The 2010s were a fruitful decade for culture warriors on the right. There was a particularly rich seam in 2016, with the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. Three years later, Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson exploited the culture wars on their way to win victories in Australia and the UK.
Much has been made of campaigns that identify “wedge issues” to split the electorate — immigration being a common example — but there has been little consideration of the downside. Fracturing the electorate tends to do lasting damage and could come back to hurt you.
Late last year, I observed that millennials were shattering the oldest rule in politics by no longer adopting conservative views as they age. It wasn’t clear at the time what was causing this break with the past, but my further analysis suggests that fuelling the culture wars may only benefit the right in the short term.
For one thing, this millennial voting pattern appears to be almost exclusively anglophone, according to work by Morten Støstad, a researcher at the Paris School of Economics. Across continental Europe, the same generation continues to follow its ancestors gradually rightward, but from the UK and US to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, they have veered away from the traditional path.
This is a smoking gun for three reasons.
First, continental multi-party systems allow voters to switch their allegiances away from anti-immigrant parties while still staying within the right or leftwing bloc in a way that the predominantly two-party Anglosphere system does not. If millennials were being alienated solely by economic injustice, we might see the same desertion of the right in Europe as in the English-speaking world. A growing cultural disillusionment makes more sense.
Young adults have had a torrid time since the global financial crisis, with home-ownership lagging behind that of previous generations and poverty rates rising among under-40s while they fall for pensioners. But if this were repelling millennials from their traditional political journey, we would see it everywhere. We don’t, and in fact millennial homeowners in Britain have turned away from the conservatives more sharply than renters.
This is not to say that economics doesn’t matter. Indeed, anglophone countries — and particularly their youth — have tilted more firmly to the left as a result of the financial crisis than other nations have done.
In 2009, the average anglophone adult was much less likely to hold the government responsible for providing welfare than their European counterparts. But 10 years later that gap had closed, and young English-speakers had shifted even further left.
Finally, there is some direct evidence that the realignment of anglophone politics over the past decade, with cultural and economic axes now parallel, is pushing millennials away from the right.
In 2009, views on immigration were not delineated according to party or age divides. But 10 years and several culture battles later, younger adults are now far more pro-immigration than their elders, and those on the left are far less anti-immigration than the right.
The same is true with attitudes to LGBT issues, where a divide between progressives and conservatives now neatly maps on to age. In both cases, conservatives successfully drove a wedge between one generation and the rest — but the cohort they discarded is growing steadily larger.
No trend in politics lasts forever. The “demography is destiny” argument — that increasing racial diversity would lock in dominance for progressive parties in the west — has already proved overstated because race and ethnicity have proved less politically monolithic than once thought. But hand-crafting the formative political events that can shape a generation’s worldview and then expecting them to forget it all is quite something. Conservative parties may have won some culture battles, but they’re losing the war.