Maybe the important gap in next month’s election isn’t only gender. Maybe it’s generational, too.
The gender gap — yawning again this political season — has been a hardy perennial of American politics for 40 years, first emerging in the 1980 election, when Jimmy Carter outperformed Ronald Reagan among women by 8 percentage points. But the generation gap that is emerging in the 2020 political cycle has the potential to have as much effect on American politics as the gender gap had in the past four decades — perhaps to redeem the statement Richard M. Nixon made in an election in which Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey had a 9-point advantage among voters under 30.
More than a half-century later — and when the voting age is 18, not 21 — a series of polls shows former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. with a substantial edge over President Donald Trump among young voters. The Forbes Under 30 Voter Survey, for example, gives Biden a 22-point advantage. At this point in a political column like this, readers often ask the same vital question: “Fine, but will they vote?” A separate poll undertaken by the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government found that 63% of young people say they will “definitely be voting” — a huge surge from the 47% of the same age group surveyed at this point in the 2016 election cycle.
Why? A third poll holds the answer. More than 4 out of 5 of these young people, according to a survey conducted by the Tisch College at Tufts University, say they believe their generation has the power to change the country, with 3 out of 5 saying they consider themselves part of a movement determined to express its views.
This is both a new phenomenon and a very old one.
But either way, it is potentially a very powerful one. And it occurs in a circumstance in which, historically, young people have had enormous influence. This year — with young people in the streets calling for a new American reckoning on race and, according to polls, with their political awareness heightened because of the coronavirus — voters under 30 are choosing between a Republican candidate who is 74 years old and a Democratic candidate who is 77 years old.
“So much of the energy we are seeing in protests and movements is coming out of a young demographic,” Democratic Gov. John Carney of Delaware said in an interview, “and that energy comes from a generation different from that of the nominees.”
In some ways, that is part of a great American tradition. In a landmark 1961 article in Political Science Quarterly titled, “The Founding Fathers: Young Men of the Revolution,” historians Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick wrote, “The Republic is now very old, as republics go, yet it was young once, and so were its followers.”
Three-quarters of a century after the American Revolution, a number of insurgencies emerged with telling names and important adherents: Young England (with Benjamin Disraeli), Young Ireland (with a group that would for a time ally with Daniel O’Connell), Young Italy (Giuseppe Mazzini), the Young Hegelians (Karl Marx and other firebrands) and Young America (radicals from New York and the Northeast). These were nationalist, liberal, democratic movements of the 1840s determined to reform their respective countries, feeding into the doomed revolutions of 1848 but shaping their nations’ futures nonetheless.
More recently, the communist gerontocracies that ran the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were challenged by young people in the 1980s. Eventually, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, in part because of a subculture of East German youth who were insistent on political reform and greater freedom.
Today, the two presidential candidates seem completely out of sync stylistically, if not also politically, with the young people who are providing the energy of cultural change in the streets; the Tufts survey indicates that more than one-quarter of young people have participated in street protests.
Just as in the 1960s, remembered and romanticized as a time of great youthful liberalism, many young people are hardening their conservatism just as their generational peers are hardening their progressivism. But though Robert Frost wrote he “never dared be radical when young/For fear it would make me conservative when old,” the progressives in this 21st-century generation outnumber the conservatives, at least for now, and they have reshaped the Democrats.
“The Democratic Party has taken a turn to the left,” said Alice Stewart, a Republican political consultant who was the communications director for the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. “Moved by the younger generation that is more liberal than their parents, the party is far more to the left than it has been in the past.”
That, of course, is part of Donald Trump’s argument as he seeks to prevail over Biden, who is trying to balance traditional Democratic constituencies with the young people who powered the winter primary candidacies of Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, both of whom advocated the Green New Deal and a single-payer health care scheme.
History never quite repeats itself, but in the early 1960s, an old-guard government led by a Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan, suddenly was undermined by a new youthful, satirical culture led by Private Eye magazine and the BBC’s “That Was the Week That Was” with David Frost, both of which ridiculed the outdated politicians who ran the country. The Labour Party won the 1964 election. Suddenly Britain was known for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Here, however, younger voters must chose between two septuagenarians, both molded in the past.
“You have an old Republican guy who took over the party, and on the Democratic side you have a warmed-over version of the last 30 or 40 years,” said Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist. “If everything was ‘righter’ — made more sense — we would have two late-40s or mid-50s candidates who speak to both ideologies. There’s an institutional vacuum in our politics now.”
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.