Explaining the 2016 elections: the generational pivot

One of the essential uses of studying history is the way the past can sometimes shock you into a different awareness of the present, along with adding glimpses of possible futures.  We certainly need more awareness when it comes to the Trump presidency.

The historical model I’d like to explore here is one of succeeding generations.

This is a longer post, so get comfortable.

In November, right after the American election, I read a terrific quote in Margaret MacMillan‘s grand First World War book The War That Ended Peace.*  The passage was by Harry Kessler, a border-crossing (English and German) aristocrat, bon vivant, and prolific diarist.  In it he characterized those epic changes in Europe as a grand succession struggle, a sequence of generations:

Something… was growing old and weak, dying out; and something new, young, energetic, and still unimaginable was in the offing.  We felt it like a frost, like a spring in our limbs, the one with muffled pain, the other with a keen joy. (Kindle location 7428)

That quote about 1914 struck me as aimed straight at the United States of November 2016.  Perhaps Americans are experiencing this kind of extraordinary generational succession struggle now – not through massive war, but along the lines of social transformation.

A few weeks later I read something similar in We Make the Road by Walking, where Paolo Freire describes massive changes in Brazilian society during the 1960s:

It is a time of confrontation, this transition, the time of transition of the old society to a new one that does not exist yet, but it’s being created with the confrontation of the ghosts. (218)

“confrontation of the ghosts” – what a great phrase.  Again, there’s that sense of a moment caught between a dominant generation and a rising one, a time of struggle between two epochs.

This generational succession trope is not new.  It’s as old as the classical idea of ages of gold and silver.  My favorite modern example is a famous Antonio Gramsci quote about the 1930s, which seems to apply to our times nicely:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. (one source)

That powerful, underappreciated, and very close observer of fascism went on:

this paragraph should be completed by some observations which I made on the so-called “problem of the younger generation” – a problem caused by the “crisis of authority” of the old generations in power, and by the mechanical impediment that has been imposed on those who could exercise hegemony, which prevents them from carrying out their mission.

A crisis of authority, a struggle between historical eras – again, this seems appropriate to 2016-2017.

One version of this generational succession idea has been occupying some American political thinkers and activists for, well,  a generation.  It comes from the Democratic party and goes like this: the old generation (think WWII plus most Baby Boomers) grew up and came into power based on certain forces shaping society: nationalism, manufacturing, racism, patriarchy, and carbon-based energy.  Now, those structures and their people are about to give way to a new epoch shaped by contrasting and oppositional drivers:  globalism, knowledge and service jobs, high technology, climate change mitigation, feminism, increased education, and pluralism.  The old generation was based in factories, in suburbs, and in the countryside, while the new one inhabits ever-growing post-industrial cities.  The old will give way to the new.  That transition is deeply laid, indeed inevitable.  We can count on it.

This is the argument of the very influential 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority, by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira.  (Here’s a handy short summary by one of the authors)  The Clinton campaign relied on it very closely.

But suddenly, in the 2016 election, the generational succession sequence backfired, as the older order, instead of fading away, instead hurled itself back into power for a last gasp of historical revenge, like the Roman emperor Justinian suddenly clawing back parts of the old western empire.  What does this weird reversal mean?


Found on Facebook.

In response, proponents of the Judis and Teixeira theory can comfort themselves by understanding this Trumpist surprise as a spasm or blip, a temporary reverse on the otherwise durable arc.  For them it was a glitch, possibly made possible by external or artificial forces, such as the FBI or Moscow.  They can also extend the generational model by seeing the rising generation as somehow weaker at the present day, perhaps sapped by technology, or overcoddled into impotence – in other words, by indulging in the ever-popular, heinous sport of Millennial bashing.  This is a temporary failure, and the younger folks should now be shocked into action.

As Teixeia himself argued shortly after the November election, “Those old legs will give out eventually, though we do not know exactly when.”

Or as historian Kevin Gannon writes,

I saw Trumpism as the death struggles of the white supremacist coalition that had so decisively shaped American politics and culture. The Beast always struggles hardest before it dies, I repeatedly proclaimed. You can’t fight demographic change, it’s a fool’s errand.

I still stand by that assertion. But it’s clear the Beast is far from dying.

And yet it will die.  The death throes are gruesome, and require careful management; hence the demands and form of today’s politics.

There’s an alternative version of this argument.  Others are also offering historical succession statements, but based on a different model, one focused on economics and its political support mechanisms.  For example, Cornel West pithily argues that “[t]he neoliberal era in the United States ended with a neofascist bang.” Along the same line Mark Blyth tweets that:


It’s handy to have Brexit and Trump in the same image.

“The era of neoliberalism is over. The era of neo-nationalism has just begun”

Achille Mbembe offers a related vision:

The main clash of the first half of the 21st century will not oppose religions or civilisations. It will oppose liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism, the rule of finance and the rule of the people, humanism and nihilism.

Note how Mbembe sets aside the Huntington thesis.

For these analysts the epochal succession of our time is anchored more on economics, and less on culture.  Indeed, for them a good amount of culture and politics flow from the contemporary macroeconomic regime, which they characterize in terms of increased global capital and labor movement, growing financialization of developed societies, a major turn to the market and away from the public sector, deregulation, and the decline of unions (if I can try to summarize it all in a single sentence).

For Blyth, West, and others this neoliberal order has captured most of the political order, including both leading political parties, only provoking rare uprisings, such as Occupy.  They and Thomas Piketty date that capture to circa 1975-1980, with that time’s shift away from the post-WWII settlement and in response to multiple system shocks experienced in the 70s and 80s.  That neoliberal capture has had its run, enjoying a generation or so in power, but opposition has finally crystalized in the form of Britain’s Brexit, America’s Trump, and other instances.  Occupy was an early sign of opposition. For proponents of this view recent elections have not been about race or gender so much as being really referenda on neoliberalism.  They take as further evidence globalization’s current slowdown or even reversal.

Trump’s quick termination of the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty (TPP) would be a good example of this anti-neoliberal politics in power.  It’s important to realize what a turnaround that it. Recall that TPP looked inevitable a couple of years ago, even receiving Republican support – extraordinary for an Obama administration plan.  The 2015-2016 primaries combined with growing popular dislike made it controversial, then unpopular.  By mid-2016 all leading presidential candidates condemned it.  In 2017 American support ended without many protests.  Few observers or actors saw TPP in Judis/Teixeira terms, viewing it as a problem of race, gender, or urbanity.  Instead, it was about economics, and interpreted as a giant neoliberal project.

Thomas Piketty, perhaps the leading global and academic authority in income inequality, pronounces:

Let it be said at once: Trump’s victory is primarily due to the explosion in economic and geographic inequality in the United States over several decades and the inability of successive governments to deal with this.

This narrative is not necessarily one of progress.  The proponents are critics of neoliberalism, but not automatically defenders of nationalism.  For West and others, they’re not happy to see what they call neofascism, of course.  And they usually don’t celebrate Trump for his person or policies, including non-economic programs.

Taken together, that’s a lot of history to pile onto one single, close-run election, but there’s sense to it.  When I started writing this post last month in Helsinki, seven times zones from America’s closest coast, watching snow falling outside and munching fine nakkileipa indoors, I thought about demographics and attitudes.  Judis, Teixeira, Blyth, West, and Kessler brought to mind the age breakdown of voters in the November election.  Specifically, how younger people voted for Clinton, while the olds gave us Trump.

Exit polls are imperfect, but seem to be uniform on this score.  For example, here’s Pew:

Young adults preferred Clinton over Trump by a wide 55%-37% margin… Older voters (ages 65 and older) preferred Trump over Clinton 53%-45%.

Election 2016 by age

Here’s from the New York Times:


And from USA Today:


If the age breakdown is so clear, it sounds like a vote for the Democrat/Clinton/New Majority model.  The young embody the new order, and were just outvoted this time.  Young people tend not to turn out at the polls, compared to their elders. The olds are dwindling, inevitably, and will eventually give way.

Those intergenerational differences are especially sharp in terms of education.  Millennials and Homelanders, plus younger Xers, are often better educated than their elders.  This difference played out electorally very starkly:

College graduates backed Clinton by a 9-point margin (52%-43%), while those without a college degree backed Trump 52%-44%. This is by far the widest gap in support among college graduates and non-college graduates in exit polls dating back to 1980.

2016 election, differences by education levels

Another strong generational-electoral difference appeared in terms of economic anxieties.  Not that the poor voted for Trump and the rich for Clinton, and not openly in pro- and anti-neoliberalism as ideology, but as economic fears which motivated many Trump supporters.  Think of people approaching or already in retirement, for example, terrified of being unable to support themselves.  Consider those living in weakening economic areas, anxious about their prospects and their childrens’.  There was a sudden collapse in economic morale, which connects to models of the economic order and voters’ sense of their place in it.

To be clear, I’m not looking at individual cohorts or generations in Howe’s sense (Xers versus Boomers versus Homelanders etc).  The view I’m exploring in this post is, alas, simpler.  It really sees only two large swathes of political behavior.

Returning to the United States, I started looking for signs up this generational succession model in local (Vermont) politics, national politics, interpersonal conversation, old and new media, and among my professional contacts (futurists, educators, technologists).  Was the Judis/Teixeira thesis in play?  Was there a rising movement against neoliberal economics?  Did the two versions combine?

Over the past three months I’ve seen a great deal of evidence for Judis/Teixeira.  Many pro- and anti-Trump people see the current scene in terms of race and racism: non-white Muslim immigrants banned or celebrated, Latino immigrants deported or protected, trans people acted against or supported, and Jews threatened.  Anti-Trump women spectacularly staged marches and protests.  Charges of fascism are in the air (which I don’t think apply, but that’s a topic for another post).  Trump even added a stronger religious element by making Christian exceptions within his Muslim-majority seven nations immigration ban.  In short, each political party has hewed closely to their roles.  Those race and gender issues are fully in play, and seem to maintain their generational supports.

But not fully.  Pro-Trump and/or pro-racist young people exist and are active.  Violent activists tend to be young people, historically and sociologically, so this shouldn’t be a surprise.  And yet one man who sent bomb threats to Jews is 31.  However, this might not disable the Judis/Teixeira model.  The youth of Trumpists (is that now a thing?) should be expected, especially since even with a majority of under-50 people opposing Trump, there are still tens of millions of supporters.  Generations are large and complex things, especially in a nation of more than 320 million.  These political tendencies are statistical weights, not uniform beliefs.

The pro/anti neoliberalism model hasn’t been as much in evidence, given the way the Republicans in power have not opposed, but instead sought to further neoliberalism.  Instead of strengthening the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, promulgated in the wake of 2008’s banking disaster, the GOP would like to weaken or completely undo them.  Rather than increasing taxes on the rich, the Trump administration prefers to lower them.  There’s a renewed drive to privatize and cut the large Medicare government program (example: Paul Ryan). None of these are surprising moves for the Republicans, but they do show that Trump’s weird, populist candidacy is a different thing once in power, either because it a) only applied to certain issues; b) was a con, c) was overpowered by traditional GOP policies and pressures.

Yet the Republican refusal to fight neoliberalism is actually more complex than it seems.  Yes, the GOP seems to be following its classic instincts to add power to the richest.  But Trump has also insisted on breaking TPP, then going after individual companies to keep them from outsourcing jobs.  His first Congressional address contained a great deal of economic nationalism, including the mantra of “buy American, hire American”.   Put another way, Trump’s racial and economic nationalist drives seem to be in synch.  Perhaps the Republicans are divided on this, and fighting each other over their role in the Blyth/Piketty/West scenario.

At the same time the Democrats are also disunited on economics.  The Democratic National Committee narrowly elected Tom Perez, celebrating him on racial grounds, while defeating (yet promoting) Keith Ellison, insurgent favorite of the Bernie Sanders wing.  The latter is a key point, that the 2015-2016 primary battle between the party’s left (Sanders) and center (Clinton) continues, with both standard-bearers powerful yet defeated.

To sum up this very complicated situation in a paltry few words: the generational succession models seems to hold in race/gender/sexuality terms between political parties, while dividing each party internally along economic lines.

Let’s look at what’s coming up, and see if this generational succession model sheds any light.

Republicans are enjoying this moment in the sun, as they have won not only the  White House, but also both Congressional houses and a majority of state governorships.  Now is the time for them to launch as many policy efforts as they can, before backlash sets in and mid-term elections possibly reduce their Congressional sway.  So we should expect further right-wing moves on race, gender, sexuality, and possibly religion, while conflicting signals on economics.

On one practical level, to the extent the GOP sees things in terms of historical succession, they may well shape policies in retail politics ways.  That is, emitting policies that do not challenge current and impending beneficiaries (i.e., Republic-leaning voters) untouched, while aiming cuts at younger (more Democratic) people.   Think of reducing Social Security, say, but not for 10 or 20 years.  Cut Medicare, but allow the states room and time to fund current seniors. Reward the old faithful, punish the next era.

The Democrats, in contrast, are a party out of power.  Seriously out of power, having not only lost the White House, but everything else:

Democratic party losses to 2016

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza thinks this is a durable change.

2016 looks more like the rule than the exception. The rise of President Obama obscured the fact that the Democratic Party he represented was struggling in virtually every other way in which a party’s health is judged. Clinton’s loss should make that fact plain to Democrats: The country, judging by down-ballot election results nationwide, is center-right — and holding.

Contra Cillizza, and as I’ve noted, there are tensions – fissures – rippling across that party.   A 43-year-old representative challenged Nancy Pelosi (age 76) for House party leadership. One election week story saw a young staffer call out an older party leader in generational terms:

“Why should we trust you as chair to lead us through this?” he asked, according to two people in the room. “You backed a flawed candidate, and your friend [former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz] plotted through this to support your own gain and yourself…”

“You and your friends will die of old age and I’m going to die from climate change. You and your friends let this happen, which is going to cut 40 years off my life expectancy.”

That divide among Dems should continue. I called this out in November, actually, forecasting a split that focused on economics.  That seems intractable in the short and medium terms, so we should watch for it in national messaging, local campaign starts, and, most importantly, in fundraising structures and targets (small donors the Sanders way, or oligarchs a la  Clinton?).

Meanwhile, generational complexity should generate more complicated politics.  For example, if the old order is one dating back to, say, 1945, including Boomers and their predecessors, that’s an era with less income inequality than the present day.  If we want to be positive about the rising era in its pluralism, we need to also be wary of the fact that it’s simultaneously the epoch of Gilded Age-style income and wealth inequality.  That is partly what drives the economics versus gender/race divide in the Democratic party today.  Which past will activists and voters want us to return to?  Back to Freire’s “confrontation of the ghosts”, which nostalgia flavors will be on display?

If my theory about economics splitting both parties is correct, we should expect that to be downplayed in an atmosphere of nearly operatic partisan media.  People – social media users, reporters, political activists – will prefer to see the clear Judis/Teixeira divide play out for many reasons, not least its current simplicity.  Internecine party battles are far less telegenic and often harder to discern.

So where does that leave us?

(I’m asking to avoid a weakness of mine.  I love to identify trends and see how they play out, but often underplay our abilities to choose.  Trying to improve that.)

If the Judis/Teixeira model is right and dominates politics for the next few years, then the Trump/Brexit wave is a temporary one, a blip in the arc of progress.  The older attitudes are on their way out.  We should work to minimize their current damage while seeking to accelerate their replacement.

If the Blythe/Piketty/West model is correct, then… things get a bit more complex.  I can imagine three competing ways forward, each with a leader or two.

  • Right-wing populism, also nativism or nationalism (Trump).  That combines economic nationalism with appeals to racial, gender, and ethnic reaction.
  • Left-wing populism, known sometimes and in other locations as democratic socialism (Sanders and Elizabeth Warren).  This seeks to retard many of globalisms’ features, while reducing income inequality and resisting racial, gender, and ethnic reaction.
  • Neoliberalism with a human face, a/k/a Davos world (Clinton(s)).  This is the argument that globalism is a net good for America and the world, reducing poverty and improving lifestyles.  It ties this global attitude towards racial, ethnic, and gender liberalism.  Many in the GOP can align with this, depending on their local constituents.

As sprawling as this model and post are, they leave out too much.  That’s because the election actually failed to serious address several major issues.  Climate change was barely in the air, thanks largely to heinous tv “news”, although it’s likely the GOP will follow Trump on not supporting mitigation.  Technology-based change seems to have little party traction so far, especially as one possible remedy, guaranteed minimum income, appeals and appalls the left and right equally.  Readers can doubtless find more.

Back to Gramsci.  Look at that quote once more:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

Neither side can win nor give way.   We’re in a phase of churn all across the board.  While we currently see deep-seated attachments to causes, dialectically we should also expect some attempts at synthesis.

Perhaps Trump is a morbid symptom, but we can anticipate many more. If this historical succession is a thing, and either the gender/race/sexuality or the economics versions play out, we could well see 2016 as one of those dates of epochal divide, like 1914 or 1789.

I’ll just plant that stake in the ground now.

(thanks to many friends for thoughts feeding into this post, including Owen Kelly and Fritz Vandover)

*Yes, I’m still obsessed with the 1900-1920 period, mostly in trying to understand the Progressive movement and WWI.  It’s weird how few Americans are interested in those topics now.  Maybe that’ll change in a year.

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4 Responses to Explaining the 2016 elections: the generational pivot

  1. Arnaud Leene says:

    Interesting analysis, I have to reread.
    You did not mention the age/education aspect of Brexit, which is similar. This young (Macron) versus old (Fillon, etc) also plays a role in the current french elections. And what about the change in demographics (more old than young) in de coming decades. The young no longer will be able to support the old.

    • I started to poke into the British angle, Arnaud, along with demographics of the continental European right, along with the Indian BJP and RSS… then wept when I saw how long this post had become.

  2. Eric LePage says:

    Awesome post, Bryan. Like the previous commenter, I feel like I’ll need to read this again and follow some of the hyperlinked threads to dig deeper into this topic. Another lens on this topic that I found interesting is through the recent Washington Post article on the Fourth Turning, the last stage of an ~80 year american cycle (https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/where-did-steve-bannon-get-his-worldview-from-my-book/2017/02/24/16937f38-f84a-11e6-9845-576c69081518_story.html?utm_term=.bcc2959afe33). Short article. Not sure how much I subscribe to the theory just yet, but it’s an interesting take.

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