Last week, The New York Times surfaced a poorly done poll that purported to show “independent” (white) women breaking for Republicans in the midterms. This, predictably, led to a left-of-center freakout, because if there is one thing that binds mainstream Democrats together, it is their collective ability to be perpetually surprised by the fact that about half of white women voters will support the patriarchy.
I do not have any new or deep insights as to why so many white women will do what they always do (for that, I urge you to read my colleague Joan Walsh on the subject). But I do have thoughts on a different finding from the NYT/Siena poll: According to the poll, people aged 45–64 are breaking for Republicans by a 59-38 margin. That age breakdown includes a whole lot of people who would self-identify as “Generation X,” my age cohort, which is generally thought to include people born between the mid-1960s and the early-1980s. It was eyebrow-raising to see people of my generation portrayed as the Trumpiest bracket in the whole poll. I just find it hard to believe that the generation of Winona Ryder fans is now out there sending mix tapes to Amy Coney Barrett.
There have been other polls showing a Trumpward shift among Generation X, though not as strongly as this poll. Luckily, this poll is probably just wrong. While pinning a 20-point Republican margin on the 45–64 bracket, the same poll found voters over 65 to be evenly split—48 percent to 48 percent—between the two parties. That is almost certainly not true. We know both anecdotally and historically that voters over 65 tend to be reliably conservative; as recently as the 2020 election, we saw Donald Trump win voters over 65 by four points, and voters aged 50–64 by six points, while losing voters 30–49 by 12 points. The small sample size in the NYT/Siena poll likely produced some of the funky results.
If the numbers were on point, we’d expect to see evidence like this across other polls. We do not. I wouldn’t be that voters between 45–60 are very Republican but those over 60 are not.
This means we can probably dispense with the notion that Ferris Bueller grew up to be Principal Ed Rooney. But we can still ask the question, Why isn’t Gen X more liberal? If Gen X (and some of our senior millennial siblings) voted more like 18–29-year-olds (plus-24 for Joe Biden in the last election), Democrats would likely wipe the floor with Republicans in the upcoming midterms. To explain why it looks like they won’t, we have to deal with the other fiction in all the yammering about Gen X as the “Trumpiest” generation: the idea that white people speak for all of my generation.
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For generational analysis to mean anything, we have to accept the idea that an entire age group of people has experienced broadly similar influences—cultural, political, economic—and that those influences can be used to explain or add context to their voting patterns. But those broad influences simply aren’t the same for people who may be in a similar age group but identify as a different race. People remember the Reagan era differently, for instance, if they grew up in a white family that benefited from the tax breaks and racism Reagan peddled than if they grew up in a Black family whose community was used as a boogeyman to spook the white folks. Or maybe some white Gen X kids had to learn about the effects of the 1994 crime bill in college, while many Black Gen X kids lived its repercussions as it tore apart our communities in real time.
Even our generation’s defining musical tragedies played out differently once you adjust for race. Nirvana’s lead singer, Kurt Cobain, killed himself in 1994. I can still remember hearing about it on MTV News. I can still remember people comparing him to John Lennon, who was murdered outside his apartment building in 1980. Meanwhile, Tupac Shakur was actually murdered in 1996 and his occasional rival, Biggie Smalls, was gunned down in 1997. Yet I can still remember people explaining away those deaths as “gang violence” and treating Biggie and Tupac like “thugs” who got what was coming to them (and I’ll point out that their murderers have still never been found and brought to justice, while John Lennon’s killer is still in jail). Put simply: Generation-defining cultural moments hit differently depending on race.
The NYT/Siena poll does not break the age cohort down by race and, frankly, it’s amazing that all the way in the year 2022 there are still pollsters who present these numbers as if they’re useful without this analysis. Steve Phillips, author of the new book How We Win The Civil War, pointed out that other polls, in both the Times and The Washington Post, that were focused on Latino voting patterns showed that Latinos in the 45–64 age bracket were in fact breaking for Democratic candidates. If there is a Gen X problem for Democrats, it is very likely a white Gen X problem. As usual, non-white voters are rejecting the bigotry and fascism Republicans are offering.
Which brings us to our final question: Why aren’t white Gen X folks rejecting Trumpism in overwhelming fashion? There isn’t a lot of great data about this question, as Gen X tends to be overlooked anyway—the original latchkey kids, now mashed between two much larger generations. My colleague Dave Zirin has a theory that white Gen X fought and lost its political battles, causing many to tune out.
But one potential answer I don’t see addressed very often is the time-honored way white liberals get turned into white conservatives: parenting. Generation X is doing a lot of “adulting” right now, as many of us still have school-aged children. And, as a parent of two elementary school-age children myself, it sure feels like the last couple of years have been rough on parents.
The elephant in the room is Covid and the many ways that government responses to it basically ignored the needs of parents. We lived through years of constantly changing guidelines about school safety that increasingly felt more politically motivated than tied to any kind of science. Mask requirements went on and off. Vaccines were doled out to children at a creepingly slow pace, without a lot of guidance as to why or what to expect. And that’s before you account for all of the misinformation and lies about vaccines being shoveled at parents who are somewhat naturally skittish about putting new substances in their kids’ bodies. The pandemic put disproportionate pressure on parents, and among parents put disproportionate pressure on working parents and single parents who do not have a lot of spare child care resources available every time the government changes its mind on how to best protect kids, when the government pretends to care about the kids at all.
Meanwhile, it’s not like Republicans are letting Covid uncertainty do all the work. Instead, they’ve invented an entirely new campaign: fearmongering around “critical race theory,” to basically scare white parents into thinking their children might be learning something. Drop into any number of white-parent Facebook groups or PTA list-serves and you will hear some foolishness these days. Just an endless parade of parents saying, “I’m not racist. I voted for Barack Obama. But…”
You’re not likely to get a poll where a white parent says, “I was a lifelong Democrat until someone told my kids George Washington was an enslaver,” as if they were a Doug J. Balloon character. But Phillips pointed me to an interesting little data point from the 2020 election. Biden got 64 percent of the vote in liberal California in 2020, but the state rejected a ballot measure to amend its Constitution to allow for affirmative action. The ballot proposition got only 43 percent of the vote. That’s not a poll; that’s how people actually voted. There wasn’t a racial breakdown of the vote, but Phillips looked at Butte county, a “red” county that’s 70 percent white in a state that’s majority non-white. There, Biden beat Trump with 49 percent of the vote—but the affirmative action ballot measure only got 29 percent of the vote.
That white people don’t like affirmative action is hardly breaking news (I’ll be writing more about that later this month, unfortunately). But I wouldn’t underestimate the possibility of white Gen Xers’ embracing authoritarianism if that’s what it takes to maintain the fragility of their children. It’s all well and good to be liberal, right up until little Jimmy doesn’t get all the privileges and advantages of an unexamined life.
We are, after all, a generation who adopted as a cultural touchstone a movie about five white kids who got detention one day. The way I see it, Brian votes GOP for the tax breaks for his engineering firm; Claire votes GOP because she’s lightly anti-vax and super concerned about CRT in schools; Andy actually votes for moderate Democrats because he’s never going to be like his father or tape butt cheeks together again; Allison votes progressive and shows up at liberal protests wine-drunk because she has nothing better to do; and Bender absolutely doesn’t vote but has a YouTube channel aimed at radicalizing wage earners and selling NFTs.
And the nonwhite people who don’t exist in the Gen X vision of itself continue to try to get the country to stop acting like we’re all in high school.