Advertisement

Generational Cycles in American Politics, 1952–2016

  • 13 Accesses

Abstract

The generation one comes of age politically is an important determinant in one’s political identity. Though a political generation gap is not a perpetual feature of the American political landscape, one’s generation can be a noteworthy influence on partisan and ideological leanings. The political environment experienced by successive generations as they have come of age politically influences political attitudes throughout one’s life. The result is that different generations have distinct political leanings that they will maintain over their lifetimes. Utilizing data collected by the American National Election Studies (ANES) from 1952 to 2016, this study utilizes cohort analysis to compare differences in generational presidential vote choice and ideological preferences over time. The findings suggest that the generational divide in American politics today is unprecedented. For the second half of the twentieth century there was remarkably modest political disparity between generational cohorts. This lack of an age divide in American politics lead the field of political science to generally focus on other demographic gaps in American politics other than generational differences. Once the Millennial Generation first entered the electorate in the early 2000s, however, there has emerged a considerable generational gap in American politics. The Millennial Generation has developed distinct political leanings that are significantly to the left of older generations. Although there is a stereotype that younger Americans are more liberal and supportive of Democrats than older Americans are, from 1952 to 2000 this generally was not the case. In fact, prior to the Millennials, there tended to be little difference between the generations in presidential vote choice and ideological leanings, and the youngest generation was not consistently the most Democratic leaning or liberal. Given Millennials’ left-leaning politics, generational replacement would probably have an important influence of American politics regardless of whomever these voters were replacing in the electorate. The Silent Generation that is currently being replaced in the electorate, however, has in recent years emerged as considerably the most Republican and conservative generation in contemporary American politics. Conservative and Republican-leaning Americans are thus currently being replaced in the electorate by relatively liberal and Democratic-leaning voters. The Millennial Generation thus has the potential to alter the course of American politics.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Access options

Buy single article

Instant unlimited access to the full article PDF.

US$ 39.95

Price includes VAT for USA

Subscribe to journal

Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.

US$ 99

This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4

Notes

  1. 1.

    Paul Allen Beck and M. Kent Jennings, “Family Traditions, Political Periods, and the Development of Partisan Orientations,” Journal of Politics 53 (1991): 742–764.

  2. 2.

    Pew Research Center, “The Whys and Hows of Generations Research” September 3, 2015.

  3. 3.

    Michael Dimock, “Defining Generations: Where Millennials End and Post-Millennials Begin” Pew Research Center March 1, 2018.

  4. 4.

    Pew Research Center, “The Whys and Hows of Generations Research” September 3, 2015.

  5. 5.

    Gosta Carlsson and Katarina Karlsson, “Age, Cohorts and the Generation of Generations,” American Sociological Review 35 (1970): 710–718.

  6. 6.

    Paul R. Abramson, Generational Change in American Politics (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1975).

  7. 7.

    Alan S. Gerber, Donald P. Green, and Ron Schachar, “Voting May Be Habit Forming: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment,” American Journal of Political Science 47 (2003): 540–550.

  8. 8.

    Markus Prior, “You’ve Either Got It or You Don’t? The Stability of Political Interest over the Life Cycle,” The Journal of Politics 72 (2010): 747–786.

  9. 9.

    June Edmunds and Bryan S. Turner, Generations, Culture and Society (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2002).

  10. 10.

    Ibid.

  11. 11.

    Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me (New York: Atria Books, 2014).

  12. 12.

    Stella M. Rouse and Ashley D. Ross, The Politics of Millennials (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018).

  13. 13.

    Pew Research Center, “The Whys and Hows of Generations Research” September 3, 2015.

  14. 14.

    Paul R. Abramson, Generational Change in American Politics (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1975).

  15. 15.

    Richard Braungart and Margaet Baraungart, “Life Course and Generational Politics,” Annual Review of Sociology 12 (1986): 205–231.

  16. 16.

    Michael X Delli Carpini, Stability and Change in American Politics: The Coming of Age of the Generation of the 1960s (New York: New York University Press, 1986), p. 7.

  17. 17.

    Ronald Inglehart, Cultural Shift in Advanced Industrial Societies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).

  18. 18.

    June Edmunds and Bryan S. Turner, Generations, Culture and Society (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2002), chapter 1.

  19. 19.

    Gary Jacobson, “The Effects of the George W. Bush Presidency on Partisan Attitudes,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 39 (2009): 172–209.

  20. 20.

    Norval D. Glenn, Cohort Analysis (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005), p. 3.

  21. 21.

    Pew Research Center, “The Whys and Hows of Generations Research” September 3, 2015.

  22. 22.

    Patrick Fisher, Demographic Gaps in American Political Behavior (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2008), chapter 6.

  23. 23.

    Pew Research Center, “The Whys and Hows of Generations Research” September 3, 2015.

  24. 24.

    Richard Braungart and Margaet Braungart, “Life Course and Generational Politics,” Annual Review of Sociology 12 (1986): 205–231.

  25. 25.

    Pew Research Center, “Millennials in Adulthood” March 7, 2014.

  26. 26.

    Pew Research Center, “The Whys and Hows of Generations Research” September 3, 2015.

  27. 27.

    Pew Research Center, “The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election,” November 3, 2011.

  28. 28.

    Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins, Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 47–49.

  29. 29.

    Author calculations of 1952–2016 American National Election studies data.

  30. 30.

    Researchers at the National Opinion Research Center were most concerned with the apparent generation gap that was evident in the years 1973, 1985, and 1997, and used the General Social Survey of 3000 adults to analyze the trend. By comparing about twenty variables such as abortion, economic conditions, and civil rights, the researchers found that the gap has fallen from an average of 19.4% in 1973, to 16.7% in 1985 and finally to 15.2% in 1997.

  31. 31.

    Michael X. Delli Carpini, “Baby Boomers,” The Forum 12 (2014): 417–445.

  32. 32.

    Shiva Maniam, “A Wider Partisan and Ideological Gap between Younger, Older Generations,” Pew Research Center March 20, 2017.

  33. 33.

    Pew Research Center, “The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election,” November 3, 2011.

  34. 34.

    Ibid.

  35. 35.

    Ibid.

  36. 36.

    Paul Taylor, The Next America (New York: Public Affairs, 2015). Chapter 4.

  37. 37.

    Robert S. Erikson, Michael B. Macken, and James A. Stimson, The Macro Polity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp.154–155.

Author information

Correspondence to Patrick Fisher.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Fisher, P. Generational Cycles in American Politics, 1952–2016. Soc (2020) doi:10.1007/s12115-019-00437-7

Download citation

Keywords

  • Generations
  • U.S. presidential elections
  • Millennial Generation
  • Generation Z
  • Generation X
  • Baby Boomers
  • Silent Generation