Liberal and Never Trump pundits have seen the future, and it is telling them exactly what they want to hear. Polling data and their sense of the way the culture — both entertainment and politics — is trending is leading them to believe that the age gap is the silver bullet that will ensure the political demise not only of President Donald Trump but also of the Republicans as a party of government in the foreseeable future.
The latest prediction along these lines comes from The New York Times’ David Brooks, who wrote last week of “The Coming GOP Apocalypse,” in which he noted that Republicans are “stumbling blind in the age of diversity.” His basic thesis is that young voters “hate” Republicans and there is no reason to think they’ll change their minds as the millenials (those born from 1981 to 1996) and generation Z or post-millenials (those born from 1997 or later) age.
As much as he spoke to a genuine problem for Republicans, however, Brooks’s assumptions should be taken with the same shovelful of salt that all political predictions about future elections cycles deserve.
Even those on the right who dismiss Brooks as a liberal’s idea of a conservative must admit that he raises a troubling prospect. The polls show that voters from 18-38 tilt heavily Democrat. Moreover, as Brooks points out, the difference is largely ideological, with the young being far more inclined to identify as liberals than older Americans.
On key issues, like those relating to gay rights and climate change, young voters tend to take liberal orthodoxy as normative and to regard any dissent as offensive. They are also more likely to embrace the “resistance” against Trump.
If, as a Pew Research Poll shows, only 12 percent of millenials call themselves conservatives and even fewer of those who fit in the generation Z class are on the right, it leads to some very uncomfortable assumptions about what happens as the members of the so-called silent generation (those born from 1928 to 1945) and baby boomers (those born from 1946 to 1964) begin to thin out.
Brooks argues the assumption that people get more conservative as they age isn’t true. To the extent that the young are deeply influenced by the left’s dominance of pop culture — epitomized by the daily in-kind contributions to Democrats made by late-night comedy shows — it’s hard to argue with him on that point.
Brooks is also right that sometimes elections can imprint an ideological orientation on voters. That was the case with many Americans who came of age during the Great Depression, whose largely spurious assumptions about the responsibility for causing that cataclysm and the value of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal affected elections for the next 40 years. Brooks assumes that attitudes about Trump will have the same shelf life.
Even more important, Brooks argues that the electorate’s changing racial composition will be decisive. If America will be a majority-minority country within two decades, then liberal attitudes toward diversity and multiculturalism may be baked into the political cake. But here are five basic reasons why there is a strong case to be made against GOP despair.
1. Predicting the Electoral Future Is Impossible
It is nearly impossible to predict American politics more than one election cycle at a time. As Brooks acknowledged in his article with respect to a 2002 book called “The Emerging Democratic Majority” that essentially made the same prediction about demography dooming the Republicans, trends that seem set in stone don’t always pan out.
Brooks calls the insights of its authors merely premature, but the victories the GOP won in 2004, 2010, 2014, and 2016 undermine their thesis. They are hardly alone in that predicament.
Many on the right thought Karl Rove’s ability to turn out the conservative base in 2004 heralded a long run of Republican dominance. Just two years later Democrats took control of Capitol Hill, then elected Barack Obama two years later.
Former New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tannenhaus was so besotted with Obama’s success that he wrote “The Death of Conservatism,” which foresaw a permanent political shift to the left. That paean to liberal triumphalism was published in time to greet the emergence of the Tea Party movement and the massive GOP victory in 2010. And it’s unlikely that those who wrote books on the heels of Trump’s 2016 win that foresaw endless winning for his brand of Republicanism predicted the Democrats winning back the House in 2018.
2. The Bifurcated Media Means No More Landslides
We live in an era in which adherents of the right and the left no longer read, listen to, or watch the same media. That wasn’t true in earlier eras when fundamental electoral changes occurred.
This means it is extremely difficult for either party or ideological cohort to reach voters who don’t already agree with their side. As a result, there are fewer persuadable swing voters and the possibility of a landslide outcome to a presidential election of the sort that used to occur with some regularity until the 1990s seems remote.
The ability of liberal and conservative media to rally behind their respective sides under any and all circumstances changes the political playing field. No single dominant narrative about an issue or an election is possible under these circumstances, putting assumptions about fundamental changes — even those rooted in demographics — on even shakier ground than in the past.
3. Issues Tend to Overcome Demography
Politics isn’t science. Although academics are always creating models to analyze elections and predict future outcomes, these models only relate to one set of circumstances that will be radically altered by the time the next election occurs.
In some ways, Brook’s predictions mirror the assumptions behind Michael Anton’s famous September 2016 essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” in The Claremont Review of Books. In it, Anton highlighted that conservatives were so afraid fundamental demographic changes would make them a permanent minority that they would embrace Trump.
That caused older white voters to vote more Republican than before. Also, counter to the left’s expectations, even with Trump leading the GOP Hispanics have not become lockstep Democrats in the same manner as African-Americans. Their votes, including those of the young, are up for grabs, and Democrats’ failure to secure them because of their stands on social issues and economics undermines assumptions about their ultimate victory.
4. Candidates Matter as Much as Ideology Does
Political outcomes are always a function of comparison-shopping more than ideology. If Democrats nominate someone who can inspire major portions of the electorate in the way Obama did in 2008, they will win. But the opposite is also true.
Party activists assume that young voters will fall in line behind someone like former vice president Joe Biden in order to beat Trump, and left-wingers think the same about Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But the idea of any of them generating the kind of massive turnout from minority and young voters that elected Obama in 2008 and 2012 seems a stretch.
The Obama turnout figures, which are the foundation of all demographic predictions about future Democrat wins, may be the white whale liberals chase for the next generation in much the same manner that Republicans sought in vain to generate the same kind of enthusiasm as Ronald Reagan. The electoral coalitions that elected both men were not transferable to others.
Democrats may think antipathy for Trump will be enough to turn their voters out in 2020. But that same assumption failed to work for Hillary Clinton in 2016. There will be no permanent Democratic majority without a candidate around whom voters can rally. In theory, there might be someone like that among the two-dozen Democrats vying for the 2020 presidential nomination, but until they emerge, skepticism is warranted.
5. Ideological Extremism Always Fails
The 2020 Democratic candidates will be primarily focused on pleasing a party base that is shifting hard to the left in the primaries. That means a lot of exposure for some of the most extreme ideas circulating on the left about a massive expansion of entitlements and taxes, not to mention regulations that could reverse the current economic boom.
Young voters may care about climate change, but a campaign in which Democrats are weighed down by a defense of radical measures like the Green New Deal or the consequences of Medicare for All will create new problems. They are prescribing a future that sacrifices economic opportunity for the young in the name of the climate. The same is true on the cultural issues Brooks assumes work in favor of Democrats if voters think radicals like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez indicate what future Democratic administrations will be like.
Trump’s low favorability ratings won’t matter as much if Democrats are tied to the sort of extreme measures that Americans have always distrusted. Bold political stands create equally bold reactions. If liberals overplay their hand, they won’t win in 2020 or any other election.
None of this ensures that the GOP will win in 2020 or in any future election. Democrats have genuine advantages heading into 2020 with female, minority, and young voters. But Republicans will have every opportunity to mitigate those problems and to increase their advantages among other voters.
Anyone predicting more toxic division is on safe ground. The willingness of both parties to distrust their opponents’ motives guarantees that neither side will fully accept defeat or the legitimacy of their opponents if they win. But anyone who thinks that demography determines the destiny of American politics or a lengthy age of dominance for Democrats has an excellent chance of being proven wrong.