Camden: Study: Boomers are more polarized than Millennials

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Jim Camden is a columnist with the Spokesman-Review in Spokane. Email: jimc@spokesman.com.

As a card-carrying baby boomer, I naturally ascribe all the things wrong with politics to two things.

1. Millennials

B. The internet

It’s not that I pine for the days of smoke-filled rooms and long lines at the polling station on Election Day like some of my contemporaries. It’s just that I’m sure that we can’t be the cause of the polarization in the country. After all, God knows there wasn’t any polarization when we were young.

Unless, of course, you count the Civil Rights movement. Or Vietnam. Or Watergate. To which I would say none of those were our fault. They were all left over from, or caused by, previous generations.

From this political moral high ground, I have concluded that the fault lies elsewhere. Like all previous generations, I have decided to blame the generation of my progeny, the millennials, because some of them make it so easy.

After all, it was a millennial who came to the Legislature a few years ago to argue that being forced to put a stamp on a mail-in ballot was his generation’s version of the poll tax and possibly more onerous, because he and many of his University of Washington contemporaries had no idea where they could purchase a stamp.

It is millennials who usually have the lowest voter turnout, despite being targeted by such campaigns as Rock the Vote, and the lowest registration rate, despite the fact that they can register online and by mail, which is something their parents had to do in person at their age.

The internet, with its plethora of views and spews, seems like the obvious sledgehammer banging on the wedge pushing apart the fissures in the body politic. Why, a generation ago, a neo-Nazi wannabe might have to travel to Hayden to find like-minded lunatics. Now one need only type “alt-right websites” into the Google search box and get 657,000 options in the comfort of one’s basement.

But what I cannot blame on millennials or the internet, according to a recent study, is the nation’s political polarization.

Three researchers looked at different measurements of polarization that have been tracked going back to 1996. They sliced and diced numbers based on different age groups, and for use of the internet in general and social media in particular. They factored in regions of the country, education levels, gender and race, and came up with a mathematical formula with some Greek letters for variables that I’m not even going to pretend to understand.

But Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro — the authors of “Greater Internet use is not associated with faster growth in political polarization among U.S. demographic groups” — are from Stanford University, so I’ll take their word for it.

That darn remote

What they found, not surprisingly, is that internet use has gone up in each presidential election year through 2012, with those in the 18-39 cohort always ahead of those 40-64, who are usually way ahead of those older than 65.

The polarization levels for the different age groups varied with different elections.

For the 18-39 set, it went down a bit in 2000, up for the next two presidential elections, then down slightly for 2012 and leveled off for last year’s election. It climbed slowly for the 40- to 64-year-olds through 2012, then slacked off a bit.

But the key thing is that it was always higher for those older than 65 than for the other two age groups. Those who were ages 18 to 39 were always below the average for the population as a whole.

The data support the title of the study, that internet use isn’t tied to the growth in polarization, and old folks are more polarized than the young. It may become the new theory in politics, that cranky old people are responsible for polarization, maybe because they don’t know how to work the remote control well enough to switch channels when the attack ads come on during campaign season.

It’s just a thought. Not sure how the folks from Stanford could test for it.