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Gen X, Right-Wing Bastion?

If, as seems possible, Joe Biden wins the presidency by peeling away older white voters from the Republican coalition, liberals won’t just win the White House; they’ll gain a new generational villain to bemoan. Instead of laments about The Villages and sneers of “OK Boomer,” there will be a realization that the last bastion of conservatism in a leftward-shifting country may soon lie with my own Generation X.

Let’s stipulate that generational divisions are somewhat arbitrary and artificial, and that they track imperfectly with the age divisions favored by most pollsters. Generation X consists of Americans born between 1965 and 1980, which means that we’re currently in our 40s and early 50s, and pollsters prefer to poll the 45-64-year-old cohort, where President Trump’s clearest strength now lies.

Still, pollsters who track the generations show Xers as more Republican than other groups. In the Morning Consult survey, for instance, Joe Biden has led consistently with baby boomers since the spring, while Generation X is the only generation with whom Trump occasionally pulls into a tie.

Given that most people’s conservatism modestly increases as they age, this trend is probably a prologue, and Gen X conservatives will increasingly become the bulwark of Republican support — and the party’s leaders, whether in the form of Nikki Haley or Josh Hawley or Donald Trump Jr., Generation Xers all.

Credit…Samuel Corum for The New York Times
Credit…Pool photo by Andrew Harnik

Which means that my generation, so often passed over, merits some ideological analysis. And Noah Smith, the economics writer for Bloomberg and an edge-of-Generation-Xer (born in 1980), offered the beginnings of one last week on Twitter. The formative world of Gen X, he pointed out, was one of Republican dominance in presidential politics, evangelical revival in American religion and diminishing social conflict overall. “Xers grew up in a nation that was rapidly stabilizing under conservative rule,” he writes, suggesting that many Americans now in midlife associate the G.O.P. with that stability and the subsequent trends pushing the country leftward with disorder and decline.

To Smith’s list of Gen X-ian distinctives I’d add a few more: the conservative influence of John Paul II’s papacy for Generation-X Catholics, the seemingly positive trendlines on race relations (visible in polls of African-Americans as well as whites) from the 1990s through the early Obama years and the effects of the Reagan and Clinton economic growth spurts, which enabled my generation to enter adulthood under more prosperous conditions than the Great Recession-era landscape that hobbled millennials.

A critique of Gen X conservatism that started from this framework wouldn’t accuse my cohort of nostalgia for the racial or religious landscape of the 1950s; we don’t remember it, and we don’t want it to return. Instead the characteristic Gen X weakness on race is a complacent assumption that the Clinton-to-Obama period resolved issues like the wealth gap or police misconduct, instead of just tabling them — which in turn makes middle-age conservatives too apt to see Black Lives Matters or Obama himself as reckless disturbers of the racial peace.

On economics, meanwhile, Gen X conservatives can be tempted into uncharity toward younger Americans, interpreting their struggles and sympathies for socialism as a moral failure, as opposed to a response to a more hostile economic landscape than we faced. And the Gen-X conservative can struggle to move beyond what I’ve called Zombie Reaganism, sticking with a conservative policy agenda that’s lost much of its relevance, precisely because the Reagan agenda helped make the world in which we came of age.

But alongside generational myopias there is wisdom, too. By virtue of having “adulted” more successfully than millennials — marrying, homebuying and having kids earlier and in larger numbers — Generation X enjoys a certain bourgeois realism about what sustains human societies, what choices in your 20s will make you happiest in your 40s, that’s absent from the very-online progressivism of the young. There is an emotivism and narcissism that millennial liberalism and boomer liberalism seem to share, and in strong doses it’s poison for institutions. The ironic communitarianism of Gen-X conservatism probably isn’t the perfect antidote, but it may be all we’ve got.

And Gen X conservatives come by their hostility to emotivist liberalism honestly, because many of us grew up amid its wreckage. “Xers have little collective memory of either instability or liberalism,” Smith suggests, but that part of his analysis is wrong. To grow up in the ’70s or ’80s was to come of age just after liberalism’s last high tide, and to see evidence of its failures all around — from the urban blight and ugliness left by utopian renewal projects to the adult disarray and childhood misery sowed by the ideology of sexual liberation in its Hefnerian phase.

Americans younger than us have seen a lot of elite failure in the last 20 years, much of it conservative or centrist, and the idea of voting Republican, let alone for Trump, because of liberalism’s dangers seems to many of them absurd.

But what Generation X conservatives remember is not a distant past, nor an unlikely future. Their Trump support may be a folly, but their concern for what comes next is earned.

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