America’s Republican Party is clearly divided between a centrist “establishment” that puts compromise and governing before ideological purity and an insurgent base that demands just that of its leaders.
Less clear is a similar split within the Democratic Party where ardent leftists are a tiny minority, at least among congressmen and governors. That may be about to change, Peter Beinart predicted at The Daily Beast last month.
Beinart, a former chief editor of The New Republic magazine and an associate professor of journalism and political science, believes the Reagan era in American politics is drawing to a close as a new generation has come of age at a time of economic uncertainty.
Ronald Reagan successfully challenged the New Deal consensus under which both major parties had accepted, to varying degrees, the premise that government should involve itself in the private economy and the private lives of citizens to tackle major economic and social problems. Reagan turned that premise on its head in the 1980s and argued that government intrusion had if not created, then certainly exacerbated those very problems.
Few Democrats agreed but many of them recognized that Reagan had shifted the middle ground in American politics to the right. In order to win election a decade later, Bill Clinton had to charter a “third way” between New Deal statism and the anti-government sentiment that had taken hold of not just the conservative base but the whole of Middle America. He did and would influence a generation of Democratic Party politicians whose environmental and social legislations were carefully designed not to expand government — or at least it seemed they wouldn’t. Among them today are former Newark mayor and newly-elected New Jersey senator Cory Booker, the Hispanic mayor of San Antonio, Texas, Julián Castro, New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo and, according to Beinart, President Barack Obama.
(Although The New York Times in 2010 described the president’s health reforms — which Republicans fiercely opposed because they would expand government — as the “centerpiece” in his “deliberate effort to end the age of Reagan.”)
On the right, politicians of the same generation include Louisiana’s governor Bobby Jindal, budget guru and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, Florida senator Marco Rubio and Wisconsin’s governor Scott Walker. All hail Reagan as their hero and model their policies on his.
These politicians, in their forties and fifties, came of age when Reagan and Clinton were in the White House. Their politics, argues Beinart, were shaped by both leaders. “The era of big government is over,” said Clinton in 1996. His pronouncement came in the middle of an economic expansion that lasted, almost without interruption, for more than two decades. The Reagan-Clinton generation instinctively thinks of small government and economic prosperity as two sides of the same coin. They were, after all, at the time they entered adulthood and formed their political opinions.
By contrast, the generation that is entering adulthood in the middle of America’s worst economic crisis in decades is more likely to blame government for failing to properly regulate the market and failing to provide an adequate safety net — especially for them. While public education spending hit a 25 year low in 2012, causing the share of households owing student debts to double between 1989 and 2010, young Americans are less likely than their elders to qualify for food stamps, tax credits and unemployment insurance, not to mention Medicaid and Social Security, programs that exist exclusively for Americans over the age of 65.
“This experience has not produced a common generational outlook,” Beinart admits. “No such thing ever exists. But it is producing a distinct intragenerational argument,” he believes, “one that does not respect the ideological boundaries to which Americans have become accustomed.”
Opinion surveys suggest he’s right. In 2010, Pew found that two-thirds of Americans under the age of thirty favors a bigger government with more services over a cheaper one with fewer services, a margin 25 points above the rest of the population. Nearly one in two has a favorable view of socialism.
Moreover, young Americans are more socially liberal than the Reagan-Clinton generation on every “culture war” issue except abortion. Most support gay marriage, favored repeal of the ban on homosexuals serving openly in the military and believe marijuana should be decriminalized.
What has galvanized young leftists more than anything else, however, is the perceived injustice of the nation’s largest banks having been bailed out at the taxpayers’ expense and prospering again while the rest of the country is experiencing a lackluster economic recovery at best — and without them having to account for their role in causing the 2007-2008 financial crisis. From Occupy Wall Street to the election of Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who now sits on the body’s bank oversight committee, and Bill de Blasio’s victory in New York City’s mayoral election on Tuesday, it seems a new generation of Democratic activists is indeed starting to rear its head and pulling the party to the left.
De Blasio’s triumph — he led his Republican opponent by up to 45 points in the polls — may be emblematic. Seeking to mend a “disparity” that has supposedly gone unaddressed through businessman Michael Bloomberg’s tenure, the city’s former public advocate proposes to tax incomes over $500,000 to fund universal child care. He also suggests developers should be made to build more affordable housing and vows to end a police “stop and frisk” policy that has angered minorities especially.
Bloomberg’s deputy characterized De Blasio’s agenda as a “U-turn back to the 70s” when a bloated city administration, economic anxiety and rising crime helped elect the conservative Democrat Ed Koch. Problem is, the young voters who are so enchanted with De Blasio’s multiethnic family as well as his populist “soak the rich” rhetoric don’t remember what the very policies he advocates wrought four decades ago.