“For such is the nature of man, that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; Yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves: For they see their own wit at hand, and other men’s at a distance.”
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
An idea that doesn’t get tried out often enough is that political and cultural power can move in opposite directions. Political power is by and large a matter of numbers and a matter of cohesion. Whoever sticks together very often wins, and quantity has a quality all its own. Cultural power is something different, however. We value most not what is most common but what is both needed and rare, and the cultural price is set by both supply and demand.
So our current Western society is often obsequious in its cultural affect towards children and their ever expanding list of needs, yet in the big matters of policy is seemingly much more responsive to the old, who are both more numerous with every passing year and who both can and do vote. The Western Front of the culture war moves ever westward, and yet the soldiers on the battlefield all find they came from somewhere way out east. Even in matters of consumption and taste, the premium placed on youth preferences and Youth as both producer and audience for art is counteracted by a buying public that centers itself around 1969. There’s a reason the only new housing developments within 50 miles of where I live are 55+ Active adult communities; there’s a reason both major presidential candidates were roughly 70 years old.
The French novelist Michel Houellebecq said in an interview with Paris Review:
I am persuaded that feminism is not at the root of political correctness. The actual source is much nastier and dares not speak its name, which is simply hatred for old people. The question of domination between men and women is relatively secondary—important but still secondary—compared to what I tried to capture in this novel, which is that we are now trapped in a world of kids. Old kids. The disappearance of patrimonial transmission means that an old guy today is just a useless ruin. The thing we value most of all is youth, which means that life automatically becomes depressing, because life consists, on the whole, of getting old.
But Brexit won, and Trump won.
One of the striking things that everyone pointed out about the Brexit vote was how aligned with age the voting was, with over 55 going 70% for Leave and under 25 going 75% for Remain.
Trump is a slightly different situation; the Republicans draw from an older demographic than the Democrats, no doubt, but it appears that Trump did slightly better among young voters than Romney. Even so, “voters younger than 45 went for Clinton by a 12-point margin, while older voters preferred Trump by 11 points. Voters under the age of 30 voted for Clinton by an 18-point margin.”
It’s easy to say, “of course the old are conservative and the young are liberal,” except that this is a relatively recent phenomenon. For example, twenty years ago (already well after almost all conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans had been expunged from their parties) my grandfather’s generation was much more liberal in its voting than my own:
My hypothesis about this is that my grandfather’s generation, which had a political consciousness formed by total war and its aftermath, was simply more accepting of a large role for the state than younger voters, who were confident in the ability of the market to deliver. “If habituation to the state was a hallmark of World War II America,” historian James Sparrow wrote,“then military service was the stamp that impressed it onto the social fabric.” In Europe, this process was even more exaggerated- as Tony Judt writes in Postwar, “Faith in the state…reflected a well-founded awareness, enhanced by the experience of war, that in the absence of any other agency of regulation or distribution, only the state now stood between the individual and destitution.”
There are two main political realignments going on in the West. One has been discussed widely, and is the move away from a left/right, statist versus privatist framing of political conflict and towards nationalist versus globalist one. The other, which affects the United States more centrally, was a shift in the way the national civic religion expresses and defines itself around race, and took place in Obama’s second term as the promise of his election withdrew and as the Democrats struggled to redefine their relevance and to keep their wide-ranging coalition of identities together. It was a shift from the Bourgeois Society to the Beloved Community as the desideratum for racial politics, towards a total and continuous war on racism to bind the society together, and it took place across the central cultural organs of the society, rapidly and completely.
Trump’s appeal was a rejection of this shift, just as he rose to conservative prominence in Obama’s first term by claiming (absurdly) that Obama was born in Kenya. This is the respect in which Trump’s election really was all about race. But by ignoring the cultural shift that set the stage and which they applauded and actuated, liberal commentators have no way of explaining why Trump did well in so many counties that voted for Obama twice, and why so many individuals who described themselves as modestly supportive of the President even now also voted for Trump. Obama’s gift has always been to situate his story within the nation’s story, so that a vote for him could both transcend and embrace the nation’s past. But a Democratic Party looked beyond Obama, especially among young people, towards a total war on racism that would produce a stable cultural liberalism to contend with the stable economic liberalism that succeeded World War II.
Even among young people, this effort looks to have been a mixed success; the alt-right in particular appears to be disproportionately composed of teens. But the longer current older Americans live (a prospect that some prominent Democratic advisers appear to be unenthusiastic about), the more it appears difficult for the left-liberal cultural consensus, no matter its successes in shaping the towering heights of the economy and the architecture of its cultural artifacts, to control who wins elections.