Will young people save American democracy from Republican authoritarians? It's not that simple

Unlike past generations, younger voters are not growing more conservative with age

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 9, 2023 5:45AM (EST)

A young man who just voted shows his voting sticker in Plano, Texas, the United States, on Nov. 8, 2022.  (Xin Jin/Xinhua via Getty Images)
A young man who just voted shows his voting sticker in Plano, Texas, the United States, on Nov. 8, 2022. (Xin Jin/Xinhua via Getty Images)

America and the world are facing a range of existential crises and other serious problems.

These challenges are immediate as well as slower and long-term.

They include global climate collapse; resource scarcity; overpopulation; extreme wealth and income inequality; corporatocracy; war; disruptive new technologies like social media, algorithms, and artificial intelligence; pandemics; authoritarianism, fake populism and other forms of illiberalism and extremism; hyper-politics and future shock; the expansion of the surveillance society; and a global legitimacy crisis that malign actors are using to undermine democracy and societal institutions more broadly.

Will the young people save us? That is as much a question as it is an exclamation, plea and statement of exhaustion and surrender.

There are reasons to be hopeful.

As seen in the 2022 midterms, young voters (ages 18-29) were key to defeating the Republican-fascists and their attempt to end multiracial democracy.

And as compared to older Americans, young people are also more likely to support the types of bold and transformative policies required to slow down the global climate disaster, expand the social safety net, improve intergenerational class mobility and create a more humane and inclusive society across a range of issues and policies.

The Republican Party and the "conservative" movement know that time and generational replacement are not on their side. As the United States becomes more racially diverse and young people become more politically active, the Democratic Party will likely grow its base of support to a point where the Republican Party may become obsolete.

In all, the American right wing opposes real democracy and the principle of "one person, one vote" because their policies are unpopular with a growing segment (if not a majority) of the American people.

Instead of broadening their base and changing their policies to win "free and fair elections" in a democracy, today's Republican Party, the "conservative" movement and their forces have instead decided to create an American apartheid Christofascist plutocracy as a way of getting and keeping political power and control over society for all time.

A new analysis by the Financial Times of polling data from the US General Social Survey, American National Election Studies, British Election Survey, and the Cooperative Election Study provides more evidence of how the generational tides appear to be turning against today's Republican Party and the forces of "conservatism" here in the United States (and in the UK respectively).

Data reporter John Burn-Murdoch explains how:

Millennials — born between 1981 and 1996 — started out on the same trajectory, but then something changed. The shift has striking implications for the UK's Conservatives and US Republicans, who can no longer simply rely on their base being replenished as the years pass….

Let's start with age effects, and the oldest rule in politics: people become more conservative with age. If millennials' liberal inclinations are merely a result of this age effect, then at age 35 they too should be around five points less conservative than the national average, and can be relied upon to gradually become more conservative. In fact, they're more like 15 points less conservative, and in both Britain and the US are by far the least conservative 35-year-olds in recorded history.

On to period effects. Could some force be pushing voters of all ages away from the right? In the UK there has certainly been an event. Support for the Tories plummeted across all ages during Liz Truss's brief tenure, and has only partially rebounded. But a population-wide effect cannot completely explain millennials' liberal exceptionalism, nor why we see the same pattern in the US without the same shock.

So the most likely explanation is a cohort effect — that millennials have developed different values to previous generations, shaped by experiences unique to them, and they do not feel conservatives share these.

This is borne out by US survey data showing that, having reached political maturity in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, millennials are tacking much further to the left on economics than previous generations did, favouring greater redistribution from rich to poor.

Murdoch concludes:

The data is clear that millennials are not simply going to age into conservatism…. UK millennials and their "Gen Z" younger cousins will probably cast more votes than boomers in the next general election. After years of being considered an electoral afterthought, their vote will soon be pivotal. Without drastic changes to both policy and messaging, that could consign conservative parties to an increasingly distant second place.

However, questions of politics and power and generational change in society are much more complex than a simple story of how young people are "naturally" more inclined towards positive social change than their parents and previous generations.

In the United States and other societies, young people spend much more time online and using social media and other digital technologies than older people. This makes younger people much more vulnerable to being targeted, recruited and radicalized by right-wing extremists, neofascists, white supremacists and other malign actors.

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Public health and other experts have also repeatedly found that young people are much more likely to report being lonely, socially atomized, and experiencing feelings of alienation than other groups. This also makes young people much more susceptible to radicalization and extremism.

Young white Americans – especially self-identified Republicans and conservatives – also possess high levels of racial resentment, racism, and other anti-Black and brown animus. The claim that young people will "cure" racism is largely a myth. The reality is that young white people are better at performing the public scripts of anti-racism, "colorblindness, "inclusion" and multiculturalism while at the same time privately possessing many of the same racist and white supremacist attitudes and values as their parents.

The American right wing and other anti-democracy forces are waging a multi-spectrum campaign to destroy the country's public schools, colleges, universities and other institutions of learning and replace them with a system of white supremacist authoritarian gangster capitalist Christofascist indoctrination that does not teach critical thinking, civics, real history, science, ethics, humane philosophy, or otherwise provide the tools necessary for responsible democratic citizenship.

As part of this larger project, for decades the American right wing has been recruiting and indoctrinating young people at the high school and college level (and younger) to attack and delegitimate the country's educational system from within. This involves enlisting "young conservatives" and other allied forces as agents in harassment campaigns targeting teachers, professors and other educators who are deemed to be committing thought crimes.

Those who believe that "the young people will save us" also have to confront how that group is not a monolith.

In a new essay at Vox, Christian Paz makes this intervention:

While they are more socially liberal, diverse, and open to progressive ideas than older generations, a large plurality still identify as politically moderate. They are mostly independents, eschewing partisan identity at a higher rate than older voters. And more liberal young people have less loyalty to the Democratic Party than their older peers — something that fueled Biden's unpopularity for most of the year, when this group of voters abandoned him. Meanwhile, the gender gap among young people is also ballooning. Young women, especially women of color, are much more Democratic than young men, according to Tufts University's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. And rural youth are much more Republican than those who live in cities.

I highlight all these nuances because young people are often talked about with too broad a brush, and that generality obscures the challenges that Democrats will eventually have with this group of voters. Whether people get more conservative as they age is a perennial question of political science and folk wisdom — "if you're under 30 and not a liberal, you have no heart, but if you're over 30 and not conservative, you have no brain," the saying goes. But research published in the University of Chicago's journal of politics shows that, for most people, political beliefs are longstanding and stable, but liberals are more likely to become more conservative than the other way around as people grow older. That aligns with research from Chicago Booth's Sam Peltzman, who argues that age 45 is when aging voters begin to change their political ideologies.

Late capitalism and the extremes of wealth and income inequality that it has generated (and profits from) have helped to birth a global legitimacy crisis – which is especially acute among younger people.  

Part of this crisis is being fueled by what historian Peter Turchin describes as "elite overproduction" in America and other capitalist societies where there are not enough opportunities available for younger people who are seeking intergenerational mobility, and at a minimum to do as well as their parents economically and in terms of social capital -- or ideally to enter (or remain in) the professional and managerial class (or perhaps even become a member of the elite or "ruling class").

A 2020 profile of Turchin at the Atlantic magazine explores his controversial theory:

The past 10 years or so have been discussion. That sickening crunch you now hear—steel twisting, rivets popping—­­is the sound of the ship hitting the iceberg.

"We are almost guaranteed" five hellish years, Turchin predicts, and likely a decade or more. The problem, he says, is that there are too many people like me. "You are ruling class," he said, with no more rancor than if he had informed me that I had brown hair, or a slightly newer iPhone than his. Of the three factors driving social violence, Turchin stresses most heavily "elite overproduction"—­the tendency of a society's ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. One way for a ruling class to grow is biologically—think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them. In the United States, elites over­produce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don't we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don't have power eventually turn on the ones who do.

In the United States, Turchin told me, you can see more and more aspirants fighting for a single job at, say, a prestigious law firm, or in an influential government sinecure, or (here it got personal) at a national magazine…. Elite jobs do not multiply as fast as elites do. There are still only 100 Senate seats, but more people than ever have enough money or degrees to think they should be running the country. "You have a situation now where there are many more elites fighting for the same position, and some portion of them will convert to counter-elites," Turchin said.

The Atlantic continues:

Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commoners' living standards slip—not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before—they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels. Commoners' lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising in­security becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies—and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.

Turchin's prognostications would be easier to dismiss as barstool theorizing if the disintegration were not happening now, roughly as the Seer of Storrs foretold 10 years ago.

Many of the great crises and other problems that are haunting American and global society have been identified as being caused by a "gerontocracy" that is unwilling to surrender power and get out of the way so that younger – and presumably more dynamic and bolder – leaders and other voices can take control over governance and society.

Writing at the Atlantic, Franklin Foer explores how:

Not so long ago, I would have described myself as sympathetic to the anti-gerontocracy critique. But the successes of the past Congress have convinced me otherwise. Biden, Schumer, and Pelosi presided over one of the most prolific legislative sessions in recent history. With the narrowest of margins, they have accomplished far more than anyone could have reasonably expected—and far more than their recent Democratic predecessors

One criticism of gerontocracy is that senior citizens are incapable of thinking toward the future, because they won't be around for it. (Indeed, older voters can be terrible NIMBYs and cultural reactionaries. I won't apologize for them.) But the 117th Congress has passed a series of bills containing significant investments—in clean energy, in semiconductor manufacturing, and in infrastructure—that the older leaders might not even live to fully enjoy. They spent heavily to decarbonize the economy and to maintain national competitiveness for generations. And they temporarily expanded the child tax credit, a massive intergenerational transfer of wealth.

All of this suggests that at the end of their career, these leaders weren't thinking about clinging to power so much as attempting to write the first lines of their obituary.

Foer concludes:

To put my argument a bit more carefully, neither age nor youth is inherently virtuous... But the fetishization of youthful vigor—the yearning for the charismatic fresh face—is an ingrained cultural impulse that tends to disregard many of the qualities that make for an effective politician. The good news for the Democrats is that this is probably the ideal moment for generational turnover and opens the thrilling possibility of the nation's first Black speaker. Because of their midterm defeat in the House, they don't have much power to wield in Congress. That means fresh leadership will have time to learn on the job, without blowing significant opportunities. And the thing about young leaders is that someday they might become old. Long live Hakeem Jeffries.

In the end, power and decision-making are a function of both societal structures and institutions, as well as individuals and their morals, leadership styles and approaches to decision-making.

There are good leaders and thinkers among both the young and the old. Likewise, there are malign actors, the selfish and the grossly self-interested, and evildoers across all age groups.

Ultimately, the age of the leaders and other influentials will not make much of a difference if a society is not healthy. Why? In the end they will all be touched, tainted, molded and bent by that same system of corrupt power. 

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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