Why Teenagers Today May Grow Up Conservative

by David Leonhardt – from the New York Times –

There was a time not so long ago when the young seemed destined to be liberal forever. Americans in their teens and 20s were to the left of their elders on social issues. They worried more about poverty. They voted strongly Democratic.

In retrospect, we refer to this period as the 1960s, and it didn’t last long, let alone forever. Less than a generation after young people were marching for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, they voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan.

Today, of course, the young are liberal again, and it seems as if they will be forever. They favor same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, stricter gun laws, citizenship for illegal immigrants and an activist government that fights climate change and inequality. The Republican Party, as you have probably noticed, does not.

But the temporary nature of the 1960s should serve as a reminder that politics change. What seems permanent can become fleeting. And the Democratic Party, for all its strengths among Americans under 40, has some serious vulnerabilities, too.

In the simplest terms, the Democrats control the White House (and, for now, the Senate) at a time when the country is struggling. Economic growth has been disappointing for almost 15 years now. Most Americans think this country is on the wrong track. Our foreign policy often seems messy and complex, at best.

To Americans in their 20s and early 30s — the so-called millennials — many of these problems have their roots in George W. Bush’s presidency. But think about people who were born in 1998, the youngest eligible voters in the next presidential election. They are too young to remember much about the Bush years or the excitement surrounding the first Obama presidential campaign. They instead are coming of age with a Democratic president who often seems unable to fix the world’s problems.

“We’re in a period in which the federal government is simply not performing,” says Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center, the author of a recent book on generational politics, “and that can’t be good for the Democrats.”

Academic research has found that generations do indeed have ideological identities. People are particularly shaped by events as they first become aware of the world, starting as young as 10 years old, as a new analysis by the political scientists Yair Ghitza and Andrew Gelman notes. (My colleague Amanda Cox has created an online interactive graphic, based on the analysis, that lets you track the political views of every birth year since 1937. Because race adds a variable, it applies most reliably to whites.)

The generation that came of age during the five presidential terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman leaned Democratic for its entire life. So have those young liberals of the 1960s, who learned American politics through the glamour of John F. Kennedy. The babies of the late 1960s and early 1970s, who entered political consciousness during the Reagan years, lean Republican. Think Alex P. Keaton, the conservative child of hippies from the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties.”

These identities are a more useful guide to American politics than the largely useless cliché about adults starting off liberal and slowly becoming more conservative. Like a broken clock, that cliché can seem accurate at times, mostly thanks to luck.

Among today’s teenagers, Democrats do start with some big advantages. For one thing, the next generation of voters is an ethnically diverse group: About 45 percent of American citizens in their teenage years are either Latino or a member of a racial minority, compared with only 29 percent of citizens 20 and older.

And Republicans continue to struggle mightily among nonwhites, in ways that may transcend generational identities. Almost 35 years have passed since Reagan reportedly said: “Hispanics are already Republican. They just don’t know it.”

His point was that Hispanic voters would follow the same political path as earlier immigrant groups, like Italians and Irish, and move right as they assimilated.

But Reagan appears to have been wrong on this score: Even as Hispanics —and Asian-Americans — are assimilating, they are remaining Democratic. Many still seem decidedly turned off by the attitudes of today’s aging, white Republican party. If those groups remain liberal, as African-Americans and Jews have, demographic arithmetic dictates that Democrats will be favored to win presidential elections for the foreseeable future.

With that advantage, however, comes a funny kind of problem. The Democrats are the majority party when the country is in a bit of a funk.

President Obama and many other Democrats argue that they could help lift this funk if congressional Republicans weren’t blocking nearly every Democratic proposal. The Democrats essentially won that debate in 2012 and will probably be favored to win it again in 2016. But the case will become harder to make with each passing year if living standards do not start to rise at a healthy clip for most households — which has not happened since the 1990s.

This dynamic is likely to be Hillary Clinton’s biggest weakness, either as a candidate or as a president. Talking about the Clinton-era 1990s boom — as she’ll surely do, to distance herself from today’s economy — will go only so far with voters too young to have any memories of the 1990s.

Some political analysts believe that teenagers are already showing less allegiance to the Democratic Party than Americans in their 20s, based on recent polling data. My own sense is that their argument rests on small, noisy sample sizes, and Mr. Taylor, of Pew, is also skeptical. The larger point, however, remains: The Democrats face challenges with today’s teenagers that they did not face with today’s 25- or 30-year-olds.

By any measure, Mr. Obama’s second term lacks the political drama of his first, when Democrats were passing sweeping legislation and the Tea Party sprang up in reaction. But the generational nature of politics means that the second Obama term still has enormous political import.

If he can execute his basic goals — if the economy improves and his health care, education and climate policies all seem to be basically working — it will pay political dividends for decades to come. We may not yet know who will be running for president in, say, 2024. We do know that Mr. Obama, like his predecessors, will still cast a shadow over the campaign.

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6 years ago

I also might add, however, that Barack Obama is not even the next thing to a socialist. He’s as war-like, cowardly, and conservative as any of his predecessors, including G. W. Bush, if Obama’s escalation, espansion and exacerbation of our already-disgusting war on Afghanistan and his escalation and expansion of G. W. Bush’s attacks on our Civil Liberties strongly indicate that.

7 years ago

the largely useless cliché about adults starting off liberal and slowly becoming more conservative. Like a broken clock, that cliché can seem accurate at times, mostly thanks to luck.
This is wishful thinking on his part. As we age we accumulate more knowledge and even a little wisdom to be able to see through the liberal lies. Too bad Leonhardt missed out on that.

Larry Branton
7 years ago


Ivan Berry
7 years ago

D.A., this is really really hard. No simple process is likely to work, and I don’t have all the answers nor even a good outline either, but…
First on the list is a movement to get rid of the Dept. of Education, return the schools to local and State control. This would take a long long time, even if it might eventually be done.
Next, begin a process of government withdrawing from the efforts we have seen in destroying families and households.
This is vitally important to the minorities among us. To get off dependancy must be a gradual and transitional process. People can’t just be dropped. Government caused this dependancy and you cannot blame those who got sucked in.

Scandinavia is a low population area, as are our socialist States that you mention, where neighbor helps neighbor, much like extended families did when I was growing up. It worked because when Great Aunt Maud was able, she did cooking, canning and crop work to support the family. As she got older and less able, she cared for the younger children. Once she was unable to care for the children, the older children took care of her. Socialism at its finest. That is the idealized version of “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need.”
The modern nuclear family is not the historical norm but came about when the U.S. became a more mobile society by private automobile ownership. Forces both economic and governmental caused migration to cities for jobs as the small family farms became more and more idle.
Children can feel compassion for others. They rely on emotion often at the expense of reason. That can be utilized to teach them the differences between systems of organization and government. Yes, it all involves education by responsible and knowledgable adults, but it is doable.
For instance, did you know that all governments are capitalistic? Capitalism is not the opposite of socialism. Socialism uses a managed capital economic policy. Free enterprise is its opposite.
So, can we afford to wait until schools that teach can be formed and brought up to speed? Can we take the time to dismantle the over-reaching central government’s departments and agencies. I don’t really know, but without that, there really is little hope for the once late great United States of America.
One thing that the elderly can do is join in literacy programs–maybe even lead and direct them–at public libraries and after school forums, teaching and reading from material that tells a story supporting the idealogy in it’s proper place, be it family or over a larger unit that cannot be relied upon to police itself (like many families did).
This is not in any way a common core type effort. It’s not to stamp out automatons, but develop critical thinking in the young. You can make a game out of discovering fallacies in some writer’s article or some survey or study. Using Aristotalian Logic and syllogisms, as I did with our two daughters, can develop minds that do not just accept the latest fad at face value.
That’s probably enough to indicate that my answers are not simple and may not even be doable, but it remains that we must first get the government out of the way before we can right our ship of state.

7 years ago
Reply to  Ivan Berry

Thanks Ivan. I reread your posts regularly and will continue to do so. Paul E, that goes for you too.

7 years ago

I think it is time for a little HISTORY lesson here……

The FACT that since January 2007 Democrats have had Control of AT LEAST 2/3 of the government.

For 6 of the last 8 years Democrats have Controlled 2/3rd’s the Government.
For 2 of the last 8 years Democrats have Controlled ALL of Government.

Things didn’t start falling apart until AFTER Democrats took Control of Government.

But all YOU Democrats want to do is BLAME Bush……

And for the NEXT 2 years, Democrats will again control at least 2/3rds of Government.

7 years ago

One of the things Ronald Reagan had in abundance was ‘positive attitude’. He won in spite of the RINOs, and my hope is that that people who believe in individual striving and success will come to conduct our nations affairs once again… at least for a period. “Things Change”, and we must accept that reality while pressing ahead into the unknown future.

Ivan Berry
7 years ago

As usual, D.A. and PaulE covered a lot in their briefs. But to add an additional take on the article, it seems that it was all over the board. Cause/effect was somewhat opaque. Now that more so-called minorities are being born or coming to our country, how important is it that many whites are getting a conservative bug? History has already shown that an oppressed class, be it the Irish under Brittish rule, Hispanics coming from a Patriarchy, Jews escaping European oppression, any put-upon people tend to be socialistic, sticking together through hell or high water. It was the same with depression era American extended families.
Even the Tea Party “we the people” movement tends to pit Us against Them. Not always in conservative ways, either. Note the differences within the movement and don’t be completely fooled that this is conservative is its entirety.
Socialism has even been increasing in some of the churches just because of the left’s war on religion. Some churches have already given up or been led astray by their leadership into embracing many of the social tenants of the Left.
When the pain becomes almost unbearable, many people will just turn more toward the government to fix what had been created by government in the first place. Generational variation? The generations under F.D.R. and Truman, those that came of age when the Left was at its most damaging, stayed with the Democrats who had only worsened the economy,
Jimmy Carter’s most effective instrument of the Socialist State was the creation of the Dept. of Education, and like most federal programs or agencies, it belied its name. It has had nothing to with educating our youth. It had all to with more central control.
No matter the climate in which a generation develops, without parents who know how to bring up a child in the way he should go, there is no force on earth that can nor should replace that. First, the parents must be informed and groomed to become the parents that they should be, without using any governmental or central authority to impart it.

The only way that comes readily to mind is the community and their elders, not dogmatically, but with reason and exposure to those tennants that made America Good and strong in the first place. We keep coming back to logic and critical thinking, without which nothing can be beneficially taught. Good story-telling is a great help, especially when messages are gently expressed within.

7 years ago
Reply to  Ivan Berry

I would add to the list the Scandinavians who struggled for millennia to survive ten month winters. Socialism was a natural reaction but has extended itself into the new world in the form of a good natured version. The leeches and parasites noticed this and have flocked to Minnesota and Wisconsin to enjoy generous freebies. How long the storied niceness will last is anyone’s guess. I know you have studied this stuff for awhile and am very interested in how you visualize possible good outcomes for our country. The bad is fairly obvious. More specifically, since it takes tons of focused instruction to raise a conservative kid and the easy default situation is liberalism, or slouching towards Gomorrah, is it not reasonable to imagine some form of activism on the part of younger people as being the only viable cure for our death spiral? Further, since conservatism tends rather strongly towards leaving people alone, wouldn’t this imply something along the lines of a cast for a broken leg. Temporary loss of freedom for the higher good of healing. I am being vague because I can’t see even the outlines of this, yet it seems obvious that simply reacting to each stabbing knife thrust inflicted on this country will never result in anything resembling victory. Like the moose in the jack London story, a thousand wounds and fatigue will bring the great beast to its knees. The wolves know this and are patient. Clearly there is something missing. As important as the arising of the tea party movements was, it was and is composed of older people. It’s hard to imagine the over fifty set being the driving force in any lasting restoration.

Ivan Berry
7 years ago
Reply to  D.A.

D.A., in a somewhat earlier post in answer to your query, I listed some things of a classical liberal (not leftist) nature in training our youth. It’s at the top of the comments page as of right now.
But in order for any efforts to gain fruit, we must address the one central problem this nation and the world faces, and that is the United Nations agendas, be it global warming, agenda 21, common core, policing the world (as it destroys the U.S.), the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, population control–including forced abortion, NATO, The World Bank, world-wide communism/socialism (directly contained within the U.N.), sustainability programs (that are anything but sustainable),rights of the child that remove parental rights, drug wars that spread the problem but do nothing to correct it, Gun confiscation and dis-armament of civilians (gun prohibition–no self defense), human rights that are under the jurisdiction of governments that can issue as well as recend rights at the governments’ will, these and many more one world order tools that have been in growing effect since 1945. Get us out of the U.N. and the U.N. out of the U.S.
If we do not get out of the U.N., we will still be plagued with crony capitalism and lobbyists calling the shots and selecting our candidates for office. The Establishment will stay in charge. Neither the U.N. nor establishment politicians have the U.S.’s interests at heart. We will still be roped into win-less wars that no other nation will be willing to join in force (nor should they) since it’s America’s job to be the world policeman.
That world body will continue to have its hands on our national parks and world heritage sites and our wilderness (federal lands that were promised to be relinquished to the western States).
On top of that, whether a person is religious or not, the golden rule (do unto others as you would have others do unto you) is still a valid rule to teach. Another rule, (borrowed from Michael Connelly) is “everybody counts or nobody counts.”
Under World Government as it’s proponents in the U.N. will impose, nobody counts.
Get us out of the United Nations and the United Nations out of the United States.

7 years ago

Leonhardt’s premus seems generally sound, however I must take issue with the idea that anyone in the Bush family is anything but a Liberal Progressive Facist at best. and in the Case of Jeb, bordering on Democrat Marxist.
The fact is, these RINO’s of the Republican establishment are a bigger menace than the Democrat Maoist’s because they pose as conservative yet continue to push the globalist power elite’s “New World Order” agenda at every turn.
They, and the managed media hide the historical fact that they made their original fortune laundering Hitler’s money until 1942 when the Federal Government forced them to stop. The so-called “Patriot Act” is a great example of how the bush clique’ has undermined our freedom and turned the military industrial complex and it’s spy agencies toward war on we the people. Especially we the Patriots. Notice how real conservatives who stand for the Bible and the Constitution are now labeled by the gubbermint as domestic terrorists. The power elite had the Patriot Act written and waiting in the wings until the day they would launch their false flag op we now know as 9/11. Wake up people! Stop sipping the cool aide, and stop supporting the Neocon’s con job. They never take a hard stand against the Dem’s criminal intentions and schemes. They never support the full meaning of the constitution. They never will stop the spending. They are globalist’s not Patriots. The Republican party took Johnson’s “great society plan and made it worse and got that version passed to start the welfare state we now live with. The Republicans forced socialist progressive taxes on us by way of the IRS they created on behaf of the Bankster Elite. The Republicans forced the Federal Reserve private central bank on us to control our money. This criminal organization is never audited or controlled by the government, and has destroyed our economy and confiscated our wealth, but see if any Repub ever stands against the real threat to our liberty. They never will. They are the creators of the lie. Vote Tea Party for the real change we all want.
The change that will legalize the Constitutional Republic once more.


Roger Short
7 years ago

Well said, Joe. I have two grandchildren, ages 5 and 9, and I fear for their future. Only liars and idiots can believe that America’s best days are ahead, and unfortunately, most of those kind of people voted for Obama! The future of this country is doomed, and you are right about the impending economic collapse. When it occurs, I don’t want to even be here on earth anymore, because it will be absolute hell, and anyone who owns a home, property, and has money will have to live in fear for their very lives!

Joe McHugh
7 years ago

Did you notice the bright cheerful smiles on the faces of those four teenagers in the included photo? This reflects the natural enthusiasm that all Americans exhibit at that age. Poor fools. They don’t really appreciate what a struggle they will have in just trying to live a normal lifestyle when the awful results of their parents and grandparent’s behaviors manifest themselves.
Each generation has to make its own way during its life cycle but the teenagers of today are starting out with a ball and chain also known as the national debt. Worse, there is a very good chance that the American economy will suffer a catastrophic economic collapse soon. Such a collapse will make the Great Depression look like a walk in the park on a rainy day.
Gone will be their smiles and gone will be their enthusiasm. They will be grimly toiling just to survive while cursing the previous generations for their selfishness. We all know that we are doing this to our children and their children but we continue to spend their futures by borrowing money from countries that are not our friends.
Something evil this way comes and no one will be happy when it arrives. When the Piper demands his due, he will not accept I.O.U.’s. He will take away everything that is precious to us, he will take away our children’s respect for us.
And guess what? We don’t deserve respect for what we are doing right now.

Roger Short
7 years ago

Paul, you are very well informed. You get it, and it’s too bad that there aren’t a lot more people like you in this country. I attended college in the late 60’s and early 70’s, which were a very turbulent time in our country. I came to college knowing very little about politics, nor did I care much either. That soon changed, when I began to encounter liberalism, and what it was all about. I recognized, early on, that liberalism was a crock, as you said, and far worse than that! It has systematically destroyed this country, to the point where it is nothing like the country I knew as a young child. Liberalism doesn’t work, nor does socialism! It only makes things worse, and we have clearly seen those results. I am a Christian, and like many of my Christian friends, I believe that Obama is an evil man. It is a strong statement to make, and I have angered some people by saying it, but I truly believe it, and with each passing day, Obama keeps confirming my belief! The man is totally power mad, and he thinks that nothing can stop him from doing what he wants to do to this country. I fear that this could be the sad truth, because of the ignorance of the American people, and the evil and crooked politicians and media who continually defend Obama, no matter what he does. It truly is a frightening situation, and it makes me look forward, all the more, to the day that I’m no longer living on this earth, but in a far better place where I won’t have to listen to all that liberal crap! Sorry liberals, but I guarantee you that there will be far more conservatives in Heaven than liberals, and the media and the politicians won’t be able to help you get there, because there will be no elections for that, and God sees through all of your lies!

7 years ago
Reply to  Roger Short


7 years ago

Here’s what shook most Americans in the 1960s and 1970s out of their love affair with what you refer to as liberalism:

You had LBJ launch his War On Poverty, which was an incredibly destructive action against the black family unit in this country. The War on Poverty also opened the doors to massive government spending, which wiped out our budget surpluses and began a long, steady decent into deficit financing. The War on Poverty resulted in trillions being spent to effectively do nothing, but grow the size and scope of government.

Nixon, while being a Republican, embraced price controls, wage controls, created new federal government agencies and largely continued the “liberal” march forward. He just did it at a somewhat slower pace than LBJ.

Carter was the quintessential “Washington outsider”. A former Georgia Governor and peanut farmer, who won easily after Ford pardoned Nixon. Carter created more government agencies, essentially mothballed nuclear power development in this country. Today, Russia, Europe and China have far surpassed us in both nuclear technology used for power generation, but in their current and future plans for nuclear as a percentage of their total energy generation. We’ve spent lavishly on “renewable energy” projects since the 1970s, mostly solar and wind that Carter claimed would give us “energy independence” from OPEC in a decade or two. Today solar and wind, which we have “invested” hundreds of billions of dollars on since the 1970’s, still only account for 5 percent of our energy needs. No one who seriously understands either of these technologies would expect them to produce more than 10 percent of our total power needs for at least the next 30 years. Still this is what we “invest” the lion share of government energy research on.

Carter also allowed OPEC to hold this country hostage and we had the pleasure of odd-even gasoline lines. His emphasis was on America has gotten as far as it acn go and we have to be prepared for our decline. Generally a message of defeat and surrender to the world around him. The liberal solutions of more price controls only made the situation worse. Inflation soared and people weren’t ready to accept Carter’s view of a U.S. in decline.

Carter also was inept when it came to foreign policy. His most notable being the complete mishandling of the Iranian embassy crisis that lasted 444 days until Reagan was elected. Helicopters that couldn’t fly. No strong stance against a bunch of thugs holding Americans hostage, while Americans wondered “Is this the best we can do?”

What shook us out of this downward spiral was Reagan. He had a positive vision for this country and the American people were fed up with being told by Carter and the rest of Washington that “We have to accept that we can’t change things that much”. The Republican party didn’t want Reagan as the nominee by the way. They wanted Bush. A moderate like Ford, who would basically just follow the existing playbook. What Washington hadn’t counted on was the American people wanted more than just “getting by and accepting whatever the powers that be deemed we should accept”. They wanted a leader who wanted more for America than a slow decline into oblivion and wasn’t afraid of his own party, the opposition party or the mainstream media. All of which wanted business as usual.

So how do we get young people, who have grown up largely in an environment where they’re told America is evil, where we are the root cause of all the world’s woes, where capitalism is bad and socialism is good to become conservative? We have to re-educate them to understand that much of what has been spoon fed to them has been lies and distortions designed to reduce their ability to succeed in the future. It’s not a quick fix, because there is none. It is a slow, laborious process made all the more difficult by the fact that the progressive (socialist) agenda is much more ingrained in today’s society than back in the 1970s. So many of their parents today also believe in the progressive agenda. Where most people over the age of 40 in the 1970s instinctively knew liberalism was a crock. Do NOT preach to them. Coming off as adversarial just makes them tune you out. There is a difference in tone. Try having a conversation with them about how conservative fiscal values, while using real world examples being applied to the world around them. Ultimately, if they’re open minded at all, they’ll see that conservative fiscal values provides more opportunities and choices for them to succeed than anything socialism has to offer. Make it relative to their day to day lives. Avoid falling back on abstract Republican talking points, that are largely ineffectual.

7 years ago
Reply to  PaulE

Well said Paul E. I have been enjoying your comments for a few years now and always look forward to the next one!

7 years ago
Reply to  PaulE

Good analysis Paul. Carter’s actions with energy also started the destruction of the American Auto Industry. It forced the American Auto Industry to hastily produce small cars, which were pieces of junk (e.g. Pinto and Vega), which then forced people to buy small energy efficient cars from Japan. The Japanese auto manufacturers benefited greatly from Carter’s actions.

6 years ago
Reply to  PaulE

I read your comment with interest, PAULE, and I’ll say this: As a woman who was a teenager in the 1960’s, I consider myself a liberal whose ideology was tempered by a good dose of reality when the disastrous Federal Court-mandated, large-scale, cross-city school busing edict that took Boston by storm in the mid-1970’s, and gripped Boston with over-the-top racial tensions and hostilities for over a decade, and the scars are still born by the city and the people who were caught up in this whole busing thing and are still alive today.

Although I’m pro-choice, advocate Single Payer with Universal healthcare/Medicare for all Americans, support unions, support a 2-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian debacle, and have always supported school/neighborhood desegregation, I didn’t, and still don’t think that mandatory school busing (although it came about due to the Boston School Committee’s ham-handed policies.), was a good way to go about it. Had B-BURG (Boston banks urban renewal group) created integrated housing through the city of Boston instead of singling out Boston’s Jewish neighborhoods for that program, Boston’s public schools and neighborhoods alike would be more racially/ethnically and socioeconomically balanced and educationally much sounder for both non-white and white Boston school kids alike, there would’ve been a much better chance of neutralizing Louise Day Hicks and her cronies on the Boston Public School Committee, and it would’ve eliminated the need for the Federal Court-mandated School busing program that took Boston by storm, helped create even more bitterness and strife, and helped send already-existing racial tensions and hostilities in the city of Boston itself soaring way, way up over the top, and they reached extremely dangerous levels that had not been seen before, by either whites or non-whites in Boston.

7 years ago

Don’t you just love to hear libs wring their hands? This guy probably stares at the ceiling at night trying to sleep, worrying that there might be some area of life the progressive agenda hasn’t shaped to its will. Let’s see; they control education from preschool thru phd dissertation. Their minions in Hollywood produce propaganda worthy of goebbels and they are well on their way to bulldozing what’s left of free speech in this country. Since it’s easier to feel than to reason and kids are naturally more worried about clothes and dating and social events they tend towards liberalism anyway. Still, show a liberal a sign that his beliefs aren’t universally embraced and he trembles. Show him evidence that numbers of subjects are escaping the programming and he has kittens. The reason for their deep seated insecurity is that when an entire philosophy is based on lies, enormous energy must be spent on suppression . Outbreaks of truth must be stamped out like campfires in the tinder dry forest lest they gain a momentum that renders them unstoppable. Hence the neurasthenic angst at a conservative valedictorian or a prayer group staying after school. They’re correct to be scared. Be afraid, be very afraid.

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