A dangerous myth among liberals is that America’s electorate will inevitably become more progressive because “conservatives are dying off.” That hope ignores a major trend among White people: toxic aging.
Since 1990, the White population age 40 and older grew by 32 million, and it will grow by up to an added 6 million by 2030. Older White people seem to be getting more reactionary as America’s population becomes more racially diverse.
Baby boomers, who harbored generally liberal views in their 1960s and ’70s youth, aged into the most far-right elders since the Jim Crow era. According to Pew Research, a large majority of older White people—in the 2010s—still oppose interracial marriage. That White middle-agers are even more conservative than White seniors indicates the oldest White people will continue to vote heavily for right-wing candidates.
The reactionary politics of older White rightists is driven by implacable “racial animus,” not economic suffering. During the presidency of Barack Obama, the median annual income of White families rose by a handsome $3,700 in real, inflation-adjusted dollars to a record $66,000. For middle-aged White people, median incomes now top $75,000.
Voting trends among White Gen-X and millennials are more mixed. Comparing exit polls in 2018 with those of 2008 shows both groups became more Republican as they aged. Still, White millennials may prove more liberal than previous generations. In 2016, White people age 30 to 44 voted Republican by 17 points; in 2018, they split evenly, while White people age 18 to 29 broke for Democrats by 13 points.
Perhaps younger White millennials’ and Generation Z’s greater experience with diverse races and lifestyles will sustain their current liberalism into senior years. History does not suggest banking on that.
Fortunately, a dramatic countertrend is starting to win attention. Teenage activists shaking up gun violence and climate change politics are invigorating liberal calls to fight for youth rights. Four towns in Maryland, one in Vermont and Berkeley, California, have local voting ages of 16.
An amendment introduced by first-year U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) to lower the national voting age from 18 to 16 won Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s endorsement and 125 Democratic votes (and one Republican vote) in the House of Representatives. Oregon will soon vote on a similar statewide measure. San Francisco activists are planning a 2020 campaign.
Yet, substantial opposition from Democrats has defeated extending voting to 16 elsewhere. In Congress, 108 Democrats opposed Pressley’s amendment. San Francisco’s 2016 measure narrowly lost, garnering 48 percent of the vote, 30 points less than other liberal issues. Washington, D.C.’s, effort stalled when two Democratic city council members reversed their positions.
Activists have advanced positive arguments for extending voting to 16- and 17-year-olds. However, the most compelling reason is not partisan or academic, but a matter of survival. Aging adult voters and leaders are forcing massive debt, social crises, and environmental disaster on young people—all to preserve current elders’ lifestyles and low taxes.
Older leaders, whose authority derives from customs established in what Margaret Mead described as homogenous, slow-changing tribes of the past, are maladapted to leading today’s diverse, rapidly changing societies. They do not represent the young. High school-age youth, 48 percent of whom are of color, are being governed by older, White-dominated generations whose attitudes remain mired in the pre-Civil-Rights era.
Older White people diverge sharply from all other demographics. In 2018, after witnessing three years of Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, White people age 45 and older voted Republican by a 16-point margin, and White people age 30 to 39 split evenly. All other demographics—younger White people and all voters of color—rejected Republicans by double-digit margins.
Polls of high schoolers’ political attitudes are hard to find, an indicator of how marginalized their views are. The best approximations are the 2019 Pew Research Center survey of 920 13- to 17-year-olds and the 2016 The American Freshman survey of 137,000 first-year college students who just graduated from high school. The freshman survey found 80 percent want climate change addressed and 71 percent would tax the wealthy more. Pew found high schoolers have attitudes much like those 18 to 24 years old, 68 percent of whom voted for Democrats in 2018.
While the disdain of a large fraction of Democratic lawmakers toward lowering the voting age is puzzling, conservative opposition reflects right-wing self-interest. Had 16- to 17-year-olds been able to vote, it’s likely that Democrats would have won another half-dozen House seats in 2018, and Hillary Clinton would have won four more big states and the presidency in 2016.
Negative commentaries tend to cite impressions and sensational media anecdotes (such as the Tide Pod-eating “trend”) rather than evidence. “I can’t tell you how many people have sent me videos or referenced Tide Pods as a reason that 16- and 17-year-olds shouldn’t vote,” state senator Shemia Fagan, sponsor of Oregon’s measure, said. This “is just not a logic that you could carry to any other voting population.”
Meanwhile, opponents ignore the ugly paradox that the Western world’s richest generation of middle-agers is imposing crushing debt and disadvantage on the Western’s world’s poorest youth. They evade the reality that grownup behaviors and attitudes are deteriorating while youth are improving—another paradox.
The viability of American society and the global future may depend on balancing the politics of the reactionary, aging White demographic with younger voters by lowering the voting and office-holding ages to 16, or even 14. To those fearful of high schoolers’ enfranchisement, consider that even though a third of people age 85 and older suffer dementia, we have no “upper” voting age or ban on people with dementia voting—nor should we.
We are exposing children and youth to harsh anti-diversity crackdowns and an increasingly unlivable future. The least progressives can do is prioritize allowing the young a voice in deciding issues that vitally affect them. Teenagers deserve electoral power. We adults deserve for them to have it.
Mike Males is a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the principal investigator for YouthFacts, and the author of five books on American youth.