Is America turning to the left? Peter Beinart, in a widely-discussed Huffington Post piece, “The Rise of the New New Left”, thinks so. Pivoting off of Bill De Blasio’s win in the New York Democratic primary, where he ran on an unapologetically progressive platform and walloped his more cautious rivals, Beinart argues that the Millennial generation, with its distinctive outlook and experiences, is starting to assert itself politically. This will fundamentally change a political conversation that has been mired between conservative extremism and a diluted progressivism that seeks only modest mitigation of trends toward inequality and middle class stagnation.
Millennials, Beinart believes, do not accept the limits of this conversation. Here is how he describes the new generation:
America’s youngest adults are called “Millennials” because the 21st century was dawning as they entered their plastic years. Coming of age in the 21st century is of no inherent political significance. But this calendric shift has coincided with a genuine historical disruption. Compared to their Reagan-Clinton generation elders, Millennials are entering adulthood in an America where government provides much less economic security. And their economic experience in this newly deregulated America has been horrendous. This experience has not produced a common generational outlook. No such thing ever exists. But it is producing a distinct intragenerational argument, one that does not respect the ideological boundaries to which Americans have become accustomed. The Millennials are unlikely to play out their political conflicts between the yard lines Reagan and Clinton set out.
Is he right? My read of the data is certainly sympathetic to Beinart’s conclusion. He’s right that this generation’s outlook and experiences are fundamentally different and he is certainly right that they are poised to have a big impact, not least because of their sheer numbers:
He’s also right that Millennials have a fundamentally different way of thinking about government’s role that could transform our political conversation as it grows in influence. In a 2010 CAP survey we found:
• Sixty-two percent of Millennials — compared to just 46 percent of non-Millennials — believe “we need a strong government to handle today’s complex economic problems.”
• Half of Millennials say government should do more to solve problems, while only a third of non-Millenials share that view.
• Just under half of Millennials report a favorable view of the federal government, a considerably higher approval rating than the 30 percent of non-Millennials who have a favorable view of Washington.
• Forty-four percent of Millennials voice confidence in the federal government’s ability to solve problems, 14 points higher than do older generations. This generation gap in confidence has grown dramatically over the past decade.
• Millennials are 21 percentage points more likely than non-Millennials to call for increased government involvement in improving public schools (75 percent to 54 percent), and 17 points more inclined to favor governmental involvement in making college affordable (73 percent to 56 percent).
The roots of Millennials’ more pro-government outlook appears to lie in their more positive assessments of government performance. Young adults are more likely than their elders to believe government spends money efficiently. Millennials are also more likely to see their own values aligned with government policies. Three demographic patterns also contribute to Millennials’ support for government:
• They are more ethnically diverse, boasting an especially large number of generally pro-government young Hispanics.
• They are less susceptible to class divisions; notably, young whites without a college degree are less hostile to government than are older working-class whites
• Young Republicans and conservatives are less anti-government than their older ideological counterparts.
Of course, none of this is any guarantee that Beinart’s turn to the left will actually occur, nor does it tell us exactly what that left turn will look like. But I believe he is on to something that all politicians should pay attention to, perhaps especially those on the progressive side who aspire to represent this rising generation. Bold government action to address declining economic opportunities in America and a decisive rejection of Wall Street’s priorities are likely to be the winning formula.