Last week, I read a number of political science papers that were pretty interesting to me. One that I thought was particularly fascinating was on the topic of generational politics. The thrust of this piece is that certain generations are so formulated by the issues that come to the forefront when they are young that they continue to vote on the basis of these issues for the rest of their lives.

Most individuals, when the nation is not in imminent danger (WW II, after 9/11), cast their ballot based on economic issues. If they favor more redistribution, they are more likely to vote Democratic. If they favor less, they are more apt to vote Republican. An interesting facet of this is that in virtually any race, this is a neat shorthand for the positions of the two candidates.

There are two cohort exceptions that people who care about this topic have previously discussed. The first is those who are of the age cohort from the Depression. For the rest of their lives, they’ve voted on the basis of their attitude to the New Deal, to a great extent. Actually, I think this is wrong. I believe it’s on the basis of the Al Smith candidacy, and the Republican reaction to it. The second is the Baby Boomers. Their issues that are argued to determine their future vote choice are the War in Vietnam and the panoply of social issues that still seem to arouse them.

The new contention is that another generation may have this same effect. My own name for this is the MTV generation. These people are divided, like the rest of us, on economic issues. However, on personal issues, such as gay rights or pot, they are bemused that the rest of us don’t see the obviousness (to them) of their positions. These effects show up in polling for each of these issues, where young voters are firmly in the libertarian camps. What makes this important is that if it turns out to be a generational effect, it can affect electoral fortunes for decades, as the rest of us lose influence.

Why I think that this is an MTV effect is that while I’ve remained immune to pop cultural references for most of my life, the only show I ever watched for awhile on MTV was The Real World. Every season, it seemed, one of the plots was that there was a gay ‘character’ and another who found gays anathema. By the end of the season, the latter individual would recognize the error of his/her ways and there would be a kumbaya moment when the one person would admit how wrong they were and the two would embrace. I’m unclear if this program is still on tv except on reruns, but its long term consequences may soon be felt by the rest of us.