American politics are certainly an acquired taste.
The high-profile spectacle of the American party-politics can be difficult to understand and even harder to ignore. The country’s sheer size (in both a demographic and geographical sense) means that the supply of talking points rarely runs dry. While it may be true that the problems vexing the United States (think: gun violence, gay rights, racial tension) are not uniquely American problems, the country’s colossal scale and well-funded media machine foster a sensationalist culture that fuels larger-than-life perceptions both at home and abroad.
While the average bystander would be quite reasonable in dismissing the whole of American politics out-of-hand as being laughably conservative, the reality is indeed a bit more nuanced. The feeling of familiarity that has accompanied decades of widely exported American culture has worked to further entrench and encourage a casual (if not the reductivist) understanding of American politics in the rest of the world. The legacy of the United States’ hegemonic status during the Cold War era has imbued much of the contemporary educated world (especially that which exists across the Atlantic) with a certain sense of laziness when it comes to confronting American domestic developments. It’s certainly easy to base one’s conception of the political scene around the dichotomy between a small minority of culturally enlightened coastal inhabitants stuck in perpetual resistance against the neo-conservative whimsy of the uneducated, gun-toting, red-necked, evangelical masses. However, this fails to account for the quiet majority represented by ‘Middle America’, arguably the most potent electoral force in American politics. It’s indeed this sort of citizen, unremarkable to the news media at large, that serves to characterize the system. While the spectrum seems to be polarizing itself at an alarming rate during its quiet slide to the right, the average voter’s convictions are still far a cry from anything that is being parroted at excessive volume from whomever Fox News has appointed pundit-of-the-week.
Despite the best efforts of the far right to stymie the flow of newcomers, America remains at its core a nation of immigrants. The notion of the ‘melting pot’ society is something that gives the Unites States a sense of individuality, a cultivated cultural identity that differentiates it from other members of the English-speaking world like the United Kingdom and Canada. The most recent manifestation of this issue has come in the form of Congress’ attempt to formulate new reforms on immigration legislation, a prospect met with resistance on all sides. Continuing the trend of Congressional gridlock, staunch opposition has arisen among House Republicans. While the proposed reforms include changes that many would deem ‘victories’ for conservatives, the antagonistic fringe of the Tea Party-right has come out en masse against the legislation without providing any insight into how the problem might be resolved, per usual.
The notion of intra-party antagonism, while nothing new, is a powerful force in a system with little third-party prospects. The mainstream remains very much the only stream. The constraints involved with maintaining a strong party line has emerged as a significant hurdle for today’s Republican party, prompting John Weaver, a former campaign strategist for centre-right candidates John McCain and Jon Huntsman to claim that ‘[The GOP] will not be a national governing party for a long, long time if we turn our backs on this chance to pass immigration reform. It’s just that simple’. [2. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/07/the-immigration-fight-is-the-battle-for-the-soul-of-the-gop/277867/ ]
While the Republican party struggles with their internal strife, the outside world is changing as well. The Millennial generation, commonly defined as those born between the 1980s and the turn of the century, represents a significant electoral force. While 9/11 remains the single most momentus moment in recent American history, the Millennials came of age during a time characterized by the economic mismanagement and inception of multiple protracted military incursions under the administration of George W. Bush. A 2009 study completed by the Center For American Progress produced an interesting observation. The Center concluded:[3. http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/progressive-movement/report/2009/05/13/6021/the-political-ideology-of-the-millennial-generation/ ]
What is most important about these voters is not their current predilection for Democratic candidates, however, but rather the deeply held progressive beliefs underlying their voting preferences. The progressive beliefs of these young adult voters could recast the core ideological battles that have defined our country’s post-Vietnam political discourse.
Make no mistake: the GOP is losing young voters. The previously ubiquitous notion of ‘young republican clubs’ is becoming less so, and it feels like the majority of young people, raised on a diet of unemployment and economic instability, are generally becoming disinterested in things like Reaganomics, social darwinism, and radical isolationism. On the topic of the immigration reform legislation that is currently negotiating a largely stagnant Congress, a Fox News survey of ~1,000 Americans found that Republicans (90%), people over the age of 65 (87%), and whites (83%) support the addition of additional ‘border security’ measures. Similarly, Democrats (82%), people under the age of 30 (81%), and non-whites (79%) support a path to citizenship for immigrants who hold non-legal status. [4. http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/06/13/fox-news-poll-voters-want-immigration-reform/ ]
Exit polls from the 2012 Presidential election also illustrate the sharp division between demographics that underscores this potential demographic-political shift. White men still favored Mitt Romney by an overwhelming margin, while non-whites supported President Obama by an even more staggering margin (93% of blacks voted for the incumbent). Obama handily won both 18-29 and 30-44 age groups, while Romney took the 45-64 and 65+ demographics without difficulty. Interestingly, while Obama won out among those without a university degree, those holding a degree, and those with a postgraduate degree, Romney narrowly edged out his competitor among those with standard undergraduate credentials.[5. http://elections.nytimes.com/2012/results/president/exit-polls/ ]
On the non-Presidential contentions du jour of American politics, the divide is equally maintained. A Washington Post/ABC News poll (above) again illustrates the rather sharp divide between the generations. I believe that these three issues are quite appropriate in illustrating this phenomenon as they represent a sharp departure from the social status quo as well as the shifting social norms of the Millennials. The study shows a significant divide between the Millennials (18-29 demographic) and their parents (50-65+) with the latter half of Generation X (those too young to be parents of Millennials: born after 1965 but before 1979) displaying a slightly left-leaning bias that characterised Middle America in the 2012 elections.
Another influential element in the shifting character of American voters is the erosion of traditionally boundaries that have discouraged voters from crossing party lines on an issue-by-issue basis. This is seen in the the emergence of trans-party movements that seek to promote rationality and compromise that transcends party lines. Among the more prolific of these ‘purple’ organisations include No Labels and The Coffee Party USA , which promote progress through a commitment to bipartisan dialogue. In disputing the effectiveness of reliance on the partisan balance of surveys, The Pew Research Center for People and the Press explains that: [6. http://www.people-press.org/2012/08/03/party-affiliation-and-election-polls/ ]
Most fundamentally, [political allegiance] is an attitude, not a demographic.
The concept of an ideological split between older and younger demographics is certainly not a new one. It would be fair to assume, even, that a country’s youth will more often than not function as the driving force behind progressive politics. However, the American Millennials have displayed a few interesting tendencies including the disinclination to unconsciously vote along party lines as well as the desire to reconcile bipartisan differences in the name of progress. Another important factor, the increase in the Hispanic/Latino population, is another demographic trend that must be considered. The 2012 US Census revealed that the immigration boom that occurred during the 1990s and continued through the turn of the century has reinforced a surging Hispanic birth rate, and will likely result in a non-white majority in America before 2050. When you consider that 76% of non-white voters of all ages supported President Obama in the previous election cycle, this is far from insignificant.[7. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/12/census-hispanics-and-black-unseat-whites-as-majority-in-united-states-population_n_2286105.html ]
In any case, the ‘two-steps-forward-one-step-backwards’ brand of progress that has defined American civil and political culture during the last half-century and beyond will be incredibly difficult to dislodge. It’s certainly far too early to proclaim the inevitable death of the American right. The second Bush President and current House of Representatives have proved that ill-conceived policy choices have no bearing on the GOP’s longevity. As a result of its tremendous size, fickle culture, and unique history the U.S. will undoubtedly continue to struggle with many disputes that are simply non-issues in smaller, wealthier, and more welfare-inclined nations. Nevertheless, the Millennial generation has brought with it a cause for legitimate, if still cautious, optimism regarding America’s progress towards a positive political future.