You Can’t Make Old Friends

Why are American men and women moving in such different directions on public issues? Daniel Cox on how the attitudes and convictions of young adults are changing U.S. political life.
(Originally published 2022 | 06.10)

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 patterns stand out to you in the political tendencies of Generation Z in America?

Daniel Cox: To understand how Gen Z relates to politics differently than older U.S. generations do, you have to understand how people in this new generation have been raised. Many of their parents have emphasized individual achievement, education, and enrichment as primary goals for their children. At the same time, Gen Z has experienced less, compared with previous generations, in the way of traditional institutions like organized religion in their childhood—whether that’d 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.

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.

So political identity is becoming more important, but it’s also becoming increasingly aligned with other demographic characteristics and even lifestyle choices. If you’re Christian today, there is a much higher probability that you are a conservative or a Republican; if you’re an atheist, odds are you’re liberal or a Democrat. Consumer behavior has become more politicized as well. Liberals are much more likely to live near a Whole Foods, while conservatives are more apt to show up at Cracker Barrel. What this means practically is that Americans’ political identities have become much more than the sums of our views on various political issues—and that, increasingly, it’s difficult to separate politics from other aspects of our lives.

Meanwhile, there are fewer and fewer places in American life where we can challenge our own beliefs or compromise with people whose beliefs are different from ours. It makes democratic society difficult. More and more, Republicans and Democrats view each other not just as people with different ideas about the size and scope of government—but as threatening.

More from Daniel Cox at The Signal:

In many ways, young men are doing less well in life than young women in America. Young men tend not to have as much social support. They’re less likely to go to college. They’re more likely to live at home. Many of them believe that neither political party is doing much to help them. On the right, much more than on the left, you hear the idea that society is disadvantaging them. Today’s young men are more liberal than their elders on a lot of cultural questions, including premarital sex and same-sex marriage, and they’re more likely to have friends or family members who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. But when it comes to questions about the role and size of government in the economy, men, including young men, are less inclined to favor intervention than women are. It’s an issue area where the attitudinal differences between men and women are growing.”

Young men and young women in the U.S. both tend to want their government to do more—on gun control, on climate change, on reducing economic inequality—but there’s a profound pessimism among them, in ways we didn’t see in earlier generations, about the government’s ability to do anything. That has to do with political polarization and congressional gridlock; the government hasn’t shown that it’s up to handling a lot of these issues. But the pessimism is stronger among young men than young women. Young men are more likely to think no one’s on their side.”

There’s obviously a multitude of negative physical and psychological consequences of being lonely, and people who are lonely are probably going to be less active in politics. In extreme cases, loneliness results in anti-social behavior—not just outright violence but a general lack of participation in civil society, marriage, and community life. My concern would be that loneliness in Gen Z will lead to apathy and even political nihilism over time. Still, it’s remarkable meanwhile that, despite lower engagement in civic and religious organizations, young people still are participating in politics at reasonable levels, at least by historical standards.”

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