Democrats and their sympathizers believe that demographic trends in the U.S. favor them in the short run, on the national level, and in the long run generally. The assumption is that the "angry white male" who votes overwhelmingly Republican is the product of a specific generation that will eventually die off, and that as new generations come of age and the nation grows more ethnically diverse Democrats will grow stronger at every level. David Leonhardt isn't ready to refute that assumption, but he questions it in the New York Times. He warns that Democrats may not benefit from generational turnover the way they expect if the next generation identifies them with economic and foreign-policy failures. Just as voters who came of age in the 1980s went with Ronald Reagan and the Republicans in response to the failures, actual and perceived, of Jimmy Carter, so voters coming of age in 2016 or later may turn "conservative" in response to the actual and perceived failures of Barack Obama. Leonhardt bases his speculation on recent political science pointing to generational trends in ideology. The problem isn't that today's progressives will grow disillusioned and turn conservative, but that their children will repudiate their parents' failed policies and values. Leonhardt suggests the Michael J. Fox character from the Family Ties sitcom, a Reaganite yuppie child of hippies, as a model for this sort of generational revolt. That the model is a fictional character doesn't inspire confidence in his speculations, but Reagan's popularity obviously was widespread throughout the Eighties, even if we question whether that reflected any deep ideological turn.
Leonhardt adds a big caveat, however. Models of generational ideological turnover apply mainly to whites "because race adds a variable." As he explains, non-whites maintain a persistent bias against the Republican party that seemingly seals their loyalty to the Democrats regardless of their failures. They are "decidedly turned off by the attitudes of today’s aging, white Republican party," Leonhardt assumes -- but what happens when the "aging" Republicans die out? Unless a new generation of white Republicans reproduces the offensive attitudes, traditional objection to the GOP among minorities may lack their former and present force. Leonhardt seems to anticipate increasing tension between minorities' cultural bias against Republicans and their increasing dissatisfaction with Democratic policies if the latter remain inadequate to the nation's economic challenges. It may be, however, that minorities are more likely to see economic and cultural politics as parts of a whole rather than conflicting imperatives. Meanwhile, suggesting that the next generation of white voters may be more "conservative" obscures the options available to them. They might become more "libertarian" in ways that could distinguish them significantly from this generation's "angry white male" Republicans, while libertarianism lacks some of the cultural stigma that repels many minorities from Republicanism. As things stand now, however, a libertarian takeover of the GOP is more likely, if objectively unlikely, than the still-long-awaited emergence of the Libertarian Party as a third major electoral alternative, and in that case the Republican stigma is likely to persist. On some level the question Leonhardt raises is moot. As long as Americans of all ages, races or ethnicities limit themselves to the major-brand options of Democrats and Republicans, we are all conservative.