Let the Millennials grow up (the apathetic youth and other myths)


In two recent blog posts in reaction to PEW and Harvard Public Opinion Project reports on Millennials, John Sides warned against equating the millennial generation’s more liberal and Democratic-leaning preferences with a bright future for the Democratic Party. However, he closes his report acknowledging that the “political formation of younger Millennials isn’t over”. The problem with any claim regarding the future attitudes and behaviors of today’s youth is that they are impossible to predict. A series of articles in a recent issue of the journal Electoral Studies (edited by Anja Neundorf  and Richard Niemi) draws attention to the importance of distinguishing between the effects of ageing and the effects of belonging to a certain cohort or generation when predicting political attitudes and behaviors over the life span. Sides’ earlier contribution to this blog raises the question of whether the Millennials (those born after 1980) are indeed a distinct generation or whether they are unique in comparison to the rest of the electorate because they are still young?

The problem in researching intergenerational differences in political behavior is that age and cohort differences are interrelated. Once we know someone’s age (at a given time) we can easily work out which (birth) cohort this person belongs to. To illustrate this problem, let’s take the example of turnout. If we were to research voter turnout three questions would be central. Do we decide to participate in elections because we are e.g. middle-aged (age effect)? Do we vote because it is a pretty exciting election (period effect)? Or do citizens decide to stay at home because they came of age during the Watergate Affaire and ever since think that politics is not to be trusted and it is best to stay as far away as possible from it (cohort effect)? The truth of the matter is that all these effects impact our vote decision. The challenge is to try to disentangle the three effects methodologically. This post is an attempt to illustrate these interrelated effects in light of the Millennial generation, which has been at  the center of attention in the last two months.

We will first look at the age effect. It is common to blame young people for being apathetic, lazy, and losing moral (and civic) values. In politics, for example, young people are often blamed for having very low turnout levels or trust in institutions and political processes. But what happens if these youngsters grow into middle-aged voters? Do they remain disengaged or do they become more active?  Figure 1 plots the average turnout by age in presidential elections between 1972-2008. The figure clearly shows that young people are indeed less likely to take part in presidential races than older voters. This is the so-called age effect according to which levels of political participation change with the life experience that comes with getting older.


Figure 1: Average turnout in presidential elections 1972-2008 by age (Graph by the authors).

According to figure 1, turnout rates especially increase between the age of 20 and 40, rising from below 40% to 70% participation. Interestingly, the low turnout rate among young people was just as much of a problem in the 1970s (among the baby-boomers) as it is today (among the Millennials). In 1976, 50% of the 18-28 year olds turned out to vote in the Carter election. In 2008, 51% of the Millennials aged 18-28 voted in the Obama election. Based on these numbers, we can conclude that young voters are indeed considerably less active in electoral politics.

Figure 1, however, does not tell us anything about the Millennial generation, which includes only those born after 1980, in comparison with other generations. We hence replicated the average turnout by birth years rather than by age. As Figure 2 clearly shows, all generations born after about 1930 are less and less likely to participate in presidential elections, with a particularly sharp decrease for those born after 1980. The youngsters born in the late 1980s show a very low and worrying level of turnout of only around 20%. These are the Obama kids, as the 2008 election was the first presidential election in which they were eligible to vote. Figure 2 confirms the negative picture about the Millennials painted in research reports and in the media.


Figure 2: Average turnout in presidential elections 1972-2008 by birth year (Graph by the authors).

However, this picture of the Millennials needs to be put into perspective by taking into account the trends that we observed in figure 1. After all, the Millennials are still young. The key to understanding turnout among different age groups (figure 1) and voters born at different point in time (figure 2) is to combine the two insights. The difference between age and cohort/generation effects is best illustrated with an example. Figure 3 tracks the average turnout for people who first voted under different US Presidents. Respondents who voted for the first time in the 1948 election of President Truman show the highest average turnout of up to 85% across the entire time period for which we have survey data (1972-2010). The Kennedy generation – who first voted in the 1960 election – slowly seems to catch up with this cohort and turnout levels across these two cohorts appear equal today. The Nixon, Reagan and Clinton cohorts are tracked through time from the election in which they were first allowed to vote. Their turnout levels are on the increase.


Figure 3: Turnout patterns of cohorts coming of electoral age under different US Presidents. Graph by the authors.

Two observations can be made from figure 3. First, for each group of voters, turnout increases as people grow older (analog to figure 1). While turnout levels increase as all groups of voters age, figure 3 also shows that the starting levels of voter turnout are different for groups of voters coming of age under different Presidents. For example, turnout among first-time voters was much lower in Reagan’s 1980 election (36%) compared to Clinton’s 1992 election (42%). This points to a cohort or generation effect. The idea behind the cohort/generation approach is that it is not so much the ageing as such that make one grow in political life, but rather that social, cultural, political and historical events shape the political participation patterns of people born in a particular era. These events affect younger generations disproportionally because they have not yet developed political habits. Events, moreover, have a long-lasting (positive or negative) effect on later patterns of political behavior.

Newly eligible voters do not all face the same political context. In a recent article, we find that the character of the first elections an incoming group of voters faces is crucial to this cohort’s future turnout levels. For example, the 2008 election was a high-stake election characterized by generally high turnout levels, which in turn mobilized voters as everybody around them voted. Moreover, Obama’s victory was marginal and the two parties had quite polarizing views on many political issues, which again in general boosts turnout. In contrast, Clinton’s reelection in 1996 can be considered a low-stake election. Clinton’s landslide victory of 379 electoral votes and the general low turnout of 49%, should have a negative effect on the generation that got to know electoral politics in this relatively “boring” election.

This leaves us with the question of whether the Millennial generation is expected to pick up political engagement or not. While we do not have a crystal ball, we believe it is not too late for this generation just yet. First, the Millennials are (still) growing up in a politicized environment, which should make them more likely to develop a habit of voting. Second they still need to make the transition to adulthood (i.e. the aging effect still needs to take place). At the moment, it is “too close to call” how this generation will turn out.

For people interested in disentangling the various effects of age – which political scientists refer to as  “Age, Period, Cohort” effects – there is a host of new academic articles available on the topic in the special issue of Electoral Studies already mentioned above. For example, Larry Bartels and Simon Jackman employ a mathematical model of political learning to partisanship to estimate the critical years of heightened impact of period-specific effects or historical shocks on a citizen’s party attachments. In another example, Grigore Pop-Eleches and Joshua Tucker categorize historical socialization periods that identify aging and generational effects of experiences during Communism on people’s democratic and economic attitudes.


About the authors:

Anja Neundorf is Lecturer in Politics and Research Methods at the School of Politics and International Relations of The University of Nottingham.

Kaat Smets is Lecturer in Politics (Quantitative Methods) at the Department of Politics and International Relations of Royal Holloway, University of London.


 Note: This originally appeared on


“The Devil’s Long Tail: Religious and Other Radicals in the Internet Marketplace” by David Stevens and Kieron O’Hara



The second must-read on The Bookshelf is “The Devil’s Long Tail: Religious and Other Radicals in the Internet Marketplace” by David Stevens and Kieron O’Hara. The internet may be a utopia for free expression, but it is also a haven for nihilistic groups and individuals spreading bizarre creeds unhindered by the risk-averse gatekeepers of the mass media – and not all are as harmless as the Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua or Sexastrianism. With few barriers to entry, ready anonymity and no centralised control, the internet provides wired extremists with unprecedented access to a potential global audience of billions. Technology allows people to select the information they receive – so extremists can filter out moderating voices and ignore arguments that counter their ideas, retreating into a virtual world of their own design. In The Devil’s Long Tail, the authors argue that we misunderstand extremism if we think intervention is the best way to stop it. Policies designed to disrupt extremist networks fail because they ignore the factors that push people to extremes. Extremists are driven less by ideas than by the benefits of membership of a tightly-knit group. Rather, extreme ideas should be left to sink or swim in the marketplace of ideas that the Internet has created. The internet and the web are valuable creations of a free society. Censoring them impoverishes that society while leaving the radical urge intact.


David Stevens (PhD) is Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham.

Kieron O’Hara (PhD) is a philosopher and Senior Research Fellow, Dept. of Electronics and Computer Science, University of Southampton. In 2006 they co-authored Inequality.com: Power, Poverty and the Digital Divide.

Telescoping Passive Revolution

Telescoping3As revealed on For the Desk Drawer earlier, an updated paperback edition of my book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development has now been published. A central proposition of the book is that the conditioning situation of uneven and combined development on a world scale — as the geographical expression of the contradictions of capitalism — shapes the spatial, territorial, and scalar configuration of state power. However, although shaped by the condition of uneven and combined development, it is also the balance of class forces within state spaces that alters the developmental trajectory and spatial form of statehood through emergent passive revolutionary class strategies defining the rise of a state in capitalist society.

http://adamdavidmorton.com/wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gifIn more detail, a focus on the affinal concepts of uneven and combined development (drawing from Leon Trotsky) and passive revolution (drawing from Antonio Gramsci) reveals pertinent features of modern state formation in an historically specific sense within the twentieth century transition to and transformation of modern capitalist political space in Mexico. In relation to uneven and combined development it was Leon Trotsky that sketched how capitalism unfolds by “drawing the countries economically closer to one another and levelling out their stages of development” but also, thereby, “developing some parts of world economy while hampering and throwing back the development of others”. To then paraphrase, the historical process is the correlation of both equalisation and differentiation within the uneven and combined development of capitalism. In my argument, Antonio Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution then refers to processes in which aspects of the social relations of capitalist development are either instituted and/or expanded, resulting in both “revolutionary” rupture and a “restoration” of social relations across different scales and spatial aspects of the state.

The crucial element in passive revolution is the statifying tendency to reorganise or restructure the geographies of capital accumulation. This means that the state form becomes the dominant site, generator, and product of spatial projects in attempting to maintain the relationship of ruler–ruled and the incoherence of popular initiatives from below. My argument leads to the outlook that such processes across Latin America will clearly be different across state forms. Yet the condition of passive revolution does provide certain clues to the diversity of Latin American history and thus forms of transition to capitalist modernity within the region and, especially, in relation to spaces of state power in Mexico. Hence my argument that the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) stands as one of the links in a chain of passive revolutions called forth by capitalist modernity in Latin America. My aim, then, in Revolution and State in Modern Mexico is to demonstrate how specific processes of passive revolution capture the territorial, class, and spatial relations of socially uneven and combined development in Mexico at the state level but also across various scales.

Rather than assuming a condition of ‘normal’ hegemony, characterised by the reciprocal combination of force and consent, my argument is that state space in Mexico was configured by a minimal hegemony indicative of the experience of passive revolution, where the state–coercive element superintends the struggle for hegemony. Hence the significance I place on the meaning behind telescoping passive revolution: the coercive class practices of passive revolution are best understood dialectically when telescoped with struggles for hegemony. A crucial aspect of my book is how it remains sensitive to the coercive circumstances constituting modern state formation. Passive revolution thus provides an alternative approach to theorising coercion and hegemony shaping twentieth–century state–making in Mexico. Through dialectically telescoping passive revolution together with hegemony, Revolution and State in Modern Mexico adds an additional standpoint to the emerging literature that aims to develop fresh analysis of the historical roots of coercion in relation to broader hegemonic processes of state–making in Mexico, such as Wil Pansters edited Violence, Coercion and State-Making in Twentieth Century Mexico.

The new lengthy epilogue to the paperback edition engages with some of these theoretical issues that have sprung forth within debates in Latin America on passive revolution since the publication of my book. Also, I sketch some of the dominant contemporary territorial and scalar geographies of passive revolution and forms of resistance shaping the state spatial restructuring of Mexico under capitalism. These include the war on drugs, the so-called democratic transition since the election of Enrique Peña Nieto, and the enduring relevance of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) in commanding counter-spaces of resistance.

Adam David Morton

Picturing Politics: Berlin by night

In the eleventh Picturing Politics Dr Anja Neundorf looks at an astronaut’s image of Berlin by night and what it reveals about German reunification. The image clearly shows a divide in the city’s lighting systems and this divide is also evident in the voting habits of East and West Berliners, 24 years after the fall of the Wall.

Image by Chris Hadfield/Nasa

Image by Chris Hadfield/Nasa

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/118071428" width="100%" iframe="true" /]


Can’t view the audio player above? Listen here.

You can also view a written version here.

Picturing Politics is a series of audio and video clips featuring academics commenting on the political significance of a diverse range of images. The series is intended to offer an invaluable insight into the many ways in which politics has been imagined – quite literally – throughout history, and also the ways in which images have been used to shape and influence our understanding of politics.

80s nostalgia for the Labour victory of 1945

This post originally appeared on the Observing the 80s blog.

In the wake of Labour’s disastrous 1983 campaign Tony Benn informed readers of the Guardian newspaper that despite appearances it was a great achievement, because, ‘for the first time since 1945, a political party with an openly socialist policy has received the support of over eight and a half million people’.

During the 1980s Benn was not alone on the left and centre-left in looking at Labour’s first majority administration through rose-tinted glasses. The more Margaret Thatcher dismantled a post-war ‘consensus’ largely cast in the image of Clement Attlee’s government, the better 1945 looked. Benn’s claim that Labour’s 1945 programme represented ‘socialism’ in the same ways as did its 1983 manifesto was however contested. Certainly those Labour right-wingers who formed the Social Democratic Party in 1981 – among whom numbered Attlee’s own son – argued they were the legitimate legatees of the 1945 government. Yet, as Mass-Observation’s research at the time suggested, at least as interpreted by historians like me, few of those who voted Labour in 1945 were overtly socialist or social democratic.

How many Britons were enthralled by these attempts to appropriate the spirit of ‘45 is uncertain. Between 1982 and 1985, however, millions of ITV viewers watched the series Shine on Harvey Moon, written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, one of a number of fictions about politics that I look at in my forthcoming book A State of Play.  As Gran recalled in 2009, he and Marks wrote Shine on Harvey Moon:

because people were so miserable in this country, so sorry for themselves we thought we’d write about a time which was really hard,  but a time when there was hope and we made the central character into a campaigning Labour councillor.  That was really written as an Attleeist piece, full of hope and righteous indignation and a certain amount of laughs.  It was written from the point of view of us actually believing that politics was not a completely ignoble undertaking and actually could do good and, at times in our history, has done good.

It was a remarkably partisan series, one that would have found little favour with the Prime Minister. Yet, because Marks and Gran wrote in a popular idiom, those who reviewed television in the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph did not take it seriously, seeing it as ‘low brow drama’ or ‘a nostalgic little comedy’. Possibly for that reason, even the Daily Express liked it – although one of its critics was irritated by a ‘Dickens-like factory scenes with Harvey arguing trade unionism’. Sadly, Mass Observation’s 1980s surveys failed to pick up what its respondents thought about Shine on Harvey Moon. But responses to its autumn 1988 directive on television watching suggest the series was likely to have spawned hundreds if not thousands of conversations in households across the country.

Interviewed in the Daily Star in 1984, Marks claimed Harvey ‘is just Mr. Average. He’s a Joe Bloggs who’s struggling to get by’. Returning home in Hackney after the war to an estranged wife and two children, Harvey’s is a world of austerity.  But it is also one of optimism, thanks to the Attlee government, one with which Harvey closely identifies. Ambitious for himself and his family, Harvey is however no selfish individualist, and believes his aspirations can be fulfilled only as part of the more general improvement of conditions for the working class, something he hopes will occur under Labour. The series moreover sides with Harvey and his view of the world by pointing out the realities of falling sick before the National Health Service and even, to the chagrin of the Express, showed the role unions played in improving working conditions.

While positive about Attlee’s achievements, and definitely anti-Tory, Marks and Gran present Labour as a rather flawed vehicle of change. On first entering the party Harvey dislikes being referred to as ‘comrade’ and finds its procedures irritating and po-faced. Many Labour members are also middle class. Indeed one leading activist is a posh solicitor who employs Harvey as his clerk and when he becomes a Parliamentary candidate he has Harvey serve drinks at a celebratory reception. There, Harvey engages with a group of left-wing intellectuals so alienating he quotes George Orwell’s comment that socialists were often the reason many people disliked socialism. Moreover, while Harvey hopes for a ‘classless society’, even under Labour, privilege remains, leading him to make a pointed remark about Cabinet ministers sending their sons to Eton. Furthermore, on the night he is elected councilor, Harvey meets Herbert Morrison who mistakenly believes he has won his ward thanks to dirty tricks – of which Morrison thoroughly approves – thereby contrasting Harvey’s idealism with the cynicism of Labour’s real Deputy leader.

This is, then, a strange kind of nostalgia, one that sees the 1940s through the prism of a populist mistrust of representative politics, a sentiment the writers more vigorously mined in their later 1980s comedy series The New Statesman. Running on ITV from 1987 to 1992, this was set in contemporary Westminster and was a work of utter cynicism, which depicted politics as ineffably corrupt. If the central character, Alan B’Stard, is the ultimate personification of Thatcherism, the series’ few Labour characters do not emerge with much credit either.

The vision Marks and Gran have of politics in the 1940s is notably more optimistic than their view of 1980s politics. To them 1945 was a moment of possibility and considerable achievement. But while open to the participation of ‘ordinary’ working men (if not women), Labour is nonetheless shown as over-populated by doctrinaire middle-class intellectuals and cynical machine politicians. In some ways however Marks and Gran better evoked the uncertainty, hope and skepticism that actually existed in 1945 – and which Mass Observation notably picked up in its reports on popular feeling – than did the self-interested perspectives articulated by Benn and the SDP in the 1980s, or much later, in Ken Loach’s 2013 film The Spirit of ‘45.

Steven Fielding