Joel Kotkin, the Presidential Fellow of Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., has written extensively on demographics, housing, and issues related to income inequality in the 21st century. Kotkin often blends research on demographics with historical reasoning, and he has chronicled the decline of California, a presage for the country as a whole. Recently he spoke with National Review about the future of Millennials and the Republican Party after Trump.
A moderate Democrat, Kotkin thinks that Republicans have “signed a pact with the devil” by embracing Trumpism. With Trump at the helm of the party, Republicans “can’t talk to Millennials, can’t talk to a lot of women, can’t talk to minorities, and can’t talk to immigrants” — the future electorate,” Kotkin said. “If the Republican Party cannot appeal to younger voters — or, not repel them with Trumpism — then the party won’t have a viable, long-term base.
How will the party relate to, and perhaps capture, a large swath of the Millennial electorate, before Millennials go all in for the Democratic Party? Kotkin thinks the messaging and policy from a post-Trump Republican Party should “focus on upward mobility.”
According to Kotkin, one problem constraining Millennials is homeownership. In his 2019 article “Property and Democracy in America” Kotkin notes that “by 2016 homeownership among people aged 25–34 dropped from 45.4 percent in 2000 to 37.0 percent in 2016.” The drop, however, does not reflect the demographic’s preference for homeownership. An Apartment List study found that nine out of ten Millennials want to own a single-family home, but only 4.4 percent have prepared to do so within a year. Millennials are less likely to become homeowners compared with their parents, according a 2018 Urban Institute report, which cites several external barriers to homeownership among Millennials, including high rental costs, unstable labor markets, and college debt.
Kotkin fears that, without property and other tangible assets, Millennials and Zoomers won’t flourish economically and nurture the liberal values that have guided the United States through times of peace and prosperity. Rather than buy into the economic system, these generations may default to unprecedented, soul-sapping, and potentially disastrous policies to remedy economic anxiety, such as a universal basic income or a Green New Deal.
“I’ll live in an apartment. I’ll smoke pot. I’ll watch my plants grow. I’ll play video games. If you have that kind of population, if you have young people who feel they can never really advance, then there’s no future for conservatism at all,” Kotkin said.
It’s not only the conservative movement. Kotkin warned, “If there is no trajectory for upward mobility, there is no hope either for conservatism or my kind of ‘middle of the road.’” The moderate wing of the Democratic Party, he adds, has already been “hijacked” by two sects — oligarchs and social-justice radicals — whose aims have grown increasingly disconnected from the goals of ordinary, middle-class Americans.
In his latest book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, Kotkin argued that billionaires and cultural tastemakers are concentrating too much wealth and power, leaving too little for the working and middle classes. “The oligarchy and Wall Street really want state corporatism. They don’t want antitrust laws, and they don’t want any attempts to reindustrialize,” Kotkin said. “They want more financialization.”
Millennials and Zoomers without college degrees or connections or proper credentials might struggle to break into tech, finance, and other industries in an information-age economy. This estrangement, Kotkin argues in his book, contributes to a young generation’s “emphasis on social justice through redistribution and subsidies” and “does not increase opportunities for upward mobility, but instead fosters dependency while consolidating power in a few hands.” Hence, nearly half of Millennials now have positive views of socialism, which does not auger well for America’s future.
Throughout many of his articles, Kotkin has laid out policy ideas that might ward off feudalism. In the American Affairs Journal, he recently advocated more investments in roads, ports, gas pipelines, and high-speed Internet, to spark growth in underdeveloped areas of the American heartland. “The resurgence of the Heartland is critical,” he writes, “if only because it is the one part of the county best suited to incubate the kind of growth that benefits and expands the middle class, while spreading wealth more evenly.” Millennials, no longer able to afford housing and living costs in dense, blue cities, might find prosperity in states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, and North Carolina.
Kotkin also defends single-family zoning laws in “Americans Won’t Live in the Pod,” at the American Mind. Single-family zoning laws, he argues, are “the one protection homeowners possess against unwanted development.” A political party that can defend suburbia, while also advocating its expansion in the Heartland, can open doors to many working and middle-class Americans. “Property remains key to financial security. . . . Homeowners have a median net worth more than 40 times that of renters.”
If a post-Trump, pragmatic Republican Party, either in the near future or down the road, can focus on providing Millennials and Zoomers affordable single-family homes, more space, more property, and job growth within diverse industries, then the rising tide of radical socialism may yet dissipate.