As midterm elections approach in 2018, many question the ability of Republicans to hold on to their majorities in the House and Senate, and wonder whether or not conservatives will be able to maintain their dominant position in many state governments.
David Andersen, a political science professor at Iowa State University, thinks that there will be an additional factor at play in the 2018 elections, which will become more pronounced in 2020, and that is the behavior of millennials as a major voting bloc. The following interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Let’s talk about your predictions on the population of millennials and baby boomers in the country and the size of the voting blocs.
Yes, so millennials actually started outnumbering the baby boomers about four years ago, but because they’ve voted at lower rates, they won’t actually catch up to them in the electorate until about maybe 2018, probably 2020. And after that, millennials should dominate for a long time. The baby boomers have been the largest voting bloc in America since 1978, so we really have had 40 years of baby boomer rule, and may be starting off 40 years of millennial rule. I mean, there are so many things about that possibility that blows my mind because I think millennials are the generation that aren’t used to being in charge of their own lives or anything, and they’re about to inherit the United States.
What’s your biggest takeaway from that?
I think the biggest thing of interest to me is that for the first time in 40 years, we may see the political conversation in America change. When the baby boomers became the dominant voting population, they helped elect Ronald Reagan and a whole new set of issues got put on the table. It’s really only in 1980 when the nation started caring about tax rates and abortion and gun control and these big hot-button issues that we’ve been talking about for the last 40 years. That’s all baby boomers and Reagan, and if you talk to millennials, those are largely things they say they don’t care about and it’s very likely that we will see a candidate likely in the mold of Bernie Sanders who says ‘okay let’s shift the conversation, let’s talk about making college affordable, let’s legalize marijuana, and let’s make the net freely accessible to everyone,’ which if you say that to a baby boomer, they’re like ‘you’re crazy, that’s stupid.’ I think it’s going to be a shift like that that’s going to feel for most of the country seismic.
Even though data currently shows low voting turnout by millennials?
There’s a few things we know about millennials. Millennials are unfortunately kind of given a bad reputation because they don’t turn out to vote, but the fact is they’re not really much different from any generation at that age. People under 25 don’t vote. Politics doesn’t feel relevant for them and millennials are largely still under 25, so I think that they’re going to start voting at a higher rate simply as they age, but also, millennials tend to be more Democratic than Republican and the Democratic Party is furious right now, and I think that’s going to energize the base, including millennials, and get more of them to come out and vote in 2018 and again in 2020.
So then why is there so much criticism and blame put on the millennial generation?
I think that is a very common thing. Every generation looks at the generation behind it and likes to say ‘wow you guys are pathetic,’ and it just happens over and over. The greatest generation looked at the boomers and said, ‘You’re pathetic. We fought World War II and suddenly you’re dodging the draft for Vietnam. We were upstanding citizens you’re all pot-smoking hippies,’ and then the boomers looked down on the Gen-X’ers and said, ‘You guys are totally worthless.’ Now Gen-X’ers and boomers are looking at millennials saying, ‘Oh, you guys are the worst.’ It’s pretty much just a natural phenomena. In another 20 years, millennials will look down at the current young generation and call them pathetic.
You also believe that millennials have a unique perspective in common with baby boomers, regarding entitlement programs. Can you explain that?
They can kind of relate to a lot of boomers in that a lot of boomers are like, ‘Oh we need to reform and get rid of the entitlement system,’ and I think millennials are saying, ‘Yeah, because I’m paying taxes to foot this thing that isn’t going to be there for me.’ And so I think millennials have some things in common with conservatives in that they want to slash the entitlement state that will never be there to benefit them, and yet they also have things in common with the Democrats and liberals, who say, ‘Well, we have to do something to help out Americans.’
That seems odd coming from millennials based on the policies they advocate for.
So millennials are facing a totally different reality and in my mind, I just feel like there’s going to be this epic showdown between millennials and boomers because boomers grew up in a rising America. They grew up in a generation where we had just won World War II, we were a super power, our economy was just exploding and roaring and everybody got a job that paid a good salary. The generation before the boomers had set up social security and Medicare and Medicaid, and everybody in America was taken care of and they enjoyed all of it, and then they decided they didn’t want to pay for it anymore. So they started cutting taxes and increasing debt. Now the millennials have grown up in kind of a sinking America. We started out on top of the world but it feels like we are no longer. Millennials are growing up in a society where since they were five, they’ve been told, ‘You will not have the quality of life your parents had. Social security won’t be there for you. Medicare and Medicaid won’t be there for you. You’re on your own. You have to do it yourself.’
When millennials take control of the U.S., what’s going to happen?
Millennials are the first generation that are probably going to be saddled with debt for most of their lives. For other generations like the baby boomers, credit was a newly invented thing, pretty much. For Generation X, credit and debt became a short-term thing–you start off in your early 20s and 30s in debt, then you grow your way out of it. But for millennials, the amount of debt they’re being saddled with is probably going to stay with them through their 40s and 50s, and you can’t have a generation of 80 million people in debt. The economy just can’t sustain it. Something is going to have to change and it’s probably going to come through government action. Millennials hit 30 and they know that there’s no such thing as a job that lasts 30 years anymore. They’ll bounce from job to job. The salaries are generally not great so you’re not putting in savings. Most millennials have college debt that they’re trying to pay off and it means that buying a house is not going to happen, so that retirement plan is not happening. And this is where there will be a point where it starts crashing the American economy.
When all these baby boomers in the next 10 or 15 years start trying to retire and sell their houses after 30 years, there’s nobody there to buy them because the largest generation — the millennials — aren’t buying homes. All these baby boomers are going to have these giant houses that nobody wants to buy or nobody can afford to buy, and that’s going to create an enormous problem in the real estate market. You look at every facet of American society and it’s in trouble in the next 20 years. As a political scientist when you look at something in the country and say ‘everybody’s going to be affected’ or ‘a huge amount of people are going to be affected,’ what generally happens is they all complain together and politics responds.
What political party do you think millennials will side with as their bloc increases?
The one thing we haven’t talked about is where millennials are going to go in the U.S. Baby boomers are heavily Republican and millennials right now seem to be even more heavily Democratic, and that could really change America. The Democratic Party seems to have demographics in favor for them, and if the millennials choose to swing heavily towards the Democrats, they really could create one-party rule in this country for the first time in 50 years. The Republican Party right now seems to be almost hostile to [issues millennials support]. Millennials seem to react against that and frankly, right now in the Trump Administration, if the Republican Congress and president push millennials out of the party and force them to become Democrats, then the Republican Party is in a lot of trouble.
Even though some Republicans believe that Trump’s election could be seen as a resurgence of their voting base?
There’s kind of this mistaken impression of the 2016 election that Trump led this surge of voters but he only got just enough voters in just enough states to win the election. But the coalition he put together kind of has the feel of a last-gasp coalition. A lot of his voters voted against Hillary Clinton more than they voted for Donald Trump. His voters tend to be really old and from demographic groups that are dying out in America. Instead of reaching out to all aspects of America, the Trump administration is largely saying, ‘We’re going to hold on to our voters, we’re going to do things for our voters, we don’t care about anybody else, we didn’t need anybody else to win,’ and that may really come back to bite them.