The Culture Wars Are Ending. Here’s What’s On the Other Side

Racial and sexual diversity will no longer stir controversy. Marijuana will be legal. Foreign policy will have to change.

Columbus Circle New York
Columbus Circle in Manhattan, New York at night, December 15, 2007 (Thomas Hawk)

In 1967, Timothy Leary told the Human Be-In of San Francisco’s Gate Park to “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” It was a high point for counterculturalism, a crescendo of anti-establishment, anti-centrism that exploded into antiwar protests, race riots, civil rights marches and an definitive end of America’s 1950s cultural high.

It wasn’t the beginning of the twentieth’s century’s culture wars, but it was the point by which it was impossible to ignore they were ongoing. They first stirred somewhere in the 1950s in the backrooms of Beatnik poetry slams and the road warrioring of juvenile delinquents as postwar youth experimented with the edges of their humanity in the safety of a democratic superpower’s economic boom.

The term “culture wars” took some time to come about. In 1991, James Davison Hunter coined the term when he wrote about a split between progressive and orthodox views of morality (PDF), giving a label to the phenomenon that went back to the early 1960s. As social scientists delved into the subject, they realized that the clean progressive versus conservative split had more than a few subsets, complicating an already fractured social landscape.

That same year, William Strauss and Neil Howe published their book Generations, tracing American history through a four-cycle pattern of generational behavior that they would later develop into Generational Theory. Through the ebbs and flows of generations, some would engage in culture-shaking Awakenings, while others would find themselves forced to reorder society before it could unravel.

The former – the Prophets of the Awakening generation – correspond to the baby boomer generation, which the Pew Research Center defines as those born from 1947 to 1965. They started the culture wars, have fought them their whole lives and are now, as they approach retirement and mortality, fighting the final phase of it.

The latter – the Heros of the Crisis – correspond to the millennials, those born from 1980 to about 2005, according to the Pew Research Center. They grew up during the tumult of the culture wars, have spent their formative years picking and choosing the most useful aspects of them and are now, as they enter their early 30s, about to impose their worldview on politics and society.

But that’s all broad and people will (rightfully) demand proof.

So let’s examine how the Pew Research Center measures attitudes and approaches of the four living generations.

First, are the boomers and the millennials really the drivers of culture? Yes, but mostly by sheer mass

The boomers and millennials are the largest generations in the United States, making them formidable voting blocs. The Silent Generation is the oldest and therefore the smallest while Generation X is bigger than the Silent generation but still wedged between the boomers and millennials as a smaller slice of the pie.

In 2015, there were about 75 million millennials, 74.9 million boomers, 66 million Gen Xers and 28 million Silents.

From a mere demographic standpoint, the political and social weight of the boomers will rapidly collapse after 2020. They will be eclipsed by Gen X in 2028, a mere three presidential elections away. As millennials age, their voter turnout will also likely increase, adding weight to their demographic dominance.

Ok, sure. So millennials will be a big generation. But that doesn’t prove they’ll vote the same

Too right. But thankfully Pew has done work on the ideological approaches of the generations. They conform to the Strauss-Howe theory that millennials – the Hero archetypes – will close ranks culturally to preserve society.

millennials are heavily Democratic; heavier than any other generation, with 54 percent favoring the Democrats and only 39 percent choosing the Republicans. Only the shrunken Silent generation is dominated by the Republicans; the baby boomers, as would be expected of culture warriors, split Democrat/Republican 44 to 44 percent.

Gen X has a 48-37 percent split as well, once more tilting the political field away from the Republican Party.

In other words, if these trends hold, we can expect that from 2020 onwards, Republicans will have increasingly tough election fights if they’re pinning their hopes on turning out a shrinking base of conservative boomers. That’s already a narrow needle to thread, as shown by Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory in 2016.

But won’t millennials grow more conservative over time, i.e., switch to the Republican Party?

Not really. Political socialization happens in the teen years, with the most powerful shapers occurring at or around 18, according to a study from Columbia University.

While attitudes will shift marginally in response to events, fundamental approaches to politics won’t. The only way the GOP will win millennials is by changing their party platform to suit their core values, since millennials won’t be changing their minds about Trump, Bush, the War on Terror or many other of their formative events later on in their lives.

So what will millennials want?

  1. They’ll be far less attached to national identity than previous generations, implying more open borders and less worry about population movement.
  2. They’re almost certainly going to legalize marijuana, but leave other hard drugs out of reach.
  3. They’ll favor change rather than tradition, which will mean a further eroding of older institutions like churches, education systems and governing structures. Think non-denominational religions, charter schools and public-to-private partnerships as the vogue. Nothing revolutionary, but not a return to the 1950s either.
  4. The end of infotainment as news and the return of facts. With millennials widely despising the mainstream media for its obsession with conflict, story-based journalism that distorts reality, millennials will favor the approach of outfits like Vice, which rely far less on soundbites and dramatic cuts and allow for longer shots and more in-depth interviews.
  5. A normalization of racial and ethnic diversity, likely to the point where racial and ethnic diversity won’t mean very much. When a room is chocked full of “diverse” people who nevertheless speak the same language and have the same core national values, it isn’t really “diverse” anymore, but millennials will have an easier time pretending it is.
  6. Gay marriage is here to stay, but polygamy and polyamory will have to wait – at least until the millennials’ kids grow up and perhaps challenge that.
  7. Casual sex will be fine, but not necessarily preferable. Longer-term marriages will be preferred, but only when someone “has found the right one,” even if that means delaying marriage until much later.
  8. Scarred by fighting the endless War on Terror, they’ll be more isolationist and aloof toward the rest of the world (PDF). That’s a big opportunity for rising powers like Germany, Japan, Turkey, Iran and others, who will see America pull at least somewhat back from its interventionism. But there’s a caveat: millennials will almost surely rally to the banner to fight against wars of aggression by traditional powers. Wars that are “like Iraq”, i.e., long occupations with insurgencies, will be unpopular and possibly not even fightable; wars that are “like World War II” will still rally the millennials to send off their younger peers to battle.
  9. A work-life balance. Millennials will ditch jobs that don’t fulfill them. They’ll switch mid-contract to someone who offers something better. They don’t believe in company loyalty and they’ll seek ever-better pay and benefits to off-set the scarring experience of the Great Recession. That’ll cripple the workaholic culture that the boomers created and it’s a big reason why boomer managers complain about kids these days.
  10. They abhor personal debt and will be open to creative solutions to ending their own. Rather than pay down student debt for life, millennials will embrace fancy financial footwork that reduces their own burdens while rebalancing society’s power away from creditors and towards debtors. That’ll be a huge shift, because it’s essentially what the 1940s and 50s looked like, when rent control, the GI Bill and the interstate highway system helped combine to form a massive social safety net that kept the GI Generation economically secure their whole lives.

The new consensus

Beginning in the 2020s, as the culture warriors of the baby boomer generation lose steam, the outlines of this new America will emerge.

So what will that mean for Republicans and Democrats?

First, it won’t necessarily mean the coming of a Democratic permanent majority. Millennials aren’t loyal enough to the Democratic brand for that; they can be won over by the Republican Party, or by a new third party, with the right planks.

But it is all bad news for neoliberal Democrats and Republicans who favor creditor and boss-friendly policies. Hillary’s workaholic approach didn’t impress millennials and neither did her relationship with a Wall Street that brought millennials the Great Recession.

That’s good news for more traditionally left forces like Bernie Sanders, but it’s not a slam dunk: millennials won’t be loyal to staid socialist policies that don’t rebalance society away from creditors and ease their burdens. You might call the winning formula of the 2020s “neo-socialism”: an improved take on the statist policies of the past without the attachment to traditional institutions.

It’s also going to dramatically shift the political climate. Nobody is going to win big elections anymore by appealing to cultural wedges. Abortion will be settled, gay rights will be accepted and racial and gender cards will be far less effective. Millennials won’t elect “the woman” or “the Hispanic” unless the candidate has the merits they saw in Barack Obama’s intelligence and oratory.

They’ll also have a knee-jerk reaction with someone throws down an identity card, meaning both the alt right and alt left, with their heavy use of identity policies, are almost surely dead movements.

It’ll also utterly reshape how America behaves in the world. Millennials don’t want to dismantle NATO or end America’s global hegemony so much as use it with less expense. Millennial leaders will form alliances with unsavory types who provide stability and keep American troops out of wars; they will surely like effective proxies armies and have few qualms if they aren’t democratic. America’s pursuit of human rights by force of arms will rarely see political rewards.

Finally, millennials will want to self-indulge – within limits. While divorce, sex and marijuana will be fine, there will be increasingly elaborate social cues around them. As millennials age, they will draw ritualistic lines in the sand about marriage, relationships and how they spend their past time, forming increasingly tough cultural taboos that their children will balk at.

It will be a self-interested time of stability and, most likely, comfortable but boring conformity.

Which will irritate the kids of the millennials, especially the ones born in the 2020s. As they grow up in a safe but dull time, they will seek identity and individuality in their own way and start the cycle of cultural transformation all over again.

This story first appeared on American Politics Made Super, June 20, 2017.