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Voting Patterns Are More Complex Than We Realize


“Now prominent Tea Party-endorsed politicians have swept into positions of real influence, giving the rebel movement a taste of real power for the first time.”

“And they wonder why those of us in our twenties refuse to work an 80-hour week just so we can afford to buy their BMWs . . . as if we did not see them disembowel their revolution for a pair of running shoes.”

I must have watched the opening sequence of Reality Bites dozens of times in college, a decade removed from its Gen-X cast, an early Millennial abandoned between generations. Winona Ryder’s Lelaina sticks it to her parents in a valedictorian speech about the failings of the Baby Boomers to preserve a functioning society for generations to come. The tension between political action and nihilist resignation staccatos throughout the film, never really presenting a resolution. Leilana continues, “But the question remains, what are we going to do now? How can we repair all the damage we inherited?”

Many UK millennials woke up wondering the same thing after Brexit, fearing that a decision spurred in large part by older conservative Brits would plunge them into even more despair. A young Brit who has since been asked by the Financial Times to expand on his thoughts had his comments on the site go viral. In his post he said, “Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors.” Other outlets, too — like the Washington Post — have written about young Brits being upset by the older generation deciding their future.

Their frustrations are well-founded — it was indeed the older generation that used its voting power to influence Brexit. According to the Guardian, 64% of 18- to 24-year-olds (and 65% of 25- to 39-year-olds) voted, compared to 74% of those aged 55–64 and an incredible 90% of those over 65. And there’s no doubt that things could’ve turned out differently had more of the younger generation made it to the voting booth; after all, of the younger people who did vote, three-quarters didn’t want Brexit to happen.

If this sounds dire, it pales in comparison to what’s happening in the U.S. The United States would be lucky to have a youth turnout in the 60% range. In fact, it would be lucky to have any turnout in the 60s. The midterms of 2014 had a historically low turnout, especially among young people, who according to CIRCLE at Tufts University, only voted at 22.2%, compared to 36% overall. While young people have been a huge part of both Obama victories, they’ve dropped off in midterm years, when the ballot is closer to their block. And as in Britain, the younger generation in the U.S. is more progressive, and the older generation predominantly conservative.

This fact has led many to ring the alarm on Trump; after all, young people are not only more liberal, but particularly anti-Trump, so it’s worrisome to think they may not come out in full force on election day. And indeed, if young voters voted as they did in 2012, a relatively good year for youth turnout, the projection is that we’d wake up to this in November:

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And if they voted like they did in the historically low-turnout 2014 election? It’d look like this:

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Still, this story of young liberals hampering progress by not voting in the same numbers as older conservatives is often told at the expense of understanding how nuanced the big picture of voting patterns actually is. While youth turnout certainly plays a significant role in election results, it only tells part of the story.

Not Just Age, But Coming Of Age

A 2014 study from the Pew Research Center draws some interesting conclusions about how voting patterns aren’t dictated just by age, but by the political climate during someone’s coming of age.

The graph below, adapted from the Pew data, shows how despite our common wisdom that old people are conservative and young people are progressive, those in “The Greatest Generation” (who served in World War II and ushered in the New Deal) faithfully voted Democrat in presidential elections into old age. On the flip side, those who came of age between Ford and the first Bush administration (also known as Generation X) have voted Republican since the early ’90s, even when they were in their early twenties. So while Gen-Xers’ laissez-faire nihilism may have helped usher in my own artistic pursuits and reckless early-twenties dating, it has not done our country any favors.

Common wisdom has held that as we get older, we tend to become more pragmatic, which is (problematically) code for more conservative. It seems though, that the only generation this is actually true for, of those still voting today, is the one that came of age between the end of the Roosevelt administration and the beginning of Nixon.

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A pattern seems to emerge that those who came of age during a time where government did good and worked well continued to vote for government supports, while those who came of age during times that government was seen as the enemy continue to vote against public resources. (The verdict is out on millennials, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if this again held true.)

Fear Factor

Many pieces have reflected on the politics of hate, scarcity, and fear that drove Brexit and could lead to a Donald Trump presidency. This wouldn’t be the first time negative emotions won out . . . or that these emotions were tied up specifically in fear of the other.

In the 2010 election, following the historic election of our first Black president, fear and anger pushed back hard, with Democrats suffering their biggest defeats in 70 years. As The Guardian wrote in a post-mortem the following day:

At times, presidents have leveraged this fear into long-standing political success. Take the case of Reagan, whose “Welfare Queens” rhetoric was devised under the advisement of Lee Atwater, who also advised George H.W. Bush in the making of the now infamous “Willie Horton” ad, which attacked opponent Michael Dukakis for lax prison policies when he was Massachusetts Governor by relying on the racist trope of a dangerous Black man. In both cases, this fear-mongering was a “success,” giving the GOP an unchecked 12 years of power.

In other words, it’s no accident that GOP leaders are focusing on rhetoric raising alarm about Muslims, Latino immigrants, and other marginalized groups. And we must accept that, over the course of our history, this fear-based approach has often worked.

Why Voting Patterns Matter

Too often, the dominant discourse surrounding voting patterns — young liberals don’t vote as much as older conservatives — limits our ability to see other forces at play. But it is imperative that we do pay attention.

Returning to my maybe irrational love of Reality Bites, Leilana closes her graduation speech flustered by missing answers to her own question: How do we repair the generational damage left to us? “Fellow graduates, the answer is simple. The answer is . . . The answer is . . . I don’t know.”

There are no easy answers when it comes to politics — but it’s important that we ask the right questions about why we vote the way we do. Especially in an election like this one.