Something unusual appears to be happening among young Americans. “For much of the past two decades,” the Survey Center on American Life recently noted, “young women and men have had similar political profiles. But the ideological differences between them grew rapidly over the past few years as young women became increasingly liberal.” The Survey Center, a project of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute (AEI), cited Gallup polling that shows 44 percent of young women aged 18 to 29 considering themselves “liberal” last year, compared to only 25 percent of men in the same age range—a major change from 30 percent of young women and 27 percent of young men considering themselves liberal a decade earlier. What’s causing this political divergence?

Daniel Cox is a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at AEI who co-authored the Survey Center’s recent report on the “growing gender divide in American life.” Cox says the dramatic increase in progressive politics among American women of Generation Z, the cohort born between 1997 and 2012, comes out of a series of trends, including fewer young women being married than in previous generations and more of them being more formally educated and religiously unaffiliated. Many of these young women were affected by the #MeToo movement, Cox says, while spending formative adult years during the presidency of Donald Trump, whom a strikingly high ratio of them disliked. As Generation Z becomes more politically engaged in the coming years, Cox sees the potential for their convictions to alter U.S. political priorities. It’s a question, though—given the prominence of disillusionment, disconnection, frustration, and pessimism in their attitudes about American political life.


Graham Vyse: What are the bigger political trends you’re seeing across Generation Z in America?

Daniel Cox: To understand how Gen Z is approaching politics differently than older U.S. generations do, we need to understand how members of this generation were raised. Many of their parents emphasized individual achievement, education, and enrichment as primary goals for their children. At the same time, compared with previous generations, Gen Z has experienced less in the way of traditional institutions like organized religion in their childhood—whether that would be regular participation in worship services or Sunday school, or even saying prayers with their families. In part, this shift has been driven by changes in parenting priorities; but it’s also driven by the fact that Gen Z is more likely to be raised by parents with different religious backgrounds, blended families that include children from previous marriages, or single parents, all of which tend to have lower levels of religious involvement.

Politically, climate change is important to Get Z. Gun policy is important. LGBTQ issues are important. I expect abortion to become tremendously important. Yet there isn’t one preeminent, animating political issue for this generation. What’s happened instead is that political identity has become increasingly central to people in defining who they are. It’s become a stand-in for character or even personality. That’s unfortunate in some ways. It leads Americans to be more politically segregated and to shut down political conversations based on the belief that knowing someone’s politics means you know what you need to about their whole life story and whether they’re part of your good tribe or not. We’re on track to become even more politically segregated—more politically polarized—and I believe the decline of institutions and the unraveling of our civic life are playing important roles in that process.

Cottonbro

Vyse: How does this new prominence of political identity relate to the broader political trends you’re seeing?

Cox: Part of what’s going on is that younger Americans’ politics are becoming more closely connected with their other demographic attributes. The political scientist Lilliana Mason notes that people in the U.S. increasingly live with these “super identities”—their political, religious, racial, ethnic, and gender identities all combining and moving them in the same direction. You’re not merely a liberal. You’re an atheist, Jewish, bisexual liberal—and all those identities interact and reinforce one another.

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