My Fellow Progressives: What if time isn’t on our side? We tend to think that each new generation will get cooler, more tolerant, more progressive. But what about those stubborn conservative kids who consistently disprove our assumptions? A new student protest in Missouri shows once again that young people are not somehow automatically progressive.
Academic historians learnt this lesson the hard way. Beginning in the 1930s, liberal academics assumed that the fundamentalists of the 1920s had melted away in the glare of modernity. In their liberal imaginations, historians such as Norman Furniss explained that fundamentalism had died away, a vestige of an older, stupider time.
For many liberal historians, the fact that they no longer saw fundamentalists on their campuses or in the headlines of their newspapers proved their case. It backed up their assumptions that the modern world would squeeze out people who embraced a decidedly old-fashioned way of reading the Bible.
Of course, fundamentalists hadn’t died away after the 1920s. Beginning in the later 1950s, evangelists such as Billy Graham brought the fundamentalist tradition back to America’s headlines and center stage. It took a new generation of historians, many of them raised in fundamentalist families, to explain what had happened. Writers such as Ernest Sandeen, George Marsden, and Joel Carpenter demonstrated the continuing strength and vitality of American fundamentalism.
Protestant fundamentalism, these historians showed, was a thoroughly modern phenomenon. In the face of progressive assumptions that people would naturally become more secular and more morally sophisticated, lots of Americans actually became more religious and more firmly moored in Biblical morality.
Progressives today share a similar short-sighted demographic hangover. Many of us, even those of us too young to have lived through the social movements of the 1960s, remember the vibe of youth power. As Andrew Hartman has argued so eloquently in his new book, the ideas of the 1960s fueled much of the later culture war vitriol. In the face of much evidence to the contrary, it was often assumed by 1960s culture warriors (and their successors) that youth was somehow naturally progressive.
To be fair, my fellow progressives aren’t entirely wrong. We tend to assume that young people will be less anti-gay, less racist, less conservative, and we can point to good poll data to back it up. As Pew reported last year,
in addition to the [Millennial] generation’s Democratic tendency, Millennials who identify with the GOP are also less conservative than Republicans in other generations: Among the roughly one-third of Millennials who affiliate with or lean Republican, just 31% have a mix of political values that are right-of-center, while about half (51%) take a mix of liberal and conservative positions and 18% have consistently or mostly liberal views. Among all Republicans and Republican leaners, 53% have conservative views; in the two oldest generations, Silents and Boomers, about two-thirds are consistently or mostly conservative.
But there’s a big problem embedded in these kids of poll data. Though many young people tend toward more liberal views, there are still enormous percentages of people who buck the trend. The recent protest in Missouri can illustrate the ways young people can and will embrace socially conservative ideas.
In that case, a transgender high-school senior, Lila Perry, had been allowed to use the girls’ bathroom. Students walked out in protest. The students and their parents, supported by outside groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, tend to consider Lila to be still male, in spite of her identification as female. As one activist parent put it, his daughters encountered an “intact male” in the locker room.
In spite of what we might expect, we don’t see in this case progressive young people fighting against the bureaucracy. Instead, the bureaucracy in this case moved quickly to establish a policy protecting the rights of transgender students. In reply, conservative students insisted on the rights of “real” girls to be protected from such students.
If history is any guide, as more young people become progressive, the conservative holdouts will become more firmly attached to their conservative principles. Conservative young people will become more likely to take action. Protests like the one at Hillsboro High School will become more common.