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How long can the GOP last as the cranky oldster party?

"They should make some more CSI spinoffs"
"They should make some more CSI spinoffs"
Justin Sullivan/Getty

You can tell it's the dog days of summer because some of Washington's finest minds are spending their time debating the inherently unknowable question of whether today's teenagers will grow up to be Republicans. Jon Chait says no way, but Harry Enten and John Sides and David Leonhardt say maybe.

I've been reading a lot about the politics of the 1850s lately, so I'll just say that one thing you learn from history is that partisan and ideological configurations can change a lot — and in surprising ways — over time.

More interesting than asking whether people born in the 1990s will be voting GOP in the 2020s, I think, is asking what kind of a GOP it would have to be for them to vote for it. As an older member of the left-leaning youth cohort, I was really struck by something John Boehner said four summers ago. He complained that the Democratic majority that existed that summer, paired with Barack Obama, was "snuffing out the America that I grew up in."


(Chart by Delphi234 using Tax Foundation data)

Boehner was born in 1949 and presumably isn't nostalgic for the sky-high income tax rates (or strong labor unions) of his youth. So what was so great about it? The racial and gender discrimination? In practice, he probably didn't have anything at all in mind — he's just mixing up disagreement with aspects of the Democratic agenda (the specific issue under discussion was the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill) with a generalized nostalgia for his youth. That probably resonates with a lot of older Americans, but while today's teenagers might well turn against some of the failings of Obama-era liberalism, they're unlikely to be pining for a return to Mad Men social norms.

There's just no way.

Which isn't just to say that the younger generation is socially liberal and the GOP is socially conservative. For one thing, on some key issues like abortion and gun control, younger voters don't seem to have particularly left-wing views. For another thing, there's really a broader issue with the GOP than it's specific views on, say, marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples.

There's something very oldsterish about contemporary conservative politics. The constant bickering about Ronald Reagan is very odd to anyone too young to have any particular recollection of the Reagan years. Calling a group of people "Beyoncé Voters" as an insult is weird. Some of this oldsterism is just tics, but some of it has policy implications. The sort of budgetary priorities that call for huge cuts in all domestic spending, except no cuts at all for anyone born before 1959 is kind of weird. The huge freakout over New York City starting a bicycle program last summer was bizarre. It's easy to imagine a political party that's broadly favorable to low taxes and light regulation without sharing this particular set of tics. And then there was the time George Will wrote a column-length rant against blue jeans.


There have always been cranky old people asserting that things were better when they were kids and whatever is happening now is terrible (my late grandmother once told me things were better in the 1930s "because at least we had hope") and presumably there always will be cranky old people. But a confluence of circumstances has created a situation in which conservative politics has gotten bound up with cranky oldersterism in a somewhat weird way.

And I think it's fairly predictable that today's young people aren't going to vote for that. Maybe because they're all Democrats, maybe because Republicans change positions (small government ideology and, say, marijuana legalization would seem to be a great match), or maybe because some of both. What's really important is that as the population changes, the country's politics are sure to change too.

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