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Culture War Roundup for the week of January 2, 2023

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Let's start off (unless someone fires a link earlier) with this one: Millennials are shattering the oldest rule in politics

“If you are not a liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative at 35 you have no brain.” So said Winston Churchill. Or US president John Adams. Or perhaps King Oscar II of Sweden. Variations of this aphorism have circulated since the 18th century, underscoring the well-established rule that as people grow older, they tend to become more conservative.

The pattern has held remarkably firm. By my calculations, members of Britain’s “silent generation”, born between 1928 and 1945, were five percentage points less conservative than the national average at age 35, but around five points more conservative by age 70. The “baby boomer” generation traced the same path, and “Gen X”, born between 1965 and 1980, are now following suit.

Millennials — born between 1981 and 1996 — started out on the same trajectory, but then something changed. The shift has striking implications for the UK’s Conservatives and US Republicans, who can no longer simply rely on their base being replenished as the years pass.

The article goes on to show that previous generations in UK and US have indeed formed a remarkably similar pattern of starting out voting for left side main parties (Labour/Dems) and moving rightwards (to Tories/GOP) with age, but Millennials aren't doing that, and are if anything sticking firmer with the left side parties with age.

When it comes to Britain, in particular, I suspect that Brexit may have a lot to do with this. For Millennial Remainers, in particular, the whole thing has evidently been a horrorshow; from following various FBPE types and hearing from friends who have lived in the UK, the thinking basically goes; for your entire life your country has belonged to the EU, which has given you ease of travel and has seemed to be without issues, and suddenly a bunch of (mostly) Tory-voting boomers decides to take the country out of the Union, and no-one still has managed to explained to you exactly how Britain has benefitted from this, or what fundamental reason for this there even was for the whole Brexit, beyond "Well, it's not as big a disaster as Remoaners are claiming when you look into it" (or, possibly, "Fuck you, Remoaner! Elitist! Take back control!")

With the Tories then increasingly becoming the party of Brexit, it would be little wonder if such types would continue to give Tories the wide berth, even if they start getting to the age where traditionally Tories start becoming more and more attractive, as an option.

Of course, US and UK are a bit expectional in how strongly there's an age-related left/right split with young voting for left parties and the old voting for right parties. It would be interesting to see if this replicates in other countries where Millennials and younger voters have recently been trending rightwards and where centre-left parties have for some time been more popular among the old than the youth, like Sweden. (Indeed, I already saw on Twitter that the effect is not replicating in non-Anglophone West.)

I think it's worth recapping American political history during the period during which Millennials became politically aware. While there was contention surrounding the election of George W. Bush, things went back to normal pretty quickly. The most exciting thing to happen during the early Bush administration was the Hainan Island Incident, and that was viewed by the media more as a test to how the president would respond rather than a serious culture war item. Then 9/11 happened, and Bush became incredibly popular, even among liberals. These high approval ratings would slowly atrophy over the next 2 years but were still around 50% at the time of the 2004 election, which he won by a decent margin. But this wasn't enough to stanch the bleeding. While the Iraq War is largely blamed for this downfall, particularly the unexpected insurgency and misconduct issues like Abu Ghraib, these only seemed to alienate liberals. What did him in among Republicans was a series of unfortunate events that occurred in the fall of 2005—the insufficient response to Hurricane Katrina, the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination debacle (Miers was a close associate of Bush whose qualifications for the court were highly suspect, and the nomination was withdrawn in the face of bipartisan criticism), the Social Security privatization plan, the Medicare Part D rollout, and the Plame Affair (which resulted in the indictment of the Vice President's National Security Advisor and implicated Bush's Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove). Any of these incidents wouldn't have been more than a minor scandal (particularly the Part D rollout, as problems are to be expected when introducing a complicated new government program), but since they all happened within a span of weeks they made the whole administration look incompetent. By the 2006 midterms even staunch Republicans had begun distancing themselves from Bush, and he spent the last years of his term as a sort of zombie that everyone hated but nobody really cared about. By the time of the 2008 financial crisis he was already so unpopular that it didn't seem to effect him much, especially with everyone's eyes on the next election.

So now we come to the 2008 election. Every pundit agrees that the Republicans need to move on from Bush and the neocons (though it should be mentioned that Bush wasn't a neocon himself), but there is disagreement on which direction the party should take. And by disagreement I mean that nobody has a fucking clue. Most Republicans in the primary try to distance themselves from Bush but endorse similar policies. There are two outliers. The first is Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who represents the voice of the Bible Belt. The guy has no money or institutional support but makes a splash because Evangelical Christians had been rising as an electoral force for decades, before finding a kindred spirit in Bush. They have now proven that they are a constituency that can't be ignored, but the traditional GOP base has no room for someone as blatantly theocratic as Huckabee. The other is John McCain, who has staked out territory as a "Maverick" by bucking his own party over the past fifteen years, but still being incredibly conservative in other areas. He wins the nomination but suffers from three critical weaknesses: The first is that he wants to send more troops to Iraq. The second was that the GOP was in the doghouse and he was running against a younger, much more charismatic, Barack Obama. These were important at the time but have little relevance to your question. The more salient problem, though, was that he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin initially seemed like a good choice—his campaign was already at a disadvantage so picking a woman with executive experience might win him some votes, and her lack of national prominence meant she had few enemies or skeletons in her closet. The problem was that she used her role in the spotlight to blatantly wage the culture war while demonstrating that she lacked basic policy knowledge. When newscaster Katie Couric asked her which newspapers and magazines she read, her response was "all of them", a response she refused to clarify upon further inquiry. Centrists who feared that Obama's superstar status was a mask for his lack of experience and vague policy proposals now found they couldn't vote for McCain, as it would put a demagogue like Palin one heartbeat away from the presidency. McCain lost in a landslide.

Now it's 2009 and while McCain is back in the Senate like nothing happened, Palin and Huckabee are on speaking tours in an attempt to stoke the flames of the culture war. The Tea Party has come into existence, a loose movement that is ostensibly in favor of returning to the libertarian principles of the Founding Fathers but is in reality a lowest-common-denominator culture war movement. The salient feature of the Tea Party is that they aren't just opposed to Obama and the liberals, but also to Establishment Republicans, who they brand "RINOS" (Republicans in name only) and blame them for enabling the liberal agenda. Over the next several elections, numerous Tea Party backed candidates will be elected to office, many of them replacing more moderate Republican forebears. In 2012 the Republicans nominated Mitt Romney to challenge Obama. Romney only won the nomination after a slogfest with approximately 742 other candidates, most of whom were culture warrior flashes in the pan like Tim Pawlenty and Michelle Bachman. Romney himself was a traditional New England Republican who had served as governor of a liberal state. But in the political environment of the time, he had to pay lip service to more traditional conservative ideas. This put him squarely in a position where he had no real chance of winning; he was too traditionally conservative to win over liberals who were tiring of Obama, and too close to the Republican Establishment to inspire anyone on the fringes. It was an election of two boring candidates, and to the incumbent went the spoils.

Given that Tea Party rhetoric seemed to be paying better electoral dividends than traditional Republicanism, candidates for the 2016 Republican nomination would all have to move in that direction. The problem with Tea Party rhetoric, as I alluded to earlier, was that it seemed geared to primarily stoke the culture war. It was ostensibly libertarian, but not in any truly principled way, only to the extent that it would serve culture war ends. So taxes and regulation were obviously bad, but not to the extent that anyone would promote policies that would actually impact anyone. Keep the government out of my Medicare. What's more important is that you brand Democrats as socialists for proposing any additional spending. Call for tax cuts and a reduced deficit but make no attempt to touch programs that are actually expensive, just programs that your opponents pushed through. Add in a healthy dose of Judeo-Christian reverence (to appease the Huckabee camp) and nationalism. Almost every GOP candidate in 2016 was running on some variation of this theme, but Trump found the magic formula—he ditched principle altogether. All the traditional politicians had tried to incorporate the new ideas into a consistent platform. Trump just went for applause lines. Back in 2007, Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo ran for president on a campaign of reducing immigration and kicking out illegals. It went nowhere. Looking back at his old speeches, it's clear that his problem was that he made actual, principled arguments against immigration. Trump knew that there was little call for that. It's much easier to say that the Mexican government is sending rapists and that building a wall will cure all our ills, and tell your critics to piss off rather than try to actually address their concerns.

I'll stop there because we all now what has happened since then and it's more current events than history. The point is that since the oldest Millennials came of age there hasn't been a time when it's been attractive to become a conservative, and the prospect has gotten continually worse as they've gotten older. During the early 2000s, the primary criticism of Bush had to do with the Iraq War. Now that our Middle Eastern adventures have ended, it wouldn't surprise me if some older Millennials turned to traditional neoconservatism as an antidote to contemporary progressive politics. The problem is that the Republican party has spent the past 15 years distancing itself from neoconservatism and making all the old favorites never-Trumpers. The party has come to represent few of the things more moderate liberals find attractive about some conservative candidates and nearly all the things they find repulsive about them. Contrast this with Boomers; if you were 30 in 1980 you spent your early adulthood in a dismal 1970s economy and probably staked a lot of hope in Jimmy Carter. After his lone term is worse than anyone can imagine a fresh conservative party comes in with new ideas and by 1984 makes the '70s a distant memory. Or imagine you're a Gen Xer, who came of age at a time when Clinton became one of the most successful presidents in recent memory by outflanking his opposition on the right. So far in the 21st Century, the Republicans have yet to produce the kind of Reagan/Clinton figure who wins reelection easily and leaves office at the height of his popularity. The Republicans have been trying to reinvent themselves for the past 15 years, and until that happens, it's going to be very difficult for someone who started off as liberal shift to conservative. For Millennials, that ship may have already sailed.

I feel like you're neglecting/underselling the impact of TARP and the 2008 bank bailouts. This caused a major schism within the GOP between "Wall Street Republicans" and "Main Street Republicans" that became the impetus for the both the Tea Party, and Evangelical Wings of the party striking off on their own and trying to nominate thier own candidates. The main reason that McCain won the nomination is that he was one of the few "mainstream" big-name Republicans who had questioned the wisdom of the bailouts and had urged restraint beforehand, and as such he was seen as one of the few individuals who could plausibly unite the disparate factions.

Other than that, excellent write up.

The TARP bailouts were an important flashpoint, and I may have considered including them if I wasn't running up against character limits, but there are a couple problems here. First, McCain was already the nominee by the time bailouts were a consideration, so they had no role in his winning the nomination. Second, McCain famously suspended his campaign to work on a bailout deal. Third, as politically contentious as the situation was, McCain openly sided with Obama and president Bush in his support for the bailouts, and ended up voting for them. The main reason they don't really fit within the argument I'm making, though, is that opposition wasn't limited to the Right. If you were a lefty millennial who was pissed off about the bailouts there were plenty of other lefties who shared in your frustration. Hell, it was the basis of the whole Occupy movement. So while I agree that TARP was a catalyst for the current issues in the Republican party, I don't think it offers much in the way of explaining why Millennials haven't moved rightward.

Incredible post and reminder of the past couple years.

One thing I'll point out slightly in support of your point is that many millennials' "political awakening" didn't encompass this entire time period.

I know plenty of them who were very comfortable in their ignorance all the way up to 2016. I wouldn't say it's a majority, but many don't even have true firsthand context for Bush/Obama's first term!

Good point, Never forget that some people are completely lost. I was talking to a very close, extremely academically and personally successful friend of mine, she was sure she had voted for John McCain. I told her we were 16 that year. She thinks maybe she's confused with a class mock election in AP gov.

That's a good description of what I've observed of American politics.

To riff on this, I've recently been thinking a lot about how the Right tends to win elections. It seemingly tends to always boil to two particular claims, which could be expressed as slogans:

  • the Left will lose your money - we'll be responsible with it

  • the Left will make you unsafe - we'll keep the threats at bay

In other words, in the end, it boils down to safety, both material safety and personal safety. Currently, the right-wing parties are doing quite well in the polls for the upcoming Finnish elections, and there's simultaneously a lot of ongoing debates that favor the Right because they can be turned into safety debates on these fronts:

  • the left-wing government has got the country into debt (after Covid and Ukraine, yes, but also to implement other programs) - this will lead to the "road of Greece" and an economic catastrophe (MATERIAL SAFETY)

  • the left-wing government has signed treaties to preserve too much of the Finnish forest, shackling the forest industry from creating wealth and jobs (MATERIAL SAFETY)

  • the left-wing government has not done enough to combat crime or send away criminal immigrants, leading to street gangs (PERSONAL SAFETY)

  • the left-wing parties only started the process to join the NATO when forced by the Russian invasion, leaving the country in a limbo (PERSONAL SAFETY)

And so on. Not that I'd agree with the made claims in this format, but they're certainly currently having an effect. Of course, the government in turn benefitted from the early years of COVID epidemic, managing to keep the disease numbers low with comparatively modest measures compared to many other countries and thus turning this into a safety issue of its own kind as well, but that's gone too, with the excess death numbers rising and COVID generally receeding from consciousness.

I'd argue that these safety issue are particularly among those that play a process in people starting to grow more conservative in their 30s and 40s, this being connected to them earning more money, getting kids and becoming increasingly concerned about the potential for crime and unrest in their own neighborhoods. Moreover, there's what could be called an 'altruism shift' - while there's a natural tendency towards altruism and caring for others in most/all people, when they have kids the natural target for this altruism becomes doing everything you can to aid your own kids in growing, instead of the more general kind of save-the-world altruism that people might have when they are younger and/or childless.

However, the American and British right simply have failed in one or both safety fronts, multiple times. Whatever one might say about Brexit, even if one doesn't take the harsh tone described in my original post, it isn't very easy to demonstrate exactly how it has made the British people safer, either on material or personal safety front. It's become pure culture war - and while culture war can have handsome electoral dividends, someone always needs to find a way to turn it into a safety issue in some way for benefit. ie. immigration is pretty easy one ("The left wants to take false asylum seekers to live on your tax monies and do crimes!"), but Brexit is harder.

The American right is doing a bit better, but even there, much of its activist energy seems to be spent on things like the trans issue, again not an easy one to turn into a safety issue, though the whole "anti-groomer" thing seems to be an effort to do that - and also (in an electoral sense) botching the COVID response thing, giving the Democrats themselves a powerful safety issue ("the Right wants to spread a dangerous virus because they listen to loony conspiracy theorists - we'll keep the virus at bay") for a while. Still, I would guess that the current inflation spiral and the post-Floyd rise in crime rates were enough to at least give the Republicans the House in the elections, though it would be harder to just ride those same issues all the way to presidency, unless they are reignited again in a big way.

A Right narrative for Brexit’s “failure” is that of COURSE the EU is punishing Britain for leaving, with punitive measures subtly built into every trade issue.

Geopolitical power plays are a great narrative. Just as Communist China claims the famine which killed nearly a hundred million was mostly the result of the west’s embargo, Britain’s conservatives can claim unpleasant EU trade unfairnesses will continue until either Britain once again allows Belgium to be its sovereign or the EU collapses under a dozen Greeces.

They can, of course, claim that. It just doesn't seem to be working very well for them, at the moment.

The republicans can easily put together a narrative about safeguarding the public from inflation, they would just need a plan to implement.

They don’t have one.

The Republican plan is to not spend 6 trillion dollars while inflation is happening.

You know that's not true.

Their plan is to spend about the same amount because most of the budget is sacred cows, while also increasing effective monetary supply by cutting taxes; because that's been their plan for 40 fucking years.

There's a difference between passing the government budget and passing the government budget plus another 6 trillion in BBB/equity bs.

Exactly. A genuine plan to reduce inflation would either be incredibly unpopular or would go against the GOP agenda. Or it would be an outside-Overton-window solution that probably won’t work in the long term(eg gold standard).

Thank you for this very clear listing of recent political history most important to Millennials. I’ve nominated it as a high-quality contribution.

I perceive this as being written through the lens of the centrist/media worldview, and it is valuable to me in learning just how much history is written by those who’ve got power, and how culturally pervasive their opinions are.

As a “xennial cusper,” I came into political awareness in high school with the Rush Limbaugh TV show, the leader of the culture war for 35 years and the grandfather of the Trump movement. From the start, I was taught to keep my eyes peeled for fake news pushed by coastal liberals as fact, from the Clinton aspirin factory “wag the dog” to the Trump Russian kompromat dossier.

It would be a whole day’s work for me to list the alternate conservative/libertarian history of your post, but I don’t believe there’s a market here for such posts.

Seconding interest in reading such a post.

I for one would be happy to read the alternate conservative/libertarian version if you bothered to write it, and I'm sure I'm not the only one here who would be.

While an alternate conservative/libertarian history of the post would be interesting, it would also be irrelevant.

We're discussing why Millennials are not becoming conservative, and only people who are already conservative would have access to that history, anyone else would just have access to the media worldview, and would never hear the other side of the story.

Yes, we are the counter-culture now.