The Politics of Tomorrow

20 years from now, Americans won't split along today's party lines.

A view of the Capitol Rotunda before the annual State of the Union address to a joint session of the US Congress in the House chamber on Feb. 12, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Democrat vs. Republican will become libertarians vs. statists.

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Congress has ordered all its members and their staffs replaced with a robot called “Polly” because she operates completely off poll data compiled by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. In the past month, Pew has used this data to produce two striking reports analyzing how Americans think and vote – one showing that we have indeed become notably more polarized over just the last few years, and the other finding that we can be neatly divided into eight voting “typologies” that pretty accurately predict our views on just about everything.

As Polly explained it to me, thanks to advances like this in “Big Data,” members of Congress – in fact elections in general – are no longer needed. “I assume you’re a regular church-going Republican who watches 'This Old House,'” she said. That’s a good assumption, because I live in zip code 19380, where there are practically no Democrats. One of the things we have known about Americans since the 2004 publication of Bill Bishop’s "The Big Sort" – but has really taken off in recent weeks with publication of the Pew study – is that we choose to live exclusively around people who share our views on politics, religion and "This Old House."

[READ: The GOP Must Move on Immigration Now]

But Polly told me that she now could better help me if I’d just answer Pew’s 23-question quiz, which took about two minutes. Polly then announced that I was a “Solid Liberal.” “I don’t think I’m so ‘solid,’” I protested, pointing out that I answered several questions in ways that only a small minority of “Solid Liberals” do, and that I fell in the very small tail of the “Solid Liberal” distribution – smack dab in the middle of the ideological distribution of the current American electorate.

Quiz results from Pew Research Center
Quiz results from Pew Research Center

Where I notably departed from liberal orthodoxy, apparently, was on foreign policy – where I’d be what used to be called a “liberal interventionist” – and on government waste and spending, where I’d be called either a “fiscal hawk” or “someone who has spent too much time working in or with governments to believe they’re the least bit efficient.” What qualifies one as a “Solid Liberal,” it appears, is two things: You’re no longer young, and you don’t hate gays, immigrants and poor people. Polly gave a quick and disdainful look up and down what I thought was my well-toned physique and concluded that I must not hate gays, immigrants and poor people. Otherwise, I’d have been either a “Steadfast Conservative” or “Business Conservative” – the other categories reserved for old people – like everyone else in 19380.

While the Pew typology analyzes Americans’ views along ten dimensions – including attitudes about race, the environment and government efficacy – what it really boils down to is three main variables: You’re either young or you’re not; socially tolerant or not; and rich or, well, struggling mightily in the new economy.

The first two groups are largely congruent: Age is a great determinant of social attitudes. Virtually everyone in the two younger voting-age generations – Gen X and millennials – is way past caring about your skin color or sexual orientation. Not so we boomers, let alone the Greatest Generation. If you don’t care about such things, then you’re a Solid Liberal and – except for a small number of outliers like me – can be counted upon to agree with everything Barack Obama has ever said. Otherwise, you’re a Republican.

But here the third variable, wealth, comes into play, and it splits Republican voters along lines that are familiar to anyone who has been watching the circular firing squad called the GOP in the last few years: Wealthy Republicans (Pew calls them “Business Conservatives”) tend to think the economic system, especially big business, works just fine (and as long as it does, they’re willing to look the other way when gay foreigners and blacks also get promotions). But downscale Republicans (“Steadfast Conservatives”) are the opposite of this: “Severely conservative” social positions are required here, but so is extreme hostility to elite institutions, including corporations, and a belief that the economic system is stacked against you.

[SEE: Cartoons on the Democratic Party]

The conventional wisdom is that the future belongs to latte-loving liberals like the boomers because the same outlook is shared by Xers and millennials. The Pew data make clear that’s not true: While younger Americans view social prejudices as so 20th century, they are just as split as their elders over – and by – economics. Those doing well – what Pew calls the “Young Outsiders” – imbibed the views on sale at Central Perk like tolerance and environmentalism, but have no use for government (along with just about any other institution, including the GOP). Meanwhile, even their similarly upscale but “progressive” friends (“Next Generation Left”) are leery of “social programs,” i.e. government spending on behalf of the poor, and don’t think racial discrimination is still a problem – utter apostasy to us older “Solid Liberals.” Who amongst the younger generation actually wants government help for the hard-pressed economically? Only the hard-pressed economically, who make up maybe one-third of the young – Pew calls them “Skeptics,” because they hate government just about as much as older conservatives but want it to help people like themselves – and minorities (whom Pew opaquely terms the “Faith and Family Left”).

In sum, the politics of 20 years from now are likely to look very different from today’s, with tomorrow’s Americans splitting not along today’s party lines, driven largely by boomer battles left over from the '60s, but rather along older economic fault lines between the haves and have-nots. Lightly-attached voters and those still clinging to guns and religion – by then largely living on reservations in Wyoming and Alaska – will hold the electoral balance between upscale libertarian voters and a downscale statist party.

I felt pretty smug when I heard all of this – since that’s pretty much what I predicted in this space nearly a year ago. “And that’s what makes me a Solid Liberal?” I asked Polly, drawing on recent research showing that liberals are much more rational thinkers, as well as "Good Wife" viewers. “Yes,” she replied, “that and the smugness.”