Many Americans don’t have an opinion about “cancel culture” — or even know what it is. Younger Americans tend to be more familiar with the term at this point, though this could change given how much the GOP is making it a part of its political playbook.
And it’s Republicans under the age of 45 who are really concerned about “cancel culture.”
One in 4 Republicans between the ages of 18 and 44 listed it as a top concern, compared to just 1 percent of Democrats in this same age group, according to a recent YouGov Blue poll.1 In fact, among younger Republicans, “cancel culture” ranked sixth in terms of overall importance, but for younger Democrats it ranked dead last.
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That younger Republicans are more concerned than younger Democrats about “cancel culture” isn’t that surprising, given the amount of attention it’s getting from Republicans compared to Democrats. But the gap is important because it hints at what’s motivating younger Republicans in a party that is increasingly out of step with its youngest members — and it can tell us a lot about why Republicans are betting hard on a political strategy that relies on “cancel culture.”
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For starters, the Republican Party doesn’t align itself with its youngest members on many policy matters. Of course, it is not uncommon for age divisions to emerge within parties — it’s certainly the case for Democrats on health care coverage — but the differences among younger and older Republicans are much bigger and fall along more issues. Poll after poll reveals wide, 20 point-plus gaps on a number of bread-and-butter conservative issues, with younger Republicans much more likely than older Republicans to favor same sex marriage and support expanding renewable energy, and much less likely to view illegal immigration as a big problem for the country.
Additionally, while we need look no further than former President Donald Trump to understand just how powerful a political message centered on grievance or perceived threats to one’s social status can be — especially when linked to issues of white identity — its appeal is not limited to older voters. Younger Republicans are also likely to say that they fear they will be ostracized for their political views. According to Vladimir Medenica, a political science professor at the University of Delaware and research consultant for the GenFoward Survey, (a national bimonthly survey of young adults age 18 to 36), younger Republicans are often far more liberal than older Republicans on many social issues. But, he said, “When we zoom out and think about a more macro-level or structural understanding of society, a lot of young whites look a lot like older whites in their fears of losing status or access in society.”
And many young Republicans are white. In fact, the largest bloc of young Republicans (ages 18 to 29) are white men, according to a 2018 survey from Tuft University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which found that among young voters, white men were the only racial or gender group to align with the GOP in the midterms. This is important because polling by the Public Religion Research Institute, also from 2018, found that 43 percent of young white men (ages 15 to 24) think that discrimination against white people has become as big a problem as discrimination against Black people and other minority groups. In fact, almost half said in that poll that diversity efforts will harm white people.
In other words, a core part of the younger GOP base is really concerned that they’ll lose their status in society. As Medenica told me, young people are facing real economic challenges as the country also undergoes demographic changes and shifts in political and social power, and that can result in a worldview that “society is changing and it is changing in ways that are threatening,” particularly to white people who feel like they are on the losing end.
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Those threats are even more pronounced for young Republicans, given the political power and influence their young Democratic counterparts wield, said Melissa Deckman, a political science professor at Washington College who is working on a book about political mobilization in Generation Z. Deckman, who has been conducting surveys as well as in-depth interviews as part of her research, says that she has found a rise in the number of young women activists (both white women and women of color) who are forming nonprofit organizations to promote their causes and then using social media to organize politically. But this uptick in activism has largely been concentrated on the political left. “There’s not as much happening in terms of organizing among Gen Z on the political right, at least that I’ve been able to discern,” said Deckman.
The fact that there is more political engagement and activity among the young left isn’t that surprising given the political climate of their formative years. They’ve grown up with the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and March for Our Lives, left-leaning movements in which young people held prominent leadership roles and saw real consequences of their organizing. This isn’t to say that there isn’t any political activity on the young right — arguably, there’s been just as big of a push to organize debates over free speech on college campuses.
The problem is, when it comes to this question of who is wielding political power and influence, those on the young left are often leading the conversation while those on the young right are largely defining their movement in opposition to views on the political left. However, one reason the right’s reactionary movement wields political power is that many of the tones underlying the debates over free speech on campuses are also playing out in conservative media outlets. Young Republicans are already more likely to be plugged into these outlets, like “The Ben Shapiro Show” and PragerU, making them the prime candidates to carry the“cancel culture” mantle.
Younger Americans are also increasingly moving their political debates online. According to Jessica Feezell, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico who studies youth political engagement, young people are discussing politics with friends more than they are volunteering for campaigns or donating money, which is how people have traditionally engaged with politics. Young people have grown up in a time when politics is more “expressive and conversational when compared to previous generations,” says Feezell.
And because much of that conservation is now happening online, there is also a debate raging on what is acceptable as part of that conversation, which Feezell told me also feeds into this perception that political discourse is being curbed. Consider that Republicans are already more likely to say they self-censor their political views than Democrats, because they fear retribution. This, in turn, can create a group that is “unfamiliar or unable to engage [politically] in other ways,” according to Feezell, which explains in part why the GOP has both stoked fears around “cancel culture” and has made opposition to it a litmus test of sorts.
But this emphasis on “cancel culture” might not bode well for Republicans. Yes, “cancel culture” really does motivate the GOP’s youngest bloc of voters as well as older Republicans, but that’s pretty much it. There just aren’t many policies where older Republicans and younger Republicans are aligned.
CORRECTION (March 22, 2021, 3:55 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 55 percent of young white men think that discrimination against white people has become as big a problem as discrimination against Black people and other minority groups. In fact, that number was 43 percent.