One thing I’ve enjoyed about the Democratic primary is learning which voter demographics you can pathologize and which you can’t. It turns out that even vaguely gesturing at the idea that Black voters may be choosing incorrectly is definitely oppressive and wrong. After all, that’s the kind of stuff we usually only reserve for the disgusting poor and working class white voters. On the other hand, explicitly saying young women voters are ignorant, complacent, naive, or boy-crazy cool girls is actually fine. Used to, that was the stuff of Reddit, but believe it or not, “bitches be crazy” is an actual genre of election coverage about why young women go for Bernie.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz had this to say about young women (bolded part is the question):
Do you notice a difference between young women and women our age in their excitement about Hillary Clinton? Is there a generational divide? Here’s what I see: a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided.
Madeleine Albright had a remarkably similar point:
“We can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women think it’s done,” Ms. Albright said of the broader fight for women’s equality. “It’s not done. There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”
Albright’s move was especially funny because she had construed her famous quote in exactly the opposite manner in 2008 when she assured people that it was definitely OK to not help Sarah Palin:
Though I am flattered that Governor Palin has chosen to cite me as a source of wisdom, what I said had nothing to do with politics. This is yet another example of McCain and Palin distorting the truth, and all the more reason to remember that this campaign is not about gender, it is about which candidate has an agenda that will improve the lives of all Americans, including women.
2. Cool Girl
Gloria Steinem had this to say:
First of all, women get more radical as we get older because we experience… Men tend to get more conservative because they gain power as they age and women get more radical because they lose power as they age. It’s kind of not fair to measure most women by the standard of most men because they are going to get more activist as they grow older. And when you’re young, you’re thinking “Where are the boys? The boys are for Bernie.”
Jill Filipovic explained that Steinem was actually right and that the boy-following cool girl phenomenon is very real:
But the actual point remains lost: Not that young women only support Sanders because they want to impress boys, but that, especially among the young, “guy stuff” is cool and enviable, whereas “girl stuff” is lame, uncool, and, well, girly. In this primary, Sanders is the guy stuff. Clinton is the girl stuff.
I happen to think Filipovic’s interpretation of Steinem is wrong, but it’s worth noting that the Cool Girl theory is out there, even if it’s based on a bad reading of Steinem.
3. Sexism Misunderstanders
This is actually what Steinem was getting at in her quote. But it wasn’t just her who said it. The disturbing fact that young women have gone hard for Bernie and even harder than young men for Bernie has given rise to an entire cottage industry of bizarrely half-assed social science about why young women are ignorant of the realities of sexism.
Here is Cronin-Furman and Rapp-Hooper:
Looking around in college or grad school, it’s easy to believe that, in the United States at least, gender equality has largely been achieved. … [But] once women enter the professional world, the rosy picture of progress begins to dull. Only 15 percent of law firms’ equity partners are female. Women make up only 3 percent of hedge fund managers and 1.5 percent of CEOs of large corporations. And women only account for 37.5 percent of tenured faculty in American universities. … And at the same time that women are getting serious about their careers, many are also thinking about starting families.
These dynamics can be a rude awakening for young women who have excelled all their lives, often at institutions that have invested resources, time, and attention into recruiting promising women. They’re experiencing something we call “late-breaking sexism.” It’s the sudden realization that you don’t have the same opportunities as a man, that you will struggle to have both a family and a career, that your participation in the public sphere will always be caveated by your gender.
Since a ton of people in the country are CEOs, lawyers, hedge fund workers, and professors, this analysis definitely checks out and helps to describe an enormous swath of the US female population.
The same point was made by Poloni-Staudinger, Strachan, and Schaffner at the Washington Post. In their piece, they point to this graph to support their age-based theories:
Then they provocatively ask:
Can this pattern help explain why younger women are less likely to support Clinton? Is it because younger women are less likely to report negative consequences of gender discrimination and motherhood?
Such excellent questions! But I noticed one tiny problem. The 50+ age group had the second-lowest reporting of sexism and lowest reporting of child care issues. This theory would then predict that they’d go for Bernie, but in fact they are the strongest contingent for Hillary. Womp womp.
The Sexism Misunderstander arguments tend to get the best pick up from prominent older female pundits. This article was tweeted out by Neera Tanden of CAP and Joan Walsh of the Nation, both of whom are best known for supporting the gutting of cash assistance to poor women with children (in their younger more conservative days before they got old and therefore woke!).
4. Broadly Stupid About the Welfare State
Finally, we have Hillary Clinton herself chiming in:
To her credit, Clinton’s take is presumably generalizable to all young people, not just young women. Though her depiction of social democratic welfare state politics as akin to a fine print swindle that stupid people get duped into is a tad bit unhelpful!
5. Lifecycle Arguments Are Garbage
What’s ultimately so funny about all these half-assed arguments is that they fly in the face of what we know about how political differences work across ages. These authors all explicitly or implicitly endorse the idea that people’s politics change as they age and that this accounts for the reason why, at any given moment in time, the younger people are different from the older people. Let’s call this the Lifecycle Theory.
But in actual real-life political science, the reason politics differs across ages is because different generations have different politics that they form when they are young and carry across their entire lives. This is called Generational Imprinting:
There’s reason to believe they will. Jacobson’s research is built around a well-known phenomenon in political science known as “generational imprinting” that’s been documented since the 1950s.
It’s a simple idea: Essentially, young people decide their political identities when they’re “coming of political age” — or when they first really begin paying attention to what’s going on in politics.
“Partisan identities … are adopted early in adulthood, stabilize quickly, and thereafter become highly resistant to more than transient change,” Jacobson writes in a summary of the research. “Political events and personalities have their most lasting influence during the stage in life when partisan identities are being formed.”
And you can see this imprinting pretty clearly by following a generation’s partisan self-identity as they age and noticing that it doesn’t actually change much:
The Traditionalists were the most conservative 20 years ago and are still the most conservative now. The Baby Boomers were the next most conservative 20 years ago and are still the next most conservative now. The Millennial generation started out in youth as the most liberal and remain that way.
So the entire premise of all of this half-assed theorizing is completely bankrupt. The reason older and younger people have different politics is not generally because politics change as people age, but rather because different generations have different politics that they carry with them from young adulthood to the grave.
6. Why Would Any of These Theories Lead to Supporting Hillary?
As a final note, it’s also worth pointing out that none of these various theories ever explain why young women, once freed from whatever pathologies they have, would necessarily support Hillary. It just seems to be assumed that because the super-woke grannies support Hillary that this is the default position you would have if you weren’t otherwise fucked up in the head.
But that’s not really true. Bernie supports pay equity just as Hillary does. Bernie supports abortion rights to an even greater extent than Hillary does. The robust welfare statism advocated by Bernie is, as Rebecca Traister argues in her latest book, an enormous boon for women in general. Women get more out of public healthcare as they use more healthcare than men. Women get more out of student benefits because they go to college more than men. Women get more out of Social Security because they live longer than men. Women get more out of leave and child care benefits. And on and on. Basically every welfare benefit that’s ever been conceived of is more helpful for women than men, but Hillary has run a campaign that is aggressively against this welfare statism as being dishonest, pie-in-the-sky, and not able to solve racism and cissexism and such (see quote above for an example).
It’s not at all clear that becoming old enough to escape all the young woman pathologies would lead you to a pro-Hillary conclusion. The link between those two is somehow never explained, which is rather curious in its own right.