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Short-Term Gain, Long-Term Losses: Why the Republican Embrace of Extreme Conservatism Could Usher in Decades of Democratic Domination

Original illustration by Tom D'Amore '23, a Masters of Art Teaching major at RISD.

“Make America Great Again.” While the infamous slogan may conjure images of the twice-impeached former US president, its message illustrates the Republican Party’s leading campaign strategy since Donald Trump’s election. After witnessing the success of nostalgia-inducing rhetoric in 2016, the GOP was quick to embrace it in their fight against transgender people and “critical race theory.” Gone are the days of fighting for small government; in an attempt to maintain the devotion of older voters, it seems the GOP would do anything to harken back to the good ol’ days.

But, how well can this approach serve the Republican Party long-term? There is a commonly-held belief that people grow more conservative with age. If this is the case, then the Republican Party’s strategy may gain traction among young people as they sour on their progressive beliefs. However, studies suggest that generational differences in political beliefs may be better explained by the differing social, political, and economic landscapes in which each generation comes of age. Today’s youth are entering adulthood during a period defined by economic hardship, a global pandemic, and a climate catastrophe—events that may nurture more progressive beliefs that challenge their tumultuous status quo. In order for the GOP to maintain its political footing long-term, party members need to recruit young people to their side by addressing these important issues. But as Republicans instead choose to prioritize older ideals, they may be setting themselves up for failure—and creating an opportunity for a Democratic stronghold on Washington. 

“If you are not a liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative at 35 you have no brain.” This frequently misattributed bastardization of a Jules Claretie remark alludes to a widely-held philosophy that postulates the effects of aging on one’s political beliefs: The typical person starts out as progressive, but becomes conservative as they  age and gain greater experience. Given that most people are bound to have an infuriating political conversation with their older relatives at some point, it’s easy to see why this argument is so convincing. But, just how true is it?

A recent analysis of generational political trends suggests that Millennials—those born between 1981 and 1996—are not following this supposedly well-established trend. While the conservative vote share across each previous generation has increased with age, Millennials appear to be getting more progressive. Adding to the strangeness of these findings is the fact that this trend has been observed in both the United States and the United Kingdom, ruling out any nation-specific political explanation. The study blamed this shift in political leanings on the 2008 financial crisis, the second-worst recession in US history that is largely attributed to failures in government regulation and risky behavior by Wall Street investors. So, it follows that this impactful and disastrous event would inspire young people all around the world to adopt more left-wing socioeconomic beliefs—including stronger regulations on financial institutions.

These findings led to a social media firestorm, with one person even tweeting, “Millennials and Generation Z are going to change the world.” However, this development is not necessarily unique to today’s youth. Rather than age, political positions can be explained by the cohort effect, which states that “the primary factor influencing your political disposition for the rest of your life is what’s going on when you ‘come of age.’” In other words, those who enter adulthood in a time of rising conservatism may tend to vote Republican, while the opposite may be the case for those who grow up in a more progressive political landscape. This explains why people who came of age during the 2008 financial crisis—the Millennial generation—now support bigger government and more stringent financial regulations. 

The cohort effect can also explain differing political trends within generations. For example, older members of the Baby Boomer generation—people born from 1946 to 1964—are more likely to vote Democrat than younger Boomers; this is likely because older Boomers came of age at the tail end of the counterculture movement, while younger Boomers came of age during the Reagan Revolution. So while aging can certainly influence one’s political beliefs, it seems that many people are truly a product of their time—or more specifically, their young adulthoods. 

The 2008 financial crisis appears to have been enough to lead Millennials down a more progressive path, but what about those coming of age today? Born between 1997 and 2012, these young adults—sometimes referred to as “Zoomers”—are members of Generation Z. This is a generation whose childhoods were marked by economic disaster and foreign conflict—not unlike some older generations. However, no other generation has come of age in a time quite like this, marked by climate change, a global pandemic, and a government so divided that the last presidential election resulted in an insurrection. The negative impact of inheriting such a turbulent world has already begun to rear its head: research indicates that Gen Z has the worst overall mental health of any currently-living generation.

Further setting this generation apart is the technology they grew up with. Sometimes referred to as “iGeneration,” Gen Z is the first generation to live entirely within the internet age, giving them an unprecedented level of access to information and communication. However, there are drawbacks to this access. Technology has enabled near-constant exposure to every aspect of their uniquely troubled world, further contributing to heightened levels of anxiety and depression. But rather than bury its head in the sand, Gen Z has chosen to organize.

Midterm elections tend to pull fewer voters than presidential elections, and this is especially true for young Americans: Between 1994 and 2014, an average of 21 percent  of voters aged 18-29 voted in the midterms. However, this number jumped to 31 percent  in the 2018 midterm elections and was still higher than average in 2022 at 27 percent.  

What caused this sudden increase? The answer can be found through some simple math: The oldest members of Gen Z turned 18 in 2015, making 2018 the first midterm election in which Gen Z could vote. Although Millennials also played a part in this spike in voter turnout, these numbers still contribute to the growing belief that Gen Z is more politically active than previous generations. It seems that social media is largely the reason, allowing Gen Z to engage with their peers on critical political issues and both access and disseminate political resources with one click. There is no denying that hyperconnectivity has its downsides; however, it has created a generation more aware of the world around them and more determined to change it.

So, what does this mean for the future of American politics? If there’s merit to the cohort effect, then in order to understand Gen Z’s worldview, we need to examine current events and the political actors shaping their perspectives. It is clear that climate change and the economic strife caused by the coronavirus pandemic have had substantial impacts on Gen Z’s political positions: the Deloitte Global 2022 Gen Z and Millennial survey cited cost of living, climate change, and unemployment as the top three concerns for Gen Z. Ballooning gun violence has understandably also left an impression, with another survey citing “stopping school shootings” as the top priority for Zoomers. If a political party wishes to court these new voters, they will need to respond to their demands—and it seems one party is refusing to do so.

As the dominant conservative party in the United States, it makes sense that the Republican Party seeks to appeal to more traditional values (and therefore older voters). However, as Republicans move further to the right, they seem less inclined to address the issues Gen Z holds close. While the GOP’s fight against “critical race theory” and trans rights may appeal to older voters, how will it fare amongst Gen Z, the most racially diverse and trans-accepting generation to date?

The GOP’s recent gimmicks transcend the typical partisan divide on issues of race and gender. Gen Z has witnessed  an extraordinary amount of gun violence, with shootings at schools like Sandy Hook and Marjory Stoneman Douglas rattling the young generation. In spite of this, Republicans have doubled down on their refusal to support gun control. The GOP also remains a crucial obstacle to the passage of climate change legislation, ignoring yet another top priority for Zoomers. 

As Gen Z comes of age, their perceptions of political actors and positions on current events are beginning to solidify. The GOP’s rightward shift and reluctance to embrace the desires of young voters may imprint a negative image of the party on the collective Zoomer consciousness. If such a thing seems unlikely, one must only turn to the 2022 midterm elections, in which Gen Z voters have largely been credited with stopping the expected “red wave.” Zoomers are already demonstrating their political power—and it doesn’t look good for the Grand Old Party.

However, that is not to say that a Democratic stronghold is ensured. A recent survey found that while more Zoomers do identify with the Democratic Party (30 percent), almost just as many identify as Republicans (24 percent). Party loyalty is still up in the air, and some Republicans are taking notice; as stated by GOP strategist John Brabender, “The Democrats don’t own these votes. They’re renting them.” The Democrats cannot idly watch the Republicans dig their own grave; if they don’t take real action soon, Gen Z will dig them a grave, too. 

Gen Z has incredible political potential. Rather than retreat in the face of adversity, today’s young people have chosen to let their difficult circumstances galvanize them to take action, already cementing themselves as the most politically engaged generation. Amid growing far-right sentiments in the Republican Party, Gen Z is a beacon of hope for progressives—and if Democrats play their cards right, this beacon could burn right through the GOP as we know it.