Americans disagree much more about politics today across generational lines than they did in the well-chronicled era when youthful cultural icons announced to their parents that "your sons and your daughters are beyond your command" and "I hope I die before I get old." The partisan differences between the youngest and eldest cohorts of voters have not received the same public attention as other forms of contemporary political conflict, but they are now bigger in size than the more celebrated divisions between men and women, the college-educated and the non-college-educated, and the residents of red and blue states.
Younger people may be reliably more idealistic and less nostalgic than their elders, but that doesn't always make them more liberal. In the 1980s, for example, Ronald Reagan and other Republicans ran as well or better among the young as the old. Reagan-era conservatives appealed to younger Americans by portraying themselves as innovative and forward-thinking, while arguing that the Democratic Party had become a corrupted relic of bygone days.
But over time, the dominant tone of conservative rhetoric has become darker, more pessimistic or alarmist about the future, and more critical of ongoing social trends of which young people largely approve. Conservatives responded to the rise of Barack Obama, a personally popular figure among younger Americans, with eight years of relentless opposition. And as conservatism's messages have evolved, so too has the receptiveness of newer generations to conservative politicians and ideas. Voters under the age of 40 were evenly split between the parties as recently as the 2000 election; by the 2010s, the Democratic Party was reliably prevailing among this age group by margins of 20 points or more.
From time to time, Republican officials have expressed concern about this development and have proposed steps to increase their party's standing among younger voters. But power within the extended Republican network has been flowing away from politicians and toward the conservative media over the same period that the GOP's youth problem has emerged. It's media talking heads, not elected officials, who are now the primary spokespeople for American conservatism. Freed from political candidates' need to court a popular majority, the increasingly loud voices of Fox News and talk radio are free to appeal to their smaller core audience of right-leaning senior citizens by ignoring or even explicitly ridiculing the concerns and activities of younger Americans.
Contemporary conservative rhetoric is often characterized by exhibitions of bewildered discontentment directed at younger people and the cultural environment that envelops them. Mockery of millennials and college students as "snowflakes," "campus crazies," and "social justice warriors" has become commonplace in conservative media outlets over the last few years, intensifying when an issue arises that especially activates the generational divide. Last Thursday, for example, a 54-year-old conservative prime time host engaged in a public fight with a 33-year-old who is also perhaps the most popular professional athlete of his generation, insisting that his proper role in society is to "dribble" rather than express his views about race relations in the United States.
As high school students who survived the Parkland, Florida school shooting have mounted a public anti-gun campaign over the past week, several conservative media personalities have responded by suggesting that the young age of the activists renders their opinions on the subject illegitimate. (Meanwhile, the more conspiratorial corners of the conservative media ecosystem have reacted in their own unique fashion, dismissing the students as actors on the payroll of shadowy leftists.) President Trump, himself a conservative media figure before he ran for elective office, argued today that violent movies and video games help to encourage school shootings—placing responsibility for social violence on young people's own consumer choices.
All in all, the messages transmitted by conservative elites these days are doing little to redirect younger citizens' collective left-of-center political alignment. Even young adults who are skeptical of gun control or other liberal causes are unlikely to respond positively to the argument that they should automatically defer to the judgment of their elders on political matters, or that social ills can be cured by regulating their favorite pastimes.
It's possible that the current state of political conflict will lead today's younger citizens to form a lifelong preference for the Democratic Party, thus burdening Republicans with a long-term electoral disadvantage. Whether or not that happens, however, the more immediate consequences of stoking generational warfare are not necessarily unfavorable to conservatives. Seniors and near-seniors have become more pro-Republican over the past decade, and they participate in politics at much higher rates than their children and grandchildren.
So far, evidence of an incipient millennial-led liberal revolution is much more apparent in the youth-dominated pop culture world than in a political system led by conservative Republicans at every level of government. If conservative media rhetoric is partially at fault for alienating young people from the Republican Party, it may be equally responsible for attracting more older Americans to the ranks of the GOP during the same period. Fox News Channel recently retired its famous slogan "Fair and Balanced"; perhaps its next catchy motto will be "Don't Trust Anyone Under 30."