Rising age based polarisation in American presidential politics

Most people think of left-wing politics as the province of the young, and right-wing politics as favoured by the old. This is true, but at least when it comes to American presidential politics, it hasn’t been true for as long as you think. In 2010 Gallup posted an article suggesting that Obama’s support was bifurcated more based on age than previous presidents:

Presidential Job Approval by Age, Most Recent Presidents

What’s happened since then? Aged based polarisation has become even clearer under Trump. 28% of 18-29 year olds, 39% of 30-49 year olds, 46% of 50-64 year olds and 48% of 65+ year olds approve of Trump.

So the gap in approval between the 18-29 age group and the +65 age group has risen from 15% to 20%, meanwhile the gap between 30-49 year olds and 65+ year olds has risen somewhat, from 6% to 9%. In other words, we see moderate increases to an age based divide that was already substantially larger than the historical baselines of Clinton and W. Bush.

The most politically significant question here is will these differences in preferences last for the individuals involved?  Is this new, increased gap between age groups based on stable characteristics of members of these age groups, so that millennials will not shift much as they age, or is it based on characteristics linked to ageing, so that people who are now young will whiplash over to voting for the right as they get older?

If the former, the Republicans are in a lot of trouble, and will either start losing elections as Boomers die off, or will have to swing hard to the left to remain competitive. If the latter, then age based bifurcation is no special electoral threat to the right, as dying boomers will be replaced by increasingly conservative gen-xers and millenials.

It’s very easy to quickly conclude the latter is true and political alignment will shift as those currently young age, on the basis that young people “have always” been to the left of older people, and so the cycle will continue and this generation will become conservative on schedule as it ages. However this extrapolation may be too quick, because the gap in political attitudes between age groups is much, much larger than it has been in the past. The increase in the differences between age groups may thus represent some novel feature of experiences or outlook, and who is to say whatever that feature is will change with age?

For example (and this is just a purely hypothetical example- I doubt very much it is the true explanation) maybe the difference in politics is driven by one generation being digital natives, and the other having gained access to the internet only later in their lives. If this is what is creating the split between generations, the mere passage of time won’t necessarily draw millennials to the right.

There’s another implication of this. I feel like a bit of weirdo even writing it, but I haven’t yet seen anyone else make the observation so I’ll chuck it out there. Like any sane person I do not support a second American civil war, but there’s been an unpleasant degree of speculation about the possibility of that lately. A large difference in average age is a potentially significant power factor in favour of team blue.

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