Generation Z and the Rise of Conservatism

Lauren Reiff
Nov 6, 2018 · 9 min read

Generation Z is quickly replacing their predecessors, the millennials, as the token youth on the national stage and as the newest generation to receive media think pieces about, laden with interested speculation. The data is admittedly slim as to the nascent political leanings of this generational cohort — the oldest of which is around the age of 22 — but signs are accumulating that hint at surprising conservative impulses.

Traditionally, young people have nearly always had a progressive bent to them. Accompanying this belief is the idea that people generally grow more conservative with age. Interestingly, the current generation of youth doesn’t appear to be mirroring this historical trend with much exactitude. What might the reasons be for this?

To begin with, it is true that only a subset of Gen-Z is even of voting age. Personally, having been born in 1998, I just barely made the mark to vote in the 2016 election. Thus, I am not making the case that we have on our hands a highly mobilized band of fiery mini conservatives. Rather, the general mood of this generation — slowly but surely arriving on the cusp of adulthood and moving into civic participation — appears to be showing stronger threads of conservatism than one would typically expect from such an age group. Granted, one could question the coherence of the political views of a 16-year-old (if they have any at all, that is) but it is certainly not too early to be thinking about the direction in which they will be leaning.

The Youthful Allure of the Counterculture

As children, Generation Z grew up alongside a predominately progressive political climate. For a solid eight years, Obama helmed the nation, sparking discourse about widespread government health care, affirmative action, and the like. Culturally, political correctness was mainstream.

Now, young people have ingrained in them a natural attraction to a counterculture. Thus, a streak of rebellion from the dominant cultural narrative is quite natural and should not be surprising considering this historical penchant for going against the grain.

Consider the 1960s youth — highly galvanized, activist-oriented, and geared-towards-protest. They constituted an uprising of the New Left, proudly touting themselves as anti-war and pro-tolerance. The outrage from the Vietnam War was partly responsible for supplying air to the movement. And for the 1960s counterculture to flourish, it necessarily required something to grind against the grain from. The conservative — some might say — “stifling” culture of the 1950s provided this essential contrast. And so emerged a generation of youth jointly laced with cynicism and idealism. Had there not been something to necessarily “rebel” against, it would have taken the wind out of the sails of the 1960s movement. That’s why it was called a counterculture. That’s why a lot of youth flocked to it.

Now, it’s 2018. Mainstream media is shamelessly left-leaning, political correctness has been in vogue for many years (but has been subjected to an assault recently), and progressivism has enjoyed a long stint on the national stage. Institutionally — think the media and schools — the Left dominates. I think most people would generally agree with this observation. The mainstream, the established, the dominant, the cultural norm does not typically rouse a flock of young people. So why is it a surprise that for many of them, conservatism has now become cool? It’s the counterculture dynamic in action. It’s 2018 and there’s something “edgy” about participating in the “conservative counterculture,” which sounds a bit like an oxymoron but nevertheless does appear to be a veritable thing.

The first step in identifying where Generation Z might go politically is to recognize that there’s an innate attraction to the counterculture. Thus, rebellion against the current culture today would mean a disinclination towards progressivism and a mounting attraction to conservatism. This dynamic, which is politically unaffiliated — meaning, it could go either way — is partly responsible for the trend we may be seeing in today’s youth.

Political Correctness

So, it’s worth asking, what has been the mainstream for some time? Political correctness. And what’s now become “edgy”? Increasingly, eschewing political correctnes— naturally enough. The Right come to epitomize — whether everybody is happy about this or not — the dismantling of PC culture. And really, who would have thought that the Right would have succeeded in materializing revolutionary energy?

More than puzzling over policy concerns and picking apart ideological issues at length — which, let’s be honest, Generation Z is lacking in age and experience to do anyway — a general attitude seems to personify them. Regardless of the strength of their political fervency and the nuances of their views, there appears to be a defining overarching tendency of this generation to mock political correctness. Once they’re enlightened as to how political correctness plays out, a lot of teenagers become disgusted and rally against it. They don’t want to partake in packaging synthetic statements in tight, polite formalities. They don’t want to be complicit in peddling half-truths, or otherwise things that are blatantly false. That’s understandable, particularly from the standpoint of someone young and coming-of-age who is privately, internally dissecting truth about the world around them. Historically, young people aren’t very much attracted to being proper, quiet specimens of society that will dutifully shuffle along with what the mainstream, dominant culture (and, perhaps, their parents) are exemplifying.

As well, I do think young people are naturally suspicious and maybe even a little cynical. They’re not automatically accepting, which is precisely why youth rebellion is a very ubiquitous thing.

Technology

It’s worth including in the conversation the kind of political influences rife in my generation. The percentage of those my age that sit down in the evenings and ritualistically watch CNN or NBC is, ehh, if I had to guess, rather slim. It is precisely mainstream TV networks — and also prominent publications — that are the mouthpieces of the establishment Left, generally speaking, and that are completely in the dark as to their lack of sway over the incoming generation of politically active members. It’s safe to say we’re not the generation of evening news and newspapers. More accurately, we’re the generation of YouTube commentary and political memes.

The Right is flourishing in this Generation Z environment. A growing list of political personalities and icons have greatly helped in rallying teenagers to the movement and intriguing them in the first place. And it’s amazing the kind of collective hunger there is for longform political discussion that doesn’t necessarily orient itself squarely in either the Right or Left camp (think The Rubin Report). YouTube allows young people to stumble upon frank and oftentimes cogent political discussions. Intrepid questioning goes on in this arena, genuine questioning that one would be hard-pressed to locate in traditional media. It is often in such corners of the Internet that many young people are able to confirm their hunches about what they are witnessing in the public sphere. Maybe, for example, they’re disillusioned with modern feminism and they find that, well, it does indeed appear to be fraught with hypocrisy.

Snarky political memes juxtaposed with the unpretentious, honest commentary accessed via YouTubers are two examples of the shifts in the mediums of political information that Generation Z frequents that many media execs are miserably unaware of.

There’s also something to say for political polarization being aided by modern media algorithms which naturally are incentivized to direct users to content that aligns with their previous viewing habits. As such, it is not difficult to imagine how this could compound tentative opinions into steadfast ones, for example. Human beings, after all, have a tendency to want to be strong and solid in their beliefs and so, in a way, modern technology has a way of catering to this innate desire.

Though still, the Internet is a sprawling expanse of perspectives and beliefs, a sort of wild frontier. It’s a veritable free market of ideas (though we could disturbingly be nearing the end of this golden age). It’s a worldwide bulletin board, a place where people can tack up their opinions and invite their fellow humans to comment, critique and approve. It’s a democratic space teeming with the whole spectrum of political beliefs.

The truth is, the Left seem to have pushed the incoming generation away. Or at least Generation Z isn’t embracing it with open arms. I think young people went searching for an alternative. I think the labels that everyone found smeared all over social media (think ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘misogynistic’, ‘homophobic’, etc.) and generally, the totalizing, crushing language used turned a lot of these kids off, naturally suspicious teenagers that they were.

Finding Something Solid

Young people hate hypocrisy and despite the lack of age-acquired wisdom, they often can sniff out contradiction and hypocrisy pretty well, and importantly, they to. Due to not being ideologically deeply rooted at this point in their lives, they do have to look at things with more of a logos perspective, in contrast to their parents, for example, who might have been wedded to a particular side of the political aisle for many years.

Faced with the task of discerning what it is to believe in, it should be pointed out that Generation Z has never really faced a restriction of their freedom. Thus, we have not witnessed much of a clamoring towards from them, in large part because it was already there. I’m thinking primarily in terms of the abundance of information on the Internet. The sheer volume is, in some ways, profoundly overwhelming. I think, from this, we’re witnessing Generation Z’s desire to find something solid amongst this infinite sea of ideas to cling to. And wanting to cling to something solid is a noble thing to do — I don’t think we should make the mistake of suggesting there’s something regressive or cowardly, or, oh god, about this. Everybody wants to believe in . A belief system that feels credible and true and coherent is a human need. It’s a survival impulse. I picture my generation as wading through excess to find the stabilizing substance they are quietly hungering after.

Empathy and Reason

Statistically, empathy is declining. That immediately sounds bad, and well, in a lot of ways it probably is. Hear me out though: The platform of the Democratic Party is technically based on superficial empathy. They blazon empathy to cloak a host of sins. It’s used to justify unlimited immigration. It’s also used to justify affirmative action schemes. And I don’t think empathy as a political tactic is quite enjoying the clout it once had. Its persuasive power is stunted because people simply aren’t as completely enticed by empathy — and pathos, more broadly — as they once were. This doesn’t mean the Left has become ineffectual and has ceased to be a mighty political contender, far from it. But if younger generations are less dominant in empathy — and thus, less likely to use this impulse to guide their political allegiances — then that’s not something to overlook. Furthermore, the disconnect present in social media and the Internet has a way of turning one into a cool, detached observer, occasionally hardened but perhaps more prone to rationality and reason.

Current Events

A volatile economic and global safety climate may have engendered a particularly noticeable Generation Z desire to value safety and security, order and conservatism. The kids of this era hardly remember a time when terrorism was not a threat. And our childhoods were scattered with bits of financial paranoia. Sure, if you’re ten years old, you don’t really know what’s going on. But you can intuit a tenseness and a fear. If you’re ten, you can still pick up on the notion of adult fear and that leaves a fairly penetrating, indelible mark. Clashings in the Middle East added to the national turmoil. Much can be said of the cumulative impact such an environment would have on the children growing up in it. Again, this is only my humble speculation, but I do believe that growing up in a, technically speaking, unstable society may have created a desire for the opposite — stability. By the same token, the calm post-war years of the steady, orthodox 1950s may have prompted the emergence of a craving for something comparatively hence the insurrectionary phase that followed. When the times become too rigid, we want some danger. And when the times become too unstable, we crave order and stability. This is a pretty understandable dynamic.


The whisperings on the Internet of a rising interest in conservatism among Generation Z have led me to compile all of the musings you have just read. It will be interesting to see how my generation turns out as more and more cross the voting threshold every year. My intuition is that we may have on our hands one of the most surprisingly conservative generations we’ve had in a long time.

Lauren Reiff

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writer & aspiring therapist. forever in love with words