Sunday, September 15, 2013

A thought for Sunday: Millenials and the emerging Democratic majority

- by New Deal democrat

[You know the drill. It's Sunday, and I get to mouth off on whatever I feel like. Regular nerdy economic blogging will resume tomorrow.]

Going on 10 years ago, Thomas F. Schaller wrote of an emerging Democratic majority in "Whistling Past Dixie." The last two presidential elections have shown the accuracy of that strategy, as Barack Obama put together electoral coalitions that did not require the Confederacy to win, although he got a few of those states anyway. This has literally been the first time since 1928 that the South has been relegated the losing side of national coalition politics.

But just as it took several decades for the GOP's "Southern Strategy" to achieve real dominance, so the shift towards the left in US politics is taking a long time to play out. Peter Beinart wrote an excellent piece on that shift, The New New Left," last week.

I argued this point with DHinMI back in my Daily Kos days, contending that Howard Dean was the progressive equivalent of Barry Goldwater, the trailblazer who lost badly but showed the way (including the solicitation of a multitude of small individual contributions, a strategy Obama also embraced in 2008 and 2012). I further contended that Barack Obama was a transitional rather than a transformational president, just as Richard Nixon embraced Keynesianism and established OSHA and the EPA even as he also started the rightward shift that came to fruition with Ronald Reagan. Beinart shows how this is happening in the traditional way -- that is, one funeral at a time.

Generations are not monolithic, but a 55/45 shift in political thinking in an age group can have a profound effect over time. The Silent Generation has traditionally skewed conservative, early Boomers liberal, and late Boomers and Gen X conservative. Now the Millenials are skewing liberal, and it is likely to have a profound effect on the center of gravity in US politics.

Beinart's analysis starts with the premise that:
[Political] generations [are] born from historical disruption.... [P]eople are disproportionately influenced by events that occur between their late teens and mid-twenties.... After that, lifestyles and attitudes calcify. For Mannheim, what defined a generation was the particular slice of history people experienced during those plastic years.
Indeed, this fossil has passed on the hopefully sage wisdom to many young people that "probably 90% of the most important decisions you will ever make will be made between ages 18 and 25. You just won't know it until much later."

And Obama's autobiography shows that his political viewpoint is classic late Boomer:
Obama, in describing his own political evolution, does that again and again: “as disturbed as I might have been by Ronald Reagan’s election … I understood his appeal” (page 31). “Reagan’s central insight … contained a good deal of truth” (page 157). “In arguments with some of my friends on the left, I would find myself in the curious position of defending aspects of Reagan’s worldview” (page 289).
This alliance of aging "Reagan democrats" late Boomers and Gen X is now the status quo ante:
For the past two decades, American politics has been largely a contest between Reaganism and Clintonism. In 1981, Ronald Reagan shattered decades of New Deal consensus by seeking to radically scale back government’s role in the economy. In 1993, Bill Clinton brought the Democrats back to power by accepting that they must live in the world Reagan had made. Located somewhere between Reagan’s anti-government conservatism and the pro-government liberalism that preceded it, Clinton articulated an ideological “third way”: Inclined toward market solutions, not government bureaucracy, focused on economic growth, not economic redistribution ....
But the broad economic stagnation that started when the tech boom crashed at the turn of the Millenium, and intensified into the worst Hard Times since the 1930's in 2008, has created a wholly different worldview among a majority of the Millenial generation:
[This has been] a genuine historical disruption. Compared to their Reagan-Clinton generation elders, Millennials are entering adulthood in an America where government provides much less economic security. And their economic experience in this newly deregulated America has been horrendous....

By 2012, data showed how economically bleak the Millennials’ first decade of adulthood had been .... But it was worse than that. If Millennials were victims of a 21st-century downward slide in wages, they were also victims of a longer-term downward slide in benefits.... 

[I]n addition to coming of age in a terrible economy, Millennials have come of age at a time when the government safety net is far more threadbare for the young than for the middle-aged and old.
Millenials have experienced the full fruition of the old-fashioned trickle-down conservative economic philosophy. The majority of them have decided that it has been a disaster for them, and are beyond convincing otherwise. An additional number of open-minded older voters have arrived at the same conclusion (and I have had detailed discussions with both types).

As the nomination of Cory Booker, a thorough Wall Street corporatist whose liberalism is that it is OK with him if your son is gay or your daughter has an abortion, shows, the progressive argument has a long, long way to go. But Beinart has made a potent argument that it is happening -- as I said above, one funeral at a time.