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Opening Arguments

Left, right, forward march

Don't panic, conservatives. The world isn't leaving you behind:

There was a time not so long ago when the young seemed destined to be liberal forever. Americans in their teens and 20s were to the left of their elders on social issues. They worried more about poverty. They voted strongly Democratic.

In retrospect, we refer to this period as the 1960s, and it didn’t last long, let alone forever. Less than a generation after young people were marching for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, they voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan.

Today, of course, the young are liberal again, and it seems as if they will be forever. They favor same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, stricter gun laws, citizenship for illegal immigrants and an activist government that fights climate change and inequality. The Republican Party, as you have probably noticed, does not.

But the temporary nature of the 1960s should serve as a reminder that politics change. What seems permanent can become fleeting. And the Democratic Party, for all its strengths among Americans under 40, has some serious vulnerabilities, too.

In the simplest terms, the Democrats control the White House (and, for now, the Senate) at a time when the country is struggling. Economic growth has been disappointing for almost 15 years now. Most Americans think this country is on the wrong track. Our foreign policy often seems messy and complex, at best.

To Americans in their 20s and early 30s — the so-called millennials — many of these problems have their roots in George W. Bush’s presidency. But think about people who were born in 1998, the youngest eligible voters in the next presidential election. They are too young to remember much about the Bush years or the excitement surrounding the first Obama presidential campaign. They instead are coming of age with a Democratic president who often seems unable to fix the world’s problems.

I think along those lines whenever I read a story -- and there have been a ton of them -- about the gay marriage debate being over because it's simply no big deal to young people, and the old farts need to just shut up and let the inevitable happen. Maybe they'll still feel that way when they're older, and maybe they won't. (I suspect they will, btw. I don't think people who embrace the more liberal position on social issues ever go back, even when they get more conservative about things like money and taxes. The one exception to that might be abortion.)

The old cliche, which this post pretty much dismisses summarily, is that people start out liberal, then turn more conservative as they get older and wiser. Generations do tend to have political identities and people's politics are particularly "shaped by events as the first become aware of the world." The generation that came of age during FDR's many terms in office stayed Democratic pretty much their whole lives. The kids of the "Reagan years" still lean pretty much Republican.

A final observation. Even if the "aging into conservatism" cliche is right, I don't think it necessarily means what people think it does, because what is "left," "right" and "middle" change with the times. Being conservative today is not what it was in the 1950s or 1960s when people like Wm. F. Buckley were on the front lines.