There is a Thanksgiving tradition in my family of splitting everyone up at dinnertime. There is a kids’ table and an adults’ table.
The joke at the moment is that some of the so-called kids are now in their 30s.
The Williams family tradition now extends to the American political family. There is a big split between the generations on politics and voting, while as recently as the 2000 election there was no generation gap in American politics, with virtually no difference in voting patterns by age.
Today, the split between young Americans, their parents and grandparents is as glaring as the difference between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. It extends to their votes but has its roots in racial, economic, religious and demographic differences.
People younger than 18, who make up a quarter of the population, lean heavily toward the Democrats. Combined with adults up to age 35, they form the heart of today’s Democratic coalition and include far more minorities, immigrants and children of immigrants than the nation’s senior population.
People 65 and older are fast increasing their share of the population, which is already at the historic level of more than 15 percent. The seniors are overwhelmingly white, they lean Republican and at the moment they are far more politically energized about voting than the people at the kids’ table.
These seniors are being joined by the baby boomers, people aged 47-64, who increasingly tell pollsters they hold conservative views.
The differences at this year’s Thanksgiving tables will be obvious from the start. According to a recent Gallup poll, older Americans are much more likely than younger folks to say a prayer to begin their Thanksgiving dinner.
The poll found 73 percent of Republicans saying religion is important to their daily lives. That’s much higher than the 59 percent of Democrats who make the same claim. Similarly, 40 percent of Republicans say they go to church once a week, compared to only 27 percent of Democrats.
The more conservative people at the adults’ table worry about the folks at the kids’ table. A George Washington University/Battleground poll found that only 21 percent of Americans think the next generation will do better in terms of earnings; two-thirds said they will do worse in economic terms.
There are racial differences between the tables as well. In 10 states, racial minorities are now a majority of the younger-than-18 population, and in another 12 states they make up more than 40 percent of the population. In fact, the majority of babies born in the United States are minorities.
When the dinner table conversation this Thanksgiving turns to politics, the divisions between the tables become a canyon.
The 18- to 30-year-olds, a group called “Millennials” by the demographers, strongly prefer Democrats over Republicans — 50 percent to 36 percent. Among these “Millennials,” a Pew poll found President Obama favored for reelection, 61 percent to 37 percent. Across the room at the adults’ table, the seniors — a group the demographers refer to as the “Silent” generation — favor a potential Mitt Romney candidacy over Obama, 54 percent to 41 percent.
Somewhere in between the two tables are the “Generation X-ers,” people between the ages of 31 and 46. They are split pretty evenly between Romney and Obama. “Baby Boomers,” people aged 47 to 64, currently favor Romney by a slender 6 percentage points.
These splits lead political analysts to forecast a close election next November. But there is a problem at the young people’s table. They might not be talking politics over dinner. At the moment they don’t seem as excited about politics as the people at the other table.
Polls show just 13 percent of the 18-30 group are paying attention to politics these days. Meanwhile, people 65 and older are paying a lot of attention, with 42 percent watching every move on the political scene. The big change here is among the young people. In 2008, when Obama was elected, young people were more than twice as likely to be paying attention to politics as they are in current polls.
No matter what the conversation, there are some pronounced divisions between the two tables. The kids’ table is far more supportive of the Occupy Wall Street Movement while the adults’ table is more closely aligned with the Tea Party movement.
The difference between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party reveals a lot about the generational divide in American politics.
In addition, those older, whiter people at the adults’ table tend to be more extreme in their opinions. Gallup found 68 percent of Republicans identifying themselves as conservatives. Only 26 percent of Republicans said they hold centrist positions and a mere 6 percent were willing to call themselves liberal Republicans.
The Democratic-leaning young people include those who are caught in the tides of political events being tossed between liberal and centrist positions. Forty-two percent of Democrats today identify themselves as centrists, while 37 percent identify themselves as liberals. Only 20 percent of Democrats call themselves conservatives.
The bottom line is that the electorate and the Thanksgiving experience in America are changing in profound ways. This is not your father’s Republican Party. This is not your mother’s Democratic Party. This is the changing face of America. It makes for political turbulence between the Thanksgiving tables on issues ranging from interracial dating to gay marriage, as well as the impact of immigration on the country.
By next Thanksgiving, one of the two tables — adults’ or kids’ — will be celebrating a monumental political victory in the presidential race. At this point, it is hard to know where the national political conversation is going to go between now and then.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His latest book is "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) was released in July. The following column first appeared on The Hill.com .