Take an Independent white voter. Tell him that he is less than 30 years away from living in an America in which racial and ethnic minorities outnumber white people. Will he change the way he votes? According to a new study out of Northwestern University, he will lean hard to the right.
The survey found that white Independents who were faced with the prospect of a “majority-minority” America veered toward more conservative views. The same effect was found for Americans of all political affiliations. The researchers pin this reaction on “group-status threat.” As Jamelle Bouie asked Wednesday in Slate, does this mean that a more politically and racially polarized country is inevitable? Will white Americans crowd to the right of the political spectrum as we reach the majority-minority tipping point predicted for 2043? Maybe not.
Buried in the study’s methodology is one key data point: the mean age of participants was 45.12 years old. Middle-aged white Americans are not the future. Millenials are. Roughly defined as the 80 million Americans born between 1980 and 2000, millennials made up 29% of the electorate in 2012. Millenials are more diverse, more tolerant and more open to government solutions than their elder counterparts. All of these qualities indicate they will not react to “group-status threat” in the same way as their parents and grandparents.
Millennials are more diverse. The face of America is changing quickly. The most recent U.S. Census report found that racial and ethnic minorities make up about half of the under-5 age group for the first time in American history. The “whites” interviewed in the Northwestern study represent just 61% of the millennial generation, compared with 73% of Baby Boomers and 80% of the Silent Generation. That means that today’s young people are less segregated socially, culturally, and politically. As the public conversation around marriage equality has taught us, direct contact with people from other races, cultures and backgrounds can play a role in making millenials a more tolerant generation.
Millennials are more tolerant. Millennials have a pronounced generational identity. They are far more likely to see themselves as distinct from other generations, and one of the top reasons they give is their “liberalism and tolerance.” Polls confirm that millennials hold progressive views on race. Nine out of ten 18-29 year olds say they approve of interracial dating and marriage, compared with just seven out of ten Boomers. Also, Millennials are twice as likely to completely disagree with the statement, “I don’t have much in common with people of other races” as Gen X’ers were in the late 1980s. This tolerance extends to the newest Americans. The Pew Research Center found that “Millennials are more receptive to immigrants than are their elders. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) say immigrants strengthen the country… just 43% of adults ages 30 and older agree.”
Millennials are more open to activist government. Implicit in the Northwestern researchers’ argument is that conservatism is a natural response to a perceived attack on a group’s position in the hierarchy; an attitude of “us vs. them” leads to a view of a smaller and less inclusive government. Yet polls show that millennials are significantly more likely to believe in an activist government than their elders. Perhaps because they came of age during the Great Recession, more than half of millennials say that government should do more to solve problems. They are more likely to believe that government should reduce the income gap, improve public schools, and make college more affordable. They are also significantly more concerned about the environment, an issue area that by its very nature requires unified national action. Notably, even young Republicans and conservatives are less anti-government than their older conservative counterparts.
The Northwestern survey is reminiscent of another landmark study conducted in 2007, by Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame. Putnam found that in the short- to medium-run, increasing racial and ethnic diversity inhibits social solidarity and what he calls “social trust”.
New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.
But Putnam had another, more optimistic, part to his argument:
In the medium to long run, on the other hand, successful immigrant societies create new forms of social solidarity and dampen the negative effects of diversity by constructing new, more encompassing identities. Thus, the central challenge for modern, diversifying societies is to create a new, broader sense of ‘we’.
There is a truism in generational politics: the old will look to the young for guidance in a changing world. This is true from brands like Facebook to social issues like marriage equality. Millennials represent a new vision of the American character: comfortable with diversity, idealistic, and convinced that government can play a role in bringing about a more just world.
Millenials are less likely to shift their political views in response to a perceived majority-minority threat; instead, they are likely to shift the views of their elders away from fear and toward openness and tolerance.
Ben Wrobel is a Project Manager at Center for American Progress. Follow him on Twitter @BenWrobel.