Throughout modern history, it looks as if young people would be destined to lean towards liberalism. Conventional wisdom was that Americans in their teens and early 20s would always be political to the left of older generations; concerned about social issues and poverty, and reliably vote Democratic.
It was a pattern that held throughout the 1960s — with social unrest and protests over the Vietnam War — but ended less than a generation later, with the rise of President Ronald Reagan.
Now, young people are again liberals, especially when it comes to favoring same-sex marriage, gun laws, immigration, legalization of marijuana and income inequality — issues the Republican party does not.
But politics change, notes David Leonhardt in the New York Times, and the Democratic Party, which appeals to voters under 40 does have a few notable vulnerabilities.
Democrats have now controlled the White House and U.S. Senate for years, many of them during the worst parts of the Great Recession. Economic growth has been stagnant for the better part of 15 years and many Americans see the country as on the wrong track.
For Millennials—those in their 20s and 30s—the problem has roots in the George W. Bush years. However, for many born in 1998, the youngest age eligible to vote in the 2016 presidential race, the Bush years (as well as the early Obama years) are almost an abstract—they were simply too young to remember much of the hope and excitement surrounding the 2008 election.
They grew up in a world where a Democratic president was ineffective against many of the worlds problems.
“We’re in a period in which the federal government is simply not performing,” Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center told the Times, “and that can’t be good for the Democrats.”
Generations, studies show, take on an ideological slant, often starting when they are around 10 years old and beginning to gain an awareness of the larger world. The post-war generation was liberal, having grown up during Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, as did those coming of age in the early 1960s, shaped by the ideology of John F. Kennedy.
In contrast, children who were born in the late 1960s and early 1970s – whose first understanding of politics was shaped by the Reagan Revolution— lean more conservative and vote Republican.
Fast forward to today.
Democrats offer much for today’s teenagers, possibly the most diverse group in history. Nearly 45 percent of American teens are Latino or some other racial minority, compared to only 29 percent aged 20 or older. Republicans continue to struggle with non-white voters, and as those younger citizens assimilate, they gravitate to the Democrats.
If that trend continues, Democrats will have a stronghold on the White House for years to come.
But if the Democrats remain the majority party, they do so during a period which the country, according to Leonhardt, is in a “bit of a funk.” This could become problematic for Hillary Clinton in 2016, particularly if standards of living do not rise, or continue to drop.
If she runs, Clinton is expected to focus heavily on the booming 1990s of her husband’s presidency, distancing herself from the country’s current economic woes. However, it might be a narrative that rings hollow to voters that have no real recollections of the 1990s.
Leonhardt’s essential point is this: Democrats may soon face challenges with new teenage voters that they do not have with voters in their 20s and 30s.