Thursday, February 25, 2010

The "Next New Dealers[?]"

That, minus the question mark, is the title of an interesting piece by E.J. Dionne. It touches on a question I’ve been circling around for the last couple of weeks, namely: to what extent does the content of liberal ideology remain constant across generations of self-identified liberals? Here’s Dionne (my emphasis):

“Young Americans are the linchpin of a new progressive era in American politics. So why aren't Democrats paying more attention to them?

"The relative strength of conservatives in American politics since the 1980s was built on generational change: Voters whose views had been shaped by the New Deal were gradually replaced with the more cautious souls who came of age after FDR.

"Then the Millennial generation came along. The Millennials -- generally defined as Americans born in 1981 or after -- are, without question, the most liberal generation since those New Dealers, and they could transform our politics for decades. But this will happen only if progressive politicians start noticing their very best friends in the electorate.” 
Let’s stipulate to Dionne’s premise that the popularity of ideological brands varies across generations. It follows that, since the liberal brand enjoys its highest present popularity among the Millennials, liberals would do well to devise a political strategy that keeps them on the liberal bandwagon. And liberals should be terrified by the polling results that Dionne cites showing that “the Millennials' ‘enthusiasms’ have ‘cooled’ – ‘for Obama and his message of change, for the Democratic Party and, quite possibly, for politics itself.’"

But what counts as effectively “paying more attention” to Millennials? That depends on whether you think that the popularity of the liberal brand among them implies a commitment to their liberal grandfathers’ values. To put it in terms I’ve used before: does the fact that Millennials are more likely to call themselves liberals than people in other generations mean that more of them share, Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman and John Dingell’s bedrock values?

Liberals are betting the ranch that it does. They’re spending the political capital they’ve accumulated from the Millennials on healthcare reforms that substantially redistribute wealth from young healthy people to older sickly people (through an individual mandate, legally preempting most private insurance underwriting, etc.). If you ask me, that’s not an unreasonable burden to impose on Millennials, inasmuch as most of them will become beneficiaries of that inter-generational transfer as they age. But I’m old enough to have trouble remembering that I used to hum along when the Who sang “I hope I die before I get old.”

Reagan’s conservatism wasn’t much like the conservatism of people who opposed the New Deal with its fixation on balanced budgets. The supply-side conservatism he sold to a new generation was a “new and improved” product for people who'd lived through the stagflation of the 1970s. Why are liberals so confident that they can sell old ideological wares to new people?

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