I have a young friend I’ll call Cecil. Cecil graduated from a prestigious liberal arts college on the East Coast in 2006 with a degree in political science. A lot of his friends were involved in political campaigns, and so, looking for work, he thought he’d try it, too: “You want to be involved in something that’s trying to make the world a better place. Something that’s mission-driven,” he says. So he got a job as a field organizer for the senate campaign of John Tester, the populist Democrat. That election won, burned out, he drove to California and got a job waiting tables.
Then came Barack Obama, and Cecil fell in love. “The war thing was big,” he remembers. “I had a friend who went to Iraq and died. Obama’s whole opposition to the war was very important to me.” He packed up his car and drove all the way across the country to become an Obama organizer in New Hampshire, then Maine, then Vermont. Because he was good at it, he was named deputy field director in Oregon, then one of two deputies in a crucial Midwestern state. After the election, in Washington, he was one of the principles in setting up a major new national progressive activist group.
By just about any metric you can think of, Cecil is on the left. (He requested I not use his real name because his employer is keen on preserving a non-ideological reputation.) The Republican Party’s positions on gay rights and its anti-immigrant tilt, as long as they persist, “will keep me from voting for any Republican candidate,” he says. “Anything bigotry-based and hate-based is going to lose me.” He speaks with distaste of the Republican Party’s “whole war-hawk thing.” And he adds that, 99 times out of 100, “I’m going to vote Democratic.”
You could call Cecil a progressive. Just don’t call him a Democrat. As intense as his alienation from the Republican Party is his disinclination to state any party identity at all. He says, “I feel more attached to a politics of hope and optimism than I do to the Democratic Party.”
He’s not alone. It’s more and more the case that young people who identify with Democrats on the issues shy from labeling themselves Democrats. In 2008, members of the “Millennial” generation — demographers’ term for kids born between 1981 and 1993 — identified as Democrats rather than Republicans by 60 to 32 percent. Now, those figures are 47 and 43 percent.
The turn away from party identification has been a long-term American trend: According to Gallup, 40 percent of Americans don’t consider themselves members of a political party, compared to 36 percent in 2002 and 33 percent in 1988. But that trend has been all the more accelerated among young people — and even more so among young progressives. A study by Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement in the key swing state of Nevada found that youth were 11 percent of registered voters in the 2008 election, but just 7.85 percent in October of 2011 – meaning a key Obama constituency in 2008 will have thinned out for 2012. More menacingly for Dems, those same researchers found that in North Carolina, a Southern state where in 2008 Obama scored an apparently historic map-changing victory, Democratic registration among 18-25 year olds was 300,000 in 2008 – and only 265,000 in 2011. Republican registration among the same age cohort is about the same. Nationally, Republican youth registration has gone up—which means that the Republican Party is bucking the trend: right-of-center kids seem perfectly happy calling themselves Republicans, at the same time that young lefties are becoming increasingly chary of being called Democrats.