Millennials' Political Views Don't Make Any Sense

Reuters

Millennial politics is simple, really. Young people support big government, unless it costs any more money. They're for smaller government, unless budget cuts scratch a program they've heard of. They'd like Washington to fix everything, just so long as it doesn't run anything.

That's all from a new Reason Foundation poll surveying 2,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 29. Millennials' political views are, at best, in a stage of constant metamorphosis and, at worst, "totally incoherent," as Dylan Matthews puts it.

It's not just the Reason Foundation. In March, Pew came out with a similar survey of Millennial attitudes that offered another smorgasbord of paradoxes:

  • Millennials hate the political parties more than everyone else, but they have the highest opinion of Congress.
  • Young people are the most likely to be single parents and the least likely to approve of single parenthood.
  • Young people voted overwhelmingly for Obama when he promised universal health care, but they oppose his universal health care law as much as the rest of the country ... even though they still pledge high support for universal health care. (Like other groups, but more so: They seem allergic to the term Obamacare.)
This is all very confusing. Perhaps it should be when we're using a couple thousand subjects to guess the collective opinions of 86 million people. What are we sure we know about Millennials? Two big things and one small thing.

1. Millennials are more liberal than the rest of the country, particularly on social issues, but they get more economically conservative when they make more money.

The youngest voting generation today is the most liberal bloc in a long, long time for three reasons.

First, they're young and poor, and young, poor people are historically more liberal. Second, they're historically non-white. Non-white Americans are historically liberal, too. Third, their white demo is historically liberal compared to older white voters, as Jon Chait has pointed out. It all adds up to one cresting blue wave. For now.

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But something interesting happens when Millennials start making serious dough. They start getting much more squeamish about giving it away.


Richer Millennials on Redistribution: No, Thanks

Reason Foundation

2. Millennials don't know what they're talking about when it comes to economics.

Young people lean way left on issues like gay marriage, pot, and immigration. On abortion and gun control, they swim closer to the rest of the electorate.

But on economics, they're all over the map. You get the sense, reading the Reason Foundation and Pew studies, that a savvy pollster could trick a young person into supporting basically any economic policy in the world with the right combination of triggers. Conservative and liberal partisans can cherry-pick this survey to paint Millennials as whatever ideology they want. To wit:
  • On spending:
    Conservatives can say: 65 percent of Millennials would like to cut spending.
    Liberals can say: 62 percent would like to spend more on infrastructure and jobs.
  • On taxes:
    Conservatives can say: 58 percent of Millennials want to cut taxes overall.
    Liberals can say: 66 percent want to raise taxes on the wealthy.
  • On government's role in our lives:
    Conservatives can say: 66 percent of Millennials say that "when something is funded by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful."
    Liberals can say: More than two-thirds think the government should guarantee food, shelter, and a living wage.
  • On government size:
    Conservatives can say: 57 percent want smaller government with fewer services (if you mention the magic word "taxes").
    Liberals can say: 54 percent want larger government with more services (if you don't mention "taxes").

Some of these positions suggest, rather than prove, utter incoherence. For example, you can technically support (a) reducing the overall tax burden and (b) raising taxes on the wealthy by raising the investment tax and absolving the bottom 50 percent of Social Security taxes. Somehow, I think what's happening is simpler than young people doing the long math of effective tax rates. I think they're just confused.

Overall, Millennials offer the murky impression of a generation that doesn't really understand basic economics. To be fair, neither do most Americans. Or many economists, perhaps. Or most journalists. Economics is hard.

3. Far less important, but entertaining nonetheless: Millennials don't know what socialism is, but they think it sounds nice.

I predict that any readers over the age of 30 will absolutely love this fact about voters under the age of 29. Forty-two percent of Millennials think socialism is preferable to capitalism, but only 16 percent of Millennials could accurately define socialism in the survey.


Socialism or Capitalism?

Reason Foundation

Say what you want about the tenets of national socialism, dude, at least it's an ethos that young people can define in an Internet survey

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.


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