BY DANIEL DE VISÉ - 07/31/23 5:30 AM ET
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A popular narrative suggests young people are liberal and getting more liberal. Thus, social media buzzed when a chart surfaced in spring that seemed to suggest 12th-grade boys had become overwhelmingly conservative.
As with many Reddit posts and viral tweets, the truth was more complicated. But the numbers do say this: Twelfth-grade boys are nearly twice as likely to identify as conservative versus liberal, according to a respected federal survey of American youth.
In annual surveys over the last three years, roughly one-quarter of high school seniors self-identified as conservative or “very conservative” on the Monitoring the Future survey, a scholarly endeavor that dates to the 1970s.
Only 13 percent of boys identified as liberal or very liberal in those years.
Young women, too, are trending liberal. Women ages 18 to 29 are more likely to identify as liberal now than at any time in the past two decades, according to Gallup surveys. Young women are almost twice as likely as young men to claim the liberal tag, a widening gender gap in political beliefs.
The political leanings of young men have changed little over the past two decades, according to an analysis by the Survey Center on American Life. Last year, 43 percent of young men identified as moderate, 31 percent as conservative and 24 percent as liberal. Twenty years earlier, the numbers were more or less the same.
But the leftward drift of young women alone has sufficed to move the needle on young adults as a whole. Generation Z favors liberalism over conservatism by a 48-to-33 margin, according to NBC News polling from 2022. Ten years earlier, young adults split evenly between the two political camps.
The rightward drift of high school boys is comparatively subtle. Indeed, when it comes to politics, most boys seem reluctant to pick a side. In the 2022 Monitoring the Future survey, the largest group of senior boys, more than two-fifths, claimed no politics at all, answering the liberal-conservative question with “none of the above” or “I don’t know.” Nearly one-fifth identified as moderate. Only 36 percent selected liberal or conservative as an ideology, and only there did the trend emerge.
Jean Twenge, an author and professor of psychology at San Diego State University, presented the data in her new book, “Generations.” To spotlight the growing gender gap, she couched the numbers in a chart that split boys and girls along ideological lines, omitting moderates and the undecided.
“Among liberals, the future is female,” she wrote. “And among conservatives, the future is male.”
The chart gave the impression, at least on first glance, that two-thirds of 12th-grade boys were now conservative. In the small print beneath, Twenge noted that she had omitted moderates.
The full story is messier and murkier. High school seniors, boys and girls alike, are more likely to claim no political identity than to throw in with either liberals or conservatives.
Much has been written about the liberal drift of young women. The Donald Trump presidency mobilized millions of women, outraged over words and alleged deeds that, to Trump’s critics, suggested an unrepentant misogyny. More women embraced liberal politics in response to the conservative drift of the U.S. Supreme Court, a movement emblemized by a 2022 ruling that struck down the constitutional right to abortion.
Less has been said about the politics of 12th-grade boys.
Trump himself may be a key to the conservative trend in that group. The 45th president energized male voters with his rhetoric: his “overt hypermasculinity,” as one NPR analysis put it, and his frequent use of language one might overhear in a high school cafeteria.
“Donald Trump talks like a high school student. Maybe there’s a connection there,” said Robert Palacios, 21, a student at the Catholic University of America and president of District of Columbia College Democrats.
“If you grew up playing video games that were not age-appropriate, and you were sitting in the [virtual] lobby, screaming at the mic, Trump was your president,” said Ethan Benn, also 21, a student at the George Washington University (GWU). “He really channeled that energy.”
More broadly, the conservative wing of the Republican party has made pointed appeals to disaffected men of all ages.
Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and other conservative beacons have derided “woke” ideology, accusing the left of overreach in seeking redress for injustices involving race, gender and sexual orientation.
Liberal politicians, of course, are just as eager to win the vote of young men. Yet, the progressive agenda seeks equality in gender and race, a platform that costs them some male support, especially among white people. In the 2020 election, Black and Hispanic men voted for Joe Biden at much higher rates than non-Hispanic white people, according to Pew Research data.
As one recent Politico article put it, Democrats have a masculinity problem.
“I believe that traditional notions of masculinity are much more accepted within conservativism,” while feminist values “are clearly one of the driving forces of liberalism,” said Delano Squires, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
“I could see male and female students saying, ‘I’m choosing sides.’ Do you want matriarchy, or do you want patriarchy?”
Defenders of the patriarchy reach young men where they live, on social media and in gaming circles. Benn, the GWU student, notes a “sort of intersection of Internet culture and gaming culture with conservative politics” that draws some apolitical young men into conservatism.
Conservative icons Dennis Prager, Ben Shapiro and Steven Crowder boast millions of followers on YouTube, a platform whose ads and viewing suggestions make it easy for a young, male YouTuber “to get sucked into a very conservative sphere of politics and media,” Benn said.
“You could be watching a video about the latest Star Wars movie, and then the next video would be, ‘Here’s how women are ruining Star Wars,’” he said, referencing his own experience. “Even if you aren’t seeking it out, it will come and find you.”
That said, Benn doesn’t remember many of his high school friends talking much about politics.
Neither does Tyler Brown-Dewese, 20, a student at American University (AU).
Brown-Dewese identifies as a “Bill Clinton Democrat.” Back in high school, however, he was a conservative.
“I went to an all-boys Catholic school in New York, and so, a majority of us were Republicans,” he said. Classmates took their cues from parents, friends and social media sites such as Millennial Republicans. “That’s an Instagram page I still follow,” Brown-Dewese said.
But that is not to say he and his friends spent the lunch hour discussing politics. “A lot of them weren’t politically active,” he said. “They didn’t want to talk politics. But if you brought it up, they were going to defend Trump.”
Brown-Dewese’s own politics drifted left when he arrived at AU. “What changed me was, I go to the most liberal university,” he laughed. “Had I known that, I probably wouldn’t have gone.”
Though he is now a Democrat, Brown-Dewese doesn’t really like the word “liberal,” and he suspects other young men feel the same way. Generations of conservatives have equated liberalism with weakness.
Asked to estimate the quotient of liberal women at AU, he laughed again.