Laura Barron-Lopez, Politico, October 11, 2020
The evidence all points in one direction: Americans born after 1996, known as Generation Z, could doom not only Trumpism but conservatism as the country currently knows it.
Members of Generation Z who are of voting age — 18- to 23-year-olds — want more government solutions. They rank climate change, racism and economic inequality consistently in their top issues, according to polls, and they participated in greater numbers during their first midterm (in 2018) than previous generations did theirs.
As Republicans espouse “family values” and “religious liberty,” data finds that Generation Z, also known as Zoomers, are less likely than older Americans to be a member of a religious group — 4 in 10 don’t affiliate — and appear to care more about systemic racism and an equitable future than upholding traditional nuclear family structures, based on polling of their policy priorities.
To members of Generation Z, who have come of voting age in the past five years, President Donald Trump and Republicanism are one and the same. And most pollsters and experts on voting behavior agree that patterns are developed early — how a person votes in their early years, and the impressions they form from high school into young adulthood, stick with them in one form or another for decades.
Generation Z’s leftward tilt is already impacting the presidential race. A Harvard Youth Poll conducted between Aug. 28 and Sept. 9, found Joe Biden’s support at 60 percent among those aged 18 to 29 — ahead of Hillary Clinton’s (49 percent) in 2016 and Barack Obama’s (59 percent) in 2008.
For now, this generation remains a small part of the electorate. But as more Gen Zers reach voting age, they could force a different kind of conservatism to take root as Republicans compete for their votes, according to a POLITICO study of polling data and interviews with more than 15 experts. Gen Z’s beliefs in diversity, equality and social justice are likely to guide them for decades, pushing the Republican Party to either embrace a more inclusive, possibly libertarian message built around social and economic freedoms or lose with increasing regularity. Though some political prognosticators have viewed aging as a factor that could move younger generations toward Republicans eventually, there’s stronger evidence suggesting the imprint left on a given generation by early political encounters is more indicative of how they’ll vote over their lifetime than changes due to age.
“If you look at what the priorities are of younger voters, the Republican Party is really going to be at a crossroads in a few election cycles,” said Melissa Deckman, a Washington College political science professor who is writing a book about Generation Z, gender and political engagement. “The long-term trend is pretty clear: They definitely will guide our policies in a more leftward way going forward.”
As Trump-era Republicans double down on their appeals to a white base, Deckman said, the reality is “demographically, younger America looks very different than the base of the GOP.”
Most people who have studied the politics of Generation Z, and their older brother and sister millennials, say some version of the same thing: A political realignment is already underway, a realignment is coming, or that the opportunity exists for a seismic one driven by young voters.
By all accounts, the political ideology of Generation Z looks a lot like millennials — and millennials haven’t moved to the right as they’ve aged.
Pollsters, nonpartisan data scientists and former Republicans who’ve found themselves outside the party of Trump, told POLITICO that one of two things will happen. Either Republicans adapt, shifting their positions on climate change, racial injustice and social tolerance, or they lose. The cold assessment isn’t that different from the dire warnings of the 2012 Republican Party, which ultimately nominated a candidate four years later who took the opposite route, focusing on older white voters.
But the underlying threat posed by young people to the Republican Party is still there and the entrance of Generation Z into the electorate compounds it.
Deckman’s surveys of likely voters reveal that from 2019 to 2020 the percent of Generation Z women who identify as Democratic increased by 12 points from 57 to 69 percent. Women who identify as Republican or independent fell. Roughly half of Generation Z men identify as Democratic but a similar gender gap found among older voters exists within younger generations as well — more men within Generation Z are likely to identify as Republican than their female peers.
One of the defining differences between Gen Z and millennials is temperament. Generation Z is more combative, willing to engage in confrontation and unwilling to wait for change. When they first flexed their potential political power in the lead-up to 2018, gun control took center stage. Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School led national marches and stormed Washington.
“Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this,” said Stoneman Douglas student Emma Gonzalez, then 17 years old. “We call BS.”
“No millennial would say that,” said Morley Winograd, co-author of three books about millennials with fellow Democrat and former pollster Michael Hais.
Winograd and Hais refer to Generation Z by a different name, “Plurals” or the “Pluralist Generation.” It’s inspired by one of the defining characteristics of the young Americans: their racial and ethnic diversity. Nearly 1 in 5 are Latino — a notable shift from millennials.
Gen Z is inclusive and intolerant of discrimination at similar if not higher levels than millennials, said Winograd. For instance, half of Gen Z says society isn’t accepting enough of people who don’t identify as a man or woman, according to Pew Research Center.
Winograd’s theory of realignment goes like this: It started in 2008 when Barack Obama dominated with young voters and people of color. Yes, Trump won eight years later by coalescing white voters, but that doesn’t refute the case, he said. From 1968 to 2008, Republicans were the dominant party, winning seven of the 10 presidential elections to Democrats’ three. The next 40 years, Winograd and Hais predict, will see a parallel tilt toward Democrats.
The historically diverse Generation Z following directly behind the similarly liberal generation of millennials could be the final straw — forcing the Republican Party to reshape its foundations or lose.
In the recent Harvard Youth Poll, the economy, coronavirus and racial justice were selected the most as the top three issues of those aged 18 to 24, followed closely by health care and climate change.
And more and more young Americans are participating in protests to express their policy wants. Protest participation among those 18 to 24 has increased, said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE. Participation went from 5 percent in 2016 to 16 percent in 2018 and then 27 percent in 2020, according to CIRCLE’s data, she noted. “The issue priorities among youth overall suggest that a lot of the energy and activism is focused on issues that are often supported by Democrats,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said.
The recent summer of Black Lives Matter protests against the killings of Black people by police could further entrench the views of Generation Z.
In a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll of members of Gen Z, support for Black Lives Matter remains high at 68 percent, with 51 percent strongly supporting the movement. By comparison, 54 percent of all registered voters support the BLM movement, with just 32 percent strongly backing it. Among older generations, only 26 percent of Gen X support the movement, and 44 percent of baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. Similarly, 56 percent of Gen Z strongly agree that racism is a “major problem” in the country compared with 43 percent of Gen X and 39 percent of boomers.
The BLM movement has evolved from one that was predominantly Black just four years ago, to one that in 2020 became the largest multiracial movement in the country’s history. Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic pollster for HIT Strategies, views that evolution as one of “Black people versus the police” to a movement of “young people versus racism.”
Deckman, the Washington College professor, sees a similar collision course between Republicans and youth like Generation Z on issues of LGBTQ rights, transgender rights and countering the traditional values of the religious right.
Deckman said her surveys reveal that though a majority of Generation Z identify as cis-male and cis-female — meaning their gender identities match their sex assigned at birth — roughly 1 in 4 identify as queer, either transgender or “genderqueer.” A third of Gen Zers say they know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns to refer to themselves and nearly 6 in 10 say forms or online profiles should allow more options than “man” or “woman,” according to Pew Research Center.
In the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, 49 percent of voting-age Gen Z respondents identified as agnostic or atheist.
Broadly, Gen Z also views Republicans in Congress more unfavorably (51 percent) than Democrats in Congress (34 percent), according to the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll of voting age members of the youngest generation.