Millennials Tell Us What Their Political Ideology Means to Them


As discussed in an earlier post, 30 percent of millennials say they are moderate, 25 percent liberal, 14 percent conservative, 7 percent libertarian, 7 percent progressive, and 17 percent say they are "something else." To better understand what these political labels mean to millennials, they were asked to use their own words to explain why they describe themselves as a liberal, moderate, conservative, libertarian, or progressive. The results indicate that social issues largely define these terms, particularly for liberal millennials.

Here's what we found:

Why Do you Describe Yourself as Liberal?

Coding and categorizing self-identified liberal millennials' responses revealed that only 32 percent explained their beliefs in terms of conventional (social and economic) liberalism. For instance, one of those 32 percent wrote:

  • "I believe in government making lives better for those less fortunate, public funding for education and science, progressive taxation, and for complete personal freedom on social issues."

Nearly the same amount of liberals (33%) explained their beliefs only on the basis of social tolerance, openness, and personal freedom. Many specifically identified LGBTQ rights as their primary reason for being liberal:

  • "I think of 'liberal' in terms of social issues, and I'm very open to other styles of living."
  • "I support same-sex marriage."
  •  "I don't even know if [being liberal] is accurate—I do not believe in social control."

Some of these social liberals exhibited strongly libertarian undertones, desiring little government interference in their personal lives:

  • "Because I believe individuals' rights are more important than the rights of the government."
  • "Because I believe people should have freedom to do what they want in their personal lives without government interference."

Many millennials' social liberalism was grounded in their conviction that all people should be treated with equal dignity, regardless of ethnicity, heritage, or sexual orientation:

  • "I believe in tolerance and diversity. I don't believe people should be discriminated against according to income, race, gender, sexual orientation, political beliefs, education, or heritage."

Both conventional and social liberals often emphasized that social issues mattered more to them than economic issues:

  • "I am more concerned about social issues and people's quality of life than economic issues."
  • "Although I'm on the fence regarding economic issues, my liberalism in social issues far outweighs my conservatism in economic ones."

Another 29 percent either couldn't or wouldn't explain why they are liberal. Often, they decided they were liberals because they really didn't like conservatives.

  •  "I really don't know, I just don't agree with conservatives, so I am the total opposite, which I see as liberal."
  • "While I find myself disagreeing with most Democrats I know I find myself further disagreeing with conservative policies. Particularly social policies."

The remaining six percent of liberals said they had both liberal and conservative views. (See Appendix 3 for a full breakdown).

Why Do you Describe Yourself as Conservative?

Unlike liberal millennials, the plurality of conservatives (24%) used their label based on both social and economic issues. As one respondent explained:

  • "Hard work and determination should determine your status in life [and] not leaning on a nanny state which is where we are headed if we are not careful. I believe this country ran well for many years without any help from big government. We do need government but limited. It has way too much power right now, and in history time and time again that never ends well for the country or the people of the country."

Another 15 percent of conservatives explained their label only in terms of economics and the size of government:

  • "I don't believe in raising taxes, I believe in less government control."
  • "Government is only good when it's limited and restrained. Constitution is the law of the land. My rights are not for the government to regulate."

Both conventional and economic conservatives often based their labels on fairness, believing everyone should pull his own weight and that government should not foster dependency:

  • "I believe if a person doesn't work they shouldn't eat."
  • "I support rights of citizens to responsibly live their own lives, instead of relying on government mandates, and government funding to decide what we do all while overtaxing us to fund the citizens who have realized that they can live more comfortably off government redistribution of my income than by working themselves."
  • "I don't think the government should have control over the people, and make us dependent on them."

Another 15 percent of conservatives expressed their views in terms of social conservatism, religious traditionalism, and skepticism of change:

  • "I actually have morals and live by the Bible"
  • "I don't support views that are outside the social norms."
  • "I believe that there is more to be learned from traditional social constructions than in the innovations and experiments put forth by contemporary society."

A considerably high share of conservatives, 43 percent, did not know how to explain why they are conservative or chose not to do so. The remaining three percent of conservatives said they had both liberal and conservative views. (See Appendix 3 for a full breakdown).

Why Do you Describe Yourself as Moderate?

Predictably, many millennials chose the "moderate" label because they have both liberal and conservative views on various issues (27%):

  • "Elements of conservatism and liberalism appeal to me. On some issues I'm fairly conservative, on others I'm fairly liberal."
  • "Because I feel like a mix between both sides, don't feel particularly strongly either way."

Some moderates were more specific about which liberal and conservative views they shared. Fifteen percent said they are not merely centrists, but are actually on the left on social issues and on the right or moderate on fiscal issues:

  • "[I'm] conservative on economic issues and liberal on human rights."
  • "I tend to like conservative views on economic issues, but I despise how conservatives view social issues. I prefer liberal views on social issues, but I don't normally agree with their economic views."
  • "I am a Business and Econ major making me very conservative on economic issues, but I am much more progressive on social issues."

Another 14 percent of millennials say they are moderate because neither the liberal or conservative label fits them.

  • "I'm not liberal and definitely not conservative."
  • "Because I don't really agree with either party."

The remaining 44 percent of moderates didn't know how to explain their label or opted not to explain it. (See Appendix 3 for a full breakdown).

Why Do you Describe Yourself as (Progressive) or (Libertarian)?

Millennials who self-identified as libertarian or progressive were more likely than their peers to explain the label in terms of economics.

Forty-one percent of libertarians explained their label in terms of both economically conservative and socially liberal views. Another 22 percent cited only economics and small government. The remaining 37 percent didn't know how (or chose not) to explain their label or said they had liberal or conservative views. Interestingly, libertarian responses were fairly consistent regardless of whether they identified as Democratic, Republican, or independent. Libertarians tend to believe people work things out without interference, both in markets and social norms, and that government should not prevent people from making choices or shield them from the consequences of those choices. Some adopted the libertarian label because they agreed with Democrats on social issues but with Republicans on economics.

  • "I believe in freedom. Full stop. I believe in free markets and free people. People should have the freedom to do business with whom they choose, to live their lives the way they choose and to have the opportunities that red tape severely limits. I believe in very limited federal government and limited state government too. Government exists to defend our innate liberties—not to tell us how to live, how to earn and spend our money or what morality to ascribe to." (Independent, Leans Republican)
  • "I have the philosophy that if you let things be, they will naturally do what they are supposed to. If you interfere with nature too much, you will corrupt it. That being said, you have rights as long as they do not take someone else's rights away or harm them." (Independent)
  • "I'm swayed to the democratic side mostly by social issues. I like a lot of republican economic philosophy on free markets." (Independent, Leans Democratic)

Among progressives, 43 percent described their labels based on their economic and social views, with a strong emphasis on change; 17 percent only explained in terms of social issues. The remaining 40 percent didn't know how or want to explain their label or had both liberal and conservative views. Progressives tend to view themselves as left of liberals and as individuals who value evolving social norms over preserving existing values. They have an optimistic view of government, believing it can make changes for the better, and are very distrustful of large business that they believe cannot be influenced by the people.

  • "Progressives believe in making the world a better place for all people not just some people. We believe that everyone should have freedom from discrimination, to vote, from want, worry, and fear. We believe that there are things more important in life than money and that the will and conditions of the majority should take precedent over the few. And we believe in using science and reason to judge and determine the best path forward instead of refusing to believe something because you don't want to. And most of all we believe in justice and progress and moving forward—not backward." (Strong Democrat)
  • "I believe in the ability of government to solve problems and to help people. I believe that we must always look forward and consider new and untried solutions to old and unsolved problems. I believe that civil liberties must be protected, that national defense should be just that: defense, that diplomacy is our most effective route to solving international problems, that all people are equal regardless of their racial, gender, ethnic, sexual, etc. identity. " (Strong Democrat)
  • "'Liberal' sounds too much like the lightweight Democrats who think they're radicals simply because they support gay marriage. I'm much more left than that." (Independent, Leans Democrat)

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To learn more about millennials, check out Reason-Rupe's new report.