A recent Pew Research Center report on Generation Z (defined as people born after 1996) confirms that younger Americans tend to be more "liberal" or "progressive" on various social and political issues than earlier cohorts. But the definition of those terms is debatable and not necessarily coherent. Immigration policy, the excuse for the ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government, illustrates the complexities lurking beneath the labels.
New York Times reporter Dan Levin is surprised (or thinks readers will be surprised) to hear a 19-year-old college student who describes herself as a political conservative say "immigrants make our country richer." Levin says "the Republican party has moved farther to the right on issues like immigration," endangering its standing with young women like her.
Yet Pew's surveys, which included a sample of 920 minors as well as a sample of about 11,000 Americans 18 and older, found that attitudes toward immigration are very similar across generations. The share of respondents saying legal immigrants have a "somewhat positive" or "very positive" impact on the country ranged from 72 percent among baby boomers (born from 1946 to 1964) to 79 percent among members of the Silent Generation (born from 1928 to 1945), the oldest cohort for which data were reported. In the two youngest generations, 78 percent saw immigration as positive. The share who said "very positive" was highest among millenials (35 percent) but higher among the oldest generation (30 percent) than the youngest (28 percent).
Pew did not ask about illegal immigration, and there may be significant generational differences there. A Quinnipiac survey conducted last month, for instance, found that 18-to-34-year-olds were substantially less likely than older Americans to support a border wall.
Still, Ronald Reagan and likeminded Republicans of his and subsequent generations not only would have readily endorsed the proposition that "immigrants make our country richer"; they supported legalization of unauthorized residents and wanted to allow voluntary transactions between American employers and foreign workers, arguing that interfering with such arrangements was dangerously misguided. If Republicans are less inclined today to support such policies, does that mean they are more conservative than Ronald Reagan, or less? If conservatism implies support for economic freedom, the answer seems clear, and it is not the one the Times gives.
Another way of looking at the left/right divide focuses on the Pew question that asks respondents whether they think "government should do more to solve problems" or "government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals." Younger Americans are more inclined to pick the first option, which supposedly shows they are more "liberal" or "progressive." Yet when a Donald Trump supporter demands a border wall and increased enforcement to stop illegal immigrants and illegal drugs from entering the country, he is surely saying "government should do more to solve problems." He definitely does not think those issues are "better left to businesses and individuals." Likewise with Republicans who favor restrictions on abortion, prostitution, or gambling.
This tension has always been apparent in the positions of self-identifed conservatives, who usually claim to favor free markets but make exceptions for transactions that offend them. The nature of those transactions may change, such that the Republican president elected in 2016 wants to block the cross-border employment that the Republican president elected in 1980 wanted to facilitate. But that counts as a move to the right only if we arbitrarily say it does. Is Bernie Sanders more right-wing than Ronald Reagan?