Harvard survey reveals libertarian streak among youth

Last week, Harvard University's Institute of Politics released its 25th “Survey of Young Americans Attitudes toward Politics and Public Service,” providing valuable insight into the political mindset of the millennial generation. Conducted biannually since 2000, the poll traces 18- to 29-year olds’ dispositions on various hot-button issues of the day, with a sample size of 3,000 in the fall and 2,000 in the spring. While no survey is an absolute authority on the fluctuating opinions of a society as diverse as the U.S., Harvard’s last two seem to signal that young Americans’ attitudes are moving in a more libertarian direction, seeking fiscal discipline and social tolerance from their policymakers.

First and foremost, Harvard’s latest polls points to strong disapproval of the Obama administration among millennials. A mere 47 percent approved of the president’s job performance as of April, down 11 percent from his high of 58 percent in November 2009. Furthermore, a majority disapproved of how the president has handled all eight policy categories they were asked about — climate change (51 percent), the economy (61 percent), Iran (59 percent), health care (59 percent), the federal budget deficit (66 percent), Syria (62 percent), student debt (60 percent), and Ukraine (59 percent).

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As for policies the youth would support, the April survey unsurprisingly points to a wide array of opinions on a number of contentious issues. The poll asked respondents to judge how effective six proposals would be “at reducing the gap between the rich and everyone else,” and not one received a majority of support. Millennials are starkly divided on policy efforts to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, increase access to high-quality preschool, make it easier for workers to join unions, increase the percentage of low-income parents who get married, allow parents greater school choice, and reduce workplace discrimination.

Fortunately, not every proposal points to a stark divide among the youth. A number of the surveys’ policy prescriptions emphasizing fiscal discipline and social tolerance received majorities of support, revealing a libertarian theme. Regarding fiscal discipline, Harvard’s November 2013 survey reported 58 percent support for reducing food stamps to 2008 levels and limiting the program’s growth to the rate of inflation. The same survey also showed strong support of reducing military expenditures, with 51 percent approval of decreasing the Navy fleet to 230 ships and 70 percent of lowering the nuclear arsenal to 1,5000 warheads. Regarding social tolerance, Harvard’s April survey reports 66 percent support of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes and 61 percent responding that “a friend’s sexual orientation is not important to me.”

Democratic partisans may interpret the results as proof of a liberal uprising among the youth, pointing to the fact that 52 percent of respondents hold a favorable view of Hillary Clinton as opposed to Chris Christie’s mere 21 percent. However, a separate question about voter affiliation indicates a desire for solutions outside of the two-party system. According to the April poll, more millennials identify as Independents (38 percent) rather than Republicans (25 percent) or Democrats (37 percent). To put this in perspective, 32.6 percent of respondents identified as Independents for the survey’s first edition in 2000 — a 5.4 percent growth of the group over the past 14 years.

This increase only corroborates what many of us in the student libertarian movement have seen with our very own eyes over the past few years — a growing demand among the youth for fiscal discipline and social tolerance. My employer, Students For Liberty, is a testament to this shifting paradigm of millennial politics. Our flagship international conference has grown from 100 attendants in its founding year of 2008 to 1,300 in 2014. That’s a larger turnout than both college Democrats and college Republicans roundup for their annual conventions. Clearly if either party wants to capture the shifting terrain of youth politics, they should heed Harvard’s results by embracing policies conducive to both fiscal and social liberty.

Given is an editor for Young Voices, a project aiming to promote millennials’ policy perspective in the media.