every three months.

But over­arch­ing trends seem to sug­gest a wan­ing be­lief that the gov­ern­ment can ac­tu­ally get things done, and a grow­ing be­lief that Amer­ica most draws its strength from en­tre­pren­eur­ship. To win over swaths of mil­len­ni­als in the next elec­tion, Demo­crats need to show they sup­port that en­tre­pren­eur­ship, and Re­pub­lic­ans need to show that they’re open to gov­ern­ment solu­tions where the free mar­ket fails.

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