When student survivors of the mass murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida say they will not be quiet until the political class brings about meaningful reform to gun policy, you can be forgiven for believing against all historical evidence that the response to this atrocity may be long-lasting. Immediately after the shooting they began rallying the country on television and social media, organizing a worldwide March for Our Lives to be held on March 24, calling out politicians who are bankrolled by the NRA and promising to vent their wrath at the ballot box. These teenagers speak with purpose and clarity, and are guided by an important truth: if they galvanize a generation around political involvement it doesn’t matter how much money the NRA has. There are too many of them to stop. All they have to do is show up.
A generational tsunami is coming to this country. We felt a hint of it with Barack Obama’s election. We felt the pushback against it in 2016, when Hillary Clinton was unable to motivate the rising electorate in large enough numbers in enough states to win. But Millennials are growing rapidly as a share of the population and are on the threshold of taking power. The election of Donald Trump was all about preventing this from happening, and the Trump administration is a last-ditch effort to stave off social forces threatening to upend the center-right pillars of American politics by those groups fearful of losing control to a group with vastly different values and priorities.
How different? Last week, the Pew Research Center, which does wonderful work tracking demographic changes in American politics, issued its latest report on the vast generational divide facing the country. On every major social position and political attitude, Millennials (defined by Pew as those between the ages of 22-37) are more progressive, more tolerant and more secular than their parents and grandparents. They support an expansive social safety net and believe government should provide health care coverage to everyone. They embrace diversity, view immigration as a strength, and regard openness to people around the world as essential to America’s strength. Wedge issues that long divided the electorate to the benefit of the right will not work with them. They embrace big government and same-sex marriage, and prefer negotiation to military might. They are overwhelmingly pro-choice and are the least religious generation in polling history.
In other words, they are the antithesis of older voters who provide Trump with his strongest support. The collision of these generations is the frontal boundary responsible for the violent political storms we have to weather as a new order seeks to take power from the old, but anyone who cares to look down the road can see where things are going. Republicans know it too, and have wagered that they can hold off the deluge if they restrict voting, shatter norms and damage political institutions in order to hold on to the power they could not claim through fair elections and democratic processes.
Millennials understand that no one will hand them anything. If they want to shape the future they have to do it for themselves. Their first ballot test will come in November, when it is an article of faith among political observers that the electorate will skew older. But I’m not convinced that pattern will hold this time. Look to the numbers of Millennials who stand in solidarity with their younger counterparts during this month’s march, because when people participate in a time-consuming activity like social protest we know they are highly likely to engage in the much simpler act of voting. Listen as well to what Millennials themselves are saying about November. According to Pew, 73% are looking forward to voting in November, more than any other generation. And Democrats hold a 33-point advantage among Millennials in the generic ballot. It’s easy to do the math. The future will arrive when they show up, and the indications are clear that moment is approaching.