In an op-ed titled “Gen X, Right-Wing Bastion?”, Ross Douthat explores why his generation has become the future of the GOP. He offers several theories for why Xers lean Republican—one being that they grew up “amid [the] wreckage of emotivist liberalism” and want to avoid its failures. (The New York Times)
NH: Ross Douthat, a late-wave Xer (born 1979), offers a helpful corrective to the simplistic generational narrative on the 2020 election we often see on social media.
The narrative is this. The Boomer and Silent generations, who grew up as children before the civil rights revolution, are still stuck socially and culturally in the retrograde 1950s. Younger generations are trying to jolt America into a new era, and these are being led at the younger edge by a more confident, outspoken, and woke Millennial Generation.
For what it's worth, this narrative does explain the steep partisan age gradient between voters 65 and over versus voters under age 40. According to Pew's latest survey, 52% of the former (of all registered voters) plan to vote for Trump versus 30% of the latter.
That's a steeper age difference than we've measured in any earlier postwar election. It arose over the late Bush 2 and Obama years, and it really hasn't changed much at all since 2016. (See also "Around The States In 50 Days.")
But there's one huge fact it doesn't explain. And that is the leanings of the teeming age bracket in-between: registered voters now 40 to 64. In 2020, this bracket almost exactly overlaps with Generation X (born 1961-1981). They have no personal memory of the 1950s nor the "American High."
Their first childhood memories were of a nation wracked by countercultural change in social and family life and demoralized by Vietnam, Watergate, the Iran hostages. They recall nothing before the civil rights revolution. And the first president that many of them voted for was Ronald Reagan in 1980 or 1984.
Why does all this matter? Because these early life experiences shaped in Gen-Xers a broadly libertarian disengagement from politics (relative to older and younger generations). They are, for example, less likely to vote and run for office than other generations at the same age.
Yet when Xers do engage, these experiences have tilted them toward the Republican Party. As governors and congressmen, Xers are disproportionately Republican. Likewise, again adjusted for age, they have been more likely to vote Republican throughout most of their lives. I have written often on this topic. See, for example, "Why Does America Have Old Leaders?," "Who Is Gen Jones?" "Gen X's Short-Lived Presidential Spotlight," and "Incoming Gen-Xers Carry the Midterms."
Now let's go back to the recent Pew survey of 2020 voting intentions. Americans age 40-64 intend to vote for Trump, 51% to 48%. This hardly differs at all from Americans age 65+, 52% to 46%. So in this respect at least, Xers are siding with Boomers and seem to have little in common with Millennials. Indeed, most surveys that differentiate between first-wave "Reagan" Xers (born in the 1960s) and last-wave "Clinton" Xers (born in the 1970s) show that these first-wavers tilt even more heavily toward the GOP. In 2020, it's possible that they may out-do any other age group in favoring Trump.
Douthat's oped (subtitled "What it means that my generation is the future of the GOP") offers some interesting background on the life experiences that go into this outlook. Allow me to quote from him at some length:
"There is an emotivism and narcissism that millennial liberalism and boomer liberalism seem to share, and in strong doses it’s poison for institutions. The ironic communitarianism of Gen-X conservatism probably isn’t the perfect antidote, but it may be all we’ve got."
He goes on: "Gen X conservatives come by their hostility to emotivist liberalism honestly, because many of us grew up amid its wreckage. To grow up in the ’70s or ’80s was to come of age just after liberalism’s last high tide, and to see evidence of its failures all around — from the urban blight and ugliness left by utopian renewal projects to the adult disarray and childhood misery sowed by the ideology of sexual liberation in its Hefnerian phase."
Finally, Douthat does concede that Xers are doomed to be the generation out-of-step. He sees that Xers have chosen against following the "emotivist liberalism" first championed by Boomers. Yet he also sees that Millennials will never follow the Xer path.
"Americans younger than us have seen a lot of elite failure in the last 20 years, much of it conservative or centrist, and the idea of voting Republican, let alone for Trump, because of liberalism’s dangers seems to many of them absurd."
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ABOUT NEIL HOWE
Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.
A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.
Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."
Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.
Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.
Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.