What We Know About The Progressive Future: Here Come The Millennials

In January 2011, I presented a futures research project to the Progressive Caucus in Congress, then the largest of all the caucuses in that body. The report, Progressives 2040 — which was sponsored by ProgressiveCongress.org and published by Demos — analyzed a large set of major trends that would shape the future of the progressive movement for the next three decades, and offered a set of scenarios that illustrated how these trends might work together to create a range of possible futures that the movement will need to be prepared for.

This is the first post in “What We Know About The Progressive Future” — a series that I imagine will be a long (probably 10-12 post) look at that research five years on, updating my conclusions and taking a fresh look at the big drivers and high leverage points that will determine the future of our movement. 



Image via Ian Buck @ Flickr.

For most pundits, the most striking thing about the Iowa Caucus was the virtual tie between the two Democratic candidates (which portends a longer and perhaps more exciting election season and higher ratings for those in the media to look forward to), and the surprising 1-2-and-3 order of Cruz, Trump, and Rubio. I’m writing this less than 24 hours after the caucuses ended, and more than enough on both these topics has already been written by others (for God’s sake, people, it’s just Iowa), so I’m going to spare you another analysis ex cathedra from my belly button as to What It All Means For November.

I’m far more interested in another trend that emerged that night — a small detail that will almost certainly have a much longer historical tail than anything else that might happen between now and Election Day. This trend was crystallized by the stunning fact that Bernie Sanders got 85% of the votes of caucus-goers under 30.

That’s not a typo. Eighty-five percent.

That’s a number that strategists from every end of the political spectrum need to be paying attention to, because it is heralding the arrival of the Millennial Generation as a political force to be reckoned with.

My report saw this coming. Back in January 2011, I wrote this about them:

The Millennial generation (born 1980-2000) is the largest and most ethnically diverse generation in American history, with 44% identifying as members of a racial minority. They are the most globally connected generation to date: they travel more, speak more languages, and have friends all over the world. They are more progressive in their core values and attitudes that any cohort we’ve seen in at least a century. And they are rising fast: by 2020, they will be outvoting their elders, dominating elections and bringing their own priorities to the table. We can expect the Millennials to launch their first serious presidential candidate in 2020, and elect their first president probably no later than 2024.

Perhaps the most important fact about the Millennials is the sheer size of this generation. They’re the first cohort we’ve seen in the past 40 years that’s actually big enough to swamp their Boomer parents, whose interests and worldviews have dominated American politics ever since the youngest of them hit voting age in the late 1970s.  The Boom was the biggest generation in American history, to the point where their sheer size itself was transformative (as they say: quantity has a quality all its own). But the Millennials are even bigger. And between now and 2020, the youngest edge of this generation will finally turn 18 and register to vote. The results stand to be at least as transformative for us as a nation as the moment when the Boomers themselves arrived.

Conservative Millennials? Don’t hold your breath
Any number of GOP pundits have written thumb-sucking articles explaining how this cohort is going to become more conservative as it ages (because every generation does, right?) Feel free to rip those up: it’s not likely to happen, for several reasons — starting with the fact that no, not every generation does. The Boomers did, because from left to right and youth through their approaching old age, they’ve shared a belief in radical individualism — the primacy of the individual over any claims made by society — that fed everything from Evangelicalism and free market fundamentalism on the right to New Age religions and social experimentation on the left.  That individualism is the one shining through-line that defines everything that generation has ever embraced. It made them hippies. And it also made them vote for Reagan.

The Millennials are their historical opposite number — a generation raised  from babyhood to cooperate, share, include, network, and self-organize. They value conformity (Boomers and Xers are horrified by the “calling out” ritual that Millennials run on each other constantly as they vigilantly police each other’s behavior. We’d have choked on our own spit before telling each other what to say, think or do; and would  have rightly expected to be told to fuck off if we tried it),  and as this pervades their politics in the coming decades, it’s going to involve a lot of telling other people how they should live. That’s how their GI grandparents created and enforced the great American Consensus of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, and it’s how they’re going to re-create a new consensus about the Next America they’re going to build.

That bred-in-the-bone collectivism is likely to be as durable a lifelong feature as Boomer individualism has been; but it stands in stark opposition to conservatism as it’s currently constituted. It’s possible to imagine another, distinctively Millennial form of conservatism emerging in time — but it would have to be rooted in the idea of a strong social contract, one that obligates individuals to cede some of their desires to the greater good, represented by trusted authorities — and is willing to use social shame as an enforcement mechanism. The GOP is a long way from offering any narratives along these lines now. If they do emerge, it could take another 20 years or more, becoming something today’s Millennials embrace as they age on through their 40s, 50s and 60s.

Other conservatives hold out hope that that all-time-high number of Millennials from immigrant families will benefit them in time, since the usual pattern has been for second-generation immigrants (the first generation born here) to do very well educationally and economically, and to vote more conservatively than either their parents or their third-gen kids. That might be a very plausible scenario — except for the nasty fact that Millennials have already grown up scarred and terrorized by a GOP that has never been able to lay off immigrant-bashing. Again, it’s going to take a radical change within that party — plus another 15 years of over-the-top effort — to win even the grudging trust of a generation that’s already marinated in decades of conservative anti-immigrant hysteria before that’s even remotely likely.

In any event: anybody waiting for the Great Millennial Conservative Revival probably shouldn’t hold their breath. If it comes at all, it’s going to be a very long while indeed. In the meantime, these young adults have a revolution to pull off.  And that moment is coming — much sooner than anybody seems ready to think.

Millennials and Elections
Obama, to his credit, was the first candidate to recognize the raw political power and profound unrest of this rising cohort in 2008. Even though fully half of the Millennial generation was still too young to vote, his overt efforts to capture the energy and attention of the half that could was a conscious strategy. The Millennials ended up supplying him with the margin that put him over the top in the election — support he later rewarded by bringing home the troops (most of whom were Millennials) and restructuring the federal student loan program to make over $30 billion more in Pell Grants available and reduce the loan burden on new graduates (both of which were policies I pointed to in my original 2011 report).

But the Millennials want more. They’re looking into a future that most of them understand is a fatal dead end without a radical, rip-up-the-floorboards restructuring of how the entire planet works — how we do everything from energy and money to community and education to transportation and agriculture. This yearning for a different kind of world even has the potential to upend our current understandings of “right” and “left,” as I wrote in my report:

Some research suggests that this generation’s politics lean toward the “independent” and the “centrist.” However, those words don’t mean the same thing to under-30 Americans that they do to older ones. The self-described “independents” also express core values that are deeply collectivist and inclusive, which gives them a strong affinity for progressive ideas and solutions. (Studies by Pew and Barna have even found these same affinities among self-identified conservatives in this cohort.) Likewise, these “centrists” see their generation’s communal focus on a shared future and shared prosperity as a matter of plain common sense. To them, “we’re in this together” is not a radical idea; indeed, it stands at the center of their politics.

The Millennials spurned Hillary in 2008 because they were craving a true change candidate — and Obama promised to be that. But in the end, the change he could deliver wasn’t enough. And that’s why this generation is going, overwhelmingly, for Bernie Sanders, whom they see as sitting entirely outside the corrupt party system that made it impossible for Obama to give them the goods, unbeholden to Wall Street, uncontaminated by party cronyism, unfiltered in the media — someone who seems to be entirely their own.  This is what their candidates look like — and are going to continue to look like for the next several election cycles.

Given that the youngest 15% or so of the Millennial cohort is still too young to vote, it’s not clear that the Millennials will get their revolution this year. My prediction above that they’d dominate our elections by 2020 was based on the fact that that’s when the very tail end of the cohort — the ones born in 2000 — will all have reached adulthood, putting them finally at their full political strength. Whether or not they show up for 2016 is also complicated by a few other factors, including:

  • How disillusioned the older ones are following their experience with Obama, whom many of them feel very disappointed by — a real problem that surfaced in 2012, when many of them didn’t return to the polls.
  • The general tendency of young adults in their 20s to not vote. Voting is a behavior that becomes more reliable with age. By 2020, the oldest Millennials will be 40, and half will be over 30 — which means they should start showing up far more regularly.
  • Persistent efforts on the part of the GOP to disenfranchise students, which have large effects in some parts of the country.
  • How well Sanders survives the onslaught of conservative attacks that we all know are coming.


It’s safe to say that the Millennials will be a vastly bigger factor in 2016 than they were in either 2008 or 2012 — and that Sanders’ success to date can and should be interpreted as this generation’s announcement of its growing political presence with far louder and more insistent authority than we’ve ever heard from them before.

However, in this election cycle, it’s not at all clear that it will be enough to get them what they want. We are tantalizingly close to a generational tipping point, but have not completely arrived at it just quite yet. But by the next cycle, that point will almost certainly be well behind us — and from then on, for the next 40 years, our politics will be pretty much entirely dominated, owned, and determined by the Millennials’ collectivist worldviews, interests, desires, and priorities. They will, this time or next, succeed in voting themselves the transformation they seek. It’s not a question of if, but when.

What we’re seeing when we look at the Bernie Sanders phenomenon is a direct window into our own political future. When will it emerge? Maybe not today, and maybe not this November — but it’s coming soon, and it or something like it will be the dominant political reality for the rest of our lives.

Originally posted at Future Imperfect.

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