A new paper reveals that millennials are more polarized than previous generations, and that more of them identify as conservative than either Generation Xers or Baby Boomers did at their age.
“High school seniors are more likely to identify as political conservatives now compared to 10 years ago,” the study’s lead author, Jean Twenge, a professor of political psychology at San Diego State University, told CNN. “Most surprising, more identify as conservatives now compared to the 1980s, presumably the era of the young conservative, such as the character Alex P. Keaton in the 1980s show ‘Family Ties.’ That goes against the common view of millennials are very liberal.”
The new study reviewed data on about 10 million American adults, from 1970 to 2015 compiled from the national Monitoring the Future survey, the Higher Education Research Institute’s American Freshman Survey, and the General Social Survey.
As entering college students, 23 percent of millennials identified themselves as leaning far right, compared to only 17 percent of Baby Boomers and 22 percent of Generation X members. Less than half of millennials (47 percent) said they were “middle-of-the-road,” compared to 50 percent of Baby Boomers and 53 percent of those in Generation X.
The study also compared political party affiliations, and the researchers discovered that twice as many adults had “extreme” political identifications in the current decade as compared with the 1970s. 1.6 percent of Americans identified as “extremely liberal” in 1972, while 3.7 percent described themselves that way in 2014. In 1972, 2.4 percent identified as “extremely conservative,” and that number increased to 4.2 percent in 2014.
Ryne Sherman, associate professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University and a co-author of the study, told CNN this finding contradicted other research showing that “Americans are not polarized on the vast majority of issues,” specifically “government spending, taxes, military.” Instead, he suggested that increasing polarization came “in terms of political identification,” and suggests that “Americans are becoming increasingly divided over a relatively small number of differences.”
Specifically, Sherman pointed to political leaders, who “repeatedly emphasize these small differences and members rally around them.”
He also pointed to the echo chamber of the modern 24-hour Internet news cycle. “The rise of 24-hour news networks, the internet, and social media allows even greater control over the kinds of information, and from whom we access information, making these social identity processes even more powerful.”
“Interestingly, millennials spent nearly their entire lives with 24-hour news and the internet. Thus, this group as been most exposed to the ‘echo chamber’ sort of effect,” Sherman argued.
Next Page: If millennials are not more liberal, why do we think they are?
In seeking to explain increasing polarization as a focus on smaller issues, the researchers shifted to the issue of LGBT activism. Twenge pointed to research showing millennials to be “more supportive of LGBT rights, gender equality and racial equality compared to previous generations,” so “millennial conservatives may be focusing on issue other than these, for example, economic issues, gun rights.”
Conservatives can also explain this from their viewpoint, however. A millennial could support LGBT rights, gender equality, and racial equality in general, but have good reasons to mistrust the liberal line of argument on those issues. Millennials could also support religious freedom, and protest hefty fines on bakers who refuse to cater same-sex weddings. They could also be more skeptical about claims that women and racial minorities are being oppressed. After all, “Black Lives Matter” has championed false reports, and the claim that women earn 79 cents on every man’s dollar actually breaks down when you examine the statistics.
“So the current view of millennials as liberals might be due to their age — young people are more likely to be liberal,” Twenge noted. “But if you compare young people now to young people in previous decades, those now are more conservative.”
Other experts argued that the new paper does not necessarily show a major difference in political attitudes between millennials and previous generations at their age. David Hopkins, assistant professor of political science at Boston College, said the starting point of the data skewed the results.
“At that particular time,” Hopkins argued, “young people were especially unlikely to identify as Republicans or conservatives because of the short-term effects of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. If we exclude the 1970s from the analysis, it looks by my reading of the tables and figures as if the political attitudes of the young have remained fairly stable over time, and in some respects they have liberalized somewhat.” He said the polarization of millennials can be tied to the radicalization of their leaders.
Hopkins argued that “no generation — including the millennial generation — is in fact politically homogeneous.” This is important to remember every time millennials go crazy for Bernie Sanders. They may be the most vocal of the young generation, but these self-avowed socialists do not speak for all their peers. Generations are diverse, and they often fall back into the normal trends of the electorate.
Next Page: Are millennials really more Independent than other generations?
For example, the study found that more and more Americans are identifying as “Independent.” In 1989, 30 percent of adults identified this way, while a full 46 percent said so in 2014. Such a change would indeed be huge, but most of those claiming to be independents end up voting for Republicans or Democrats anyway.
59 percent of millennials identify as politically Independent. Twenge argued that this fact “is the most impactful for politics,” since “political parties are going to find it more and more difficult to reach millennial voters.” While this may be true of Bernie Sanders pushing the Democratic Party platform further left, it does not necessarily mean millennials will break for a third party or are truly Independent in some other way.
As much as Americans want to see Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson on stage at the presidential debates this Fall, a new CNN poll which put him at 7 percent nationally suggested that will not make the first debate, as the rules currently stand. Johnson has polled well with young voters, but not well enough, it seems.
If 59 percent of millennials — and 46 percent of Americans in general — were truly Independent, one might expect that in a year where both the Republican and Democrat candidates have historically high unfavorable ratings, the Libertarian candidate would be able to find more than 7 percent.
Millennials are not as liberal as you think, but that doesn’t mean America’s on the verge of a political revolution, one way or the other.