Recession-Era Americans Could Radicalize Democrats

Americans who have come of age in the middle of the recession want big government again.

New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio delivers a news conference on the steps of City Hall in downtown Manhattan, January 5, 2010
New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio delivers a news conference on the steps of City Hall in downtown Manhattan, January 5, 2010 (William Alatriste)

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 the latter 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 writes in The Daily Beast.

End of an era

Beinart, a former chief editor of The New Republic and 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 as well as 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, certainly exacerbated those very problems.

Few Democrats agreed, but many of them recognized that Reagan had shifted the center ground in American politics to the right.

Heirs to Reagan

In order to win election a decade later, Bill Clinton needed 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 seem as if they didn’t.

Among them 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 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, all 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.

“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.

Generational conflict

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 provide a social safety net.

While public education spending hit a 25-year low in 2012 — causing the share of households with student debt 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 writes.

No such thing ever exists. But it is producing a distinct intragenerational argument, 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 want 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 young Americans have a favorable view of socialism.

They are also socially more liberal than the Reagan-Clinton generation on every “culture war” issue except abortion. Most support gay marriage, allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military and legalizing marijuana.

Pulled to the left

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 thriving 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, as well as Bill de Blasio’s victory in New York City on Tuesday, it does seem a new generation of Democratic activists is rearing its head and pulling the party to the left.

De Blasio’s triumph may be emblematic. Seeking to mend a “disparity” that has supposedly gone unaddressed through business tycoon Michael Bloomberg’s tenure, the city’s former public advocate proposes to tax incomes over $500,000 in order to fund universal child care.

He also suggests developers should be forced to build more affordable housing and vows to end a police “stop and frisk” policy that has angered minorities.

Bloomberg’s deputy characterizes 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 picturesque multiethnic family and his populist “soak the rich” rhetoric don’t remember what the policies he advocates wrought four decades ago.

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