I don’t often describe articles as “must-reads” but this Adam Bonica article (with great graphics) in the New York Times is a must-read. Bonica’s core argument is that generational shifts are way more powerful politically than people think and that the power of theses shifts–already substantial–can be dramatically enhanced by reforms to expand democracy.
Agree on both counts. I’ve been beating the drum for awhile on the profound significance of ongoing generational shifts (half of eligible voters will be Millennials or Post-Millennials [labelled Gen Z by Bonica] by 2020; two-thirds by 2032!) and hopefully Bonica’s article will help swell the chorus and solidify a linkage to democracy reform.
Some key points from Bonica’s article:
“While it is tempting to view elections as being decided in the moment, much of the groundwork is set in place decades earlier. Looking at survey data from the 1950s, political scientists observed that voters who came of age during the Great Depression identified as Democrats at much higher rates than prior and subsequent generations. The Great Depression and the remaking of American government during the New Deal left a lasting imprint on a generation of voters. A 2014 study by Andrew Gelman and Yair Ghitza demonstrates that the “political events of a voter’s teenage and early adult years, centered around the age of 18, are enormously important in the formation of these long-term partisan preferences.”
We often underappreciate how generational turnover affects our politics. As a generation of New Deal Democrats grew older (and more likely to vote), they created a generational advantage that helped Democrats maintain majority control of the House of Representatives for nearly four decades. When Republicans finally retook Congress in the 1994 election, it too was a predictable consequence of a changing electorate: The New Deal Democrats had given way to a solidly Republican generation of voters who came of age during the early years of the Cold War. This made the return of Republican majorities during the 1990s or 2000s likely, if not inevitable.
Once again, the nation is on the cusp of a generational revolution. As a group, millennials favor Democrats by nearly a 2 to 1 margin. Millennials are unlikely to trend Republican as they age so long as the current hyper-polarized political environment persists. However, they will become more likely to vote. (A general rule of thumb is that turnout increases by about one percentage point with each year of age.) This makes it possible to in essence fast-forward the electorate to forecast how the generational advantage will change over the next decade.
The Republican Party, after years of ascendancy, is about to fall off an electoral cliff. By 2026, according to an analysis of data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, millennials are expected to account for 19 percent of votes cast, up from 12 percent in 2014, with Democratic-leaning Gen Xers and Gen Zers accounting for an additional 34 percent. As this happens, the Republican-leaning Silent Generation is projected to account for 8 percent of votes cast in 2026, down from 23 percent in 2014…..
Carrying out practical and proven policies to increase voter turnout will swell Democratic majorities, strengthen the party’s mandate to govern and shore up support for progressive policies. Medicare for All would be a much easier sell if 18-year-olds turned out like 80-year-olds.
So would policies intended to combat economic inequality. Among advanced democracies, turnout in national elections is a strong predictor of income inequality. The United States has both the lowest turnout and highest share of income going to the top 1 percent. This is unlikely to be a coincidence. There are good theoretical reasons to believe the two are related….
Fixing our democracy is perhaps our best shot at getting Congress back to work on solving the serious problems facing the nation. Generational change is coming and with it an opportunity to fundamentally transform American government and who it serves, so long as Democrats insist on making voters mirror the population and do everything in their power to make it happen.”