by Jim Burkee*
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel | April 14, 2009
If exit polls and surveys prove accurate, there will be one demographic deeply underrepresented in Wednesday’s conservative “taxpayer tea parties,” to be held at capitols across the country: Americans between the ages of 18 and 29.
In 2008, Democrats dominated Republicans among these voters, winning them over by a 2-to-1 margin in the presidential race (68% for Barack Obama vs. 30% for John McCain). It wasn’t simply an Obama phenomenon, either: In races for the House of Representatives nationwide, 18- to 29-year-olds voted 63% to 34% for Democrats. In conservative South Dakota, 60% voted against an abortion ban; in California, 61% opposed a proposition (which passed) to ban gay marriage; a majority opposed Arizona’s law to ban adoption by gay couples; and even in Mississippi, longtime Republican Sen. Thad Cochran tied his Democratic challenger among young voters.
In the first few months of his presidency, Obama has continued his full-court press for young voters, breaking protocol by giving Queen Elizabeth a loaded iPod, appearing on television and radio and expanding the White House’s Internet presence.
But the political loyalties of that coveted demographic are not yet decided. While they seem to lean to the left, they’re actually more libertarian than liberal, a fact that will reshape the way we think about liberalism and conservatism in decades to come.
America’s Generation Y (born between 1980 and 1995) is the first to have grown up with the Internet, which leaves it the most liberty-loving generation since the era of Andrew Jackson. Liberty, the root of what meant to the founders’ generation “liberal,” describes freedom from control and interference, particularly by government. And there is no domain so free from government as the Internet.
What does it mean to have been weaned in an environment – the Internet – virtually free of government interference? Millions of Gen-Yers have grown accustomed to making purchases online tax-free. They download movies and music (much of it pirated), read their news online for free (to the detriment of print media), find recipes online and network with friends and relatives online.
In short, they love their freedom.
This love of liberty translates into a unique political composite. Gen-Yers are less nationalistic and more likely to see all politicians as corrupt than older voters. They support liberalization of drug laws and would prefer to see marijuana legalized. And they are much less likely to support restrictions on immigration than older voters. On these counts, they seem to lean left of center, at least as the political spectrum is defined today.
But they are also free-traders, much more supportive of globalization than older voters. They’re optimistic, overwhelmingly believing that they can change the country for the better. And in the most recent surveys, they support proposals to privatize Social Security, which few believe will be there for them when they retire. On these counts, they seem to lean right of center.
The truth is, this generation, which seems not to fit in any neat political category, is more ideologically consistent than either Democrats or Republicans. The conservatism that dominates the Republican Party today is a combination of limited government in some places (taxation and regulation), but bigger and more intrusive government elsewhere (homeland security, military and on social issues). The Democratic Party is just as inconsistent, preferring government to be hands-off on social and civil liberty issues, but large elsewhere in areas like health care and other entitlements.
Gen-Yers see the inconsistency. Weaned on the Internet, they understand what our founders understood and what classical liberals since have preached: that Social Security and the Internal Revenue Service represent big, intrusive government, but so, too, do a massive military, snooping spy agencies and national identification cards. They don’t want the government taxing their Internet purchases any more than they want a government agency assigning them a doctor.
It’s the classical liberalism of Milton Friedman, who argued that political and economic freedom are deeply interrelated – that one cannot exist without the other. They’ve grown up with that kind of freedom, and as voting adults, they have come to expect it.
Republicans might be tempted to reject as “liberal” these voters because of their moderate social views. And Democrats would be wrong to believe that social moderation somehow translates into an affinity for big government programs.
Generation Y, and the iPod generation to follow, likely will redefine what it means to be conservative or liberal. The first party to understand this and adjust will dominate America’s political landscape in the future.
Jim Burkee is an associate professor of American history at Concordia University Wisconsin.
*Mr. Burkee was endorsed by the Republican Liberty Caucus in his 2008 primary challenge to incumbent Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI).
The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect official positions of the RLC.