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Generational replacement and the leftward shift of the Democrats

April 17, 2021 - 10:24 -- Admin

I’m trying to get the MS of Economic Consequences of the Pandemic finished by May, while chasing a moving target. Over the fold, I return to a favorite topic of mine, the role of generational change. I’ve spent a lot of time pointing out the silliness of most talk about generations, but in the process I’ve learned quite a bit about the nuggets of insight that can be mined by thinking in these terms.

Comments much appreciated. Happy for anyone to raise nitpicking points about typos. There are always plenty in my work, and even more when I’m in a rush. Of course, substantive criticism is always welcome and praise even more so.

The leftward shift of the Democratic party is largely a matter of generational replacement. Before developing this point, it’s worth distinguish this claim from the pop sociology of writers like Strauss and Howe, who divide the population into clearly defined generations, such as Boomers, Millennials and so on.

Most talk about differences between generations is nonsense, primarily consisting of repackaging cliches about different age groups: the laziness and irresponsibility of the young, the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old, and so forth. And the idea of sharp distinctions between groups like Boomers and Gen-Xers, X-ers and Millennials and so on is nonsense. Most of the time, differences in class, race and gender are far more important than the fact of being born in the same year, let alone the spans of 15 years or so taken to define generations.

But there are some experiences shared by members of a given generation that can make a permanent difference in the average characteristics of that generation (bearing in mind that these are only averages, with lots of exception). Among the most important of these is the state of the economy when people make (or fail to make) the transition from education to employment. Entering the labor force during a recession has permanent adverse effects on lifetime earnings, which flow on to social and political attitudes.

Political views formed in early adulthood are quite durable, particularly when they are the result of very good or very bad economic outcomes. The New Deal produced a generation with large numbers of lifelong Democratic voters, while the prosperity of the 1950s gave rise to Republican majorities in the Silent Generation [this term long predates the fad for Generational analysis kicked off by Strauss and Howe in the 1990s See also .

Until recently, the leading voices among Democrats and centrists came from a cohort whose views on economic policy issues were formed during the rise and seeming triumph of neoliberalism, from the early 1970s to the end of the 20th century. The ideal among this group was to be ‘socially liberal and economically conservative’, without going too far in either direction.

Rather than focusing on birth dates, it may be better to identify this cohort with a cultural reference. The TV apotheosis of ‘soft neoliberalism’, The West Wing, aired from 1999 to 2006, just as the times that created it were coming to an end. The character of Matt Santos, shown as being elected President, was apparently modelled on Barack Obama.

West Wing Democrats like Obama are now being replaced by a cohort whose members have experienced only the growing inequality and periodic crises of the 21st century. No one under 65 today was an adult during the chaotic years of the 1970s and early 1980s. No one under 40 can have any clear memory of the ‘end of history’ announced by Francis Fukuyama or the boom years of the 1990s. No one under 30 (with the exception of a few precocious teenagers) watched the West Wing.

Americans who came of age in the 21st century (millennials and Gen Z in the standard typology) have seen few if any positive outcomes from financialised capitalism. The century began with a recession caused by the collapse of a speculative bubble in ‘dotcom’ stocks, similar to the current bubble in absurdities like Bitcoin.

Although the first recession of the new millennium wasn’t severe, recovery was achieved only through the use of an expansionary monetary policy which sowed the seeds of its own destruction. In the context of an under-regulated financial market, low interest rates are bound to lead to speculation, unsound financial innovations[the vast majority of financial innovations are unsound], and then to disaster.

Even as the economy slowly recovered, the combination of growing inequality and greatly increased college debt left middle-class millennials with the prospect that they might never be as well off as their parents. For those without college education, whose real wages (on standard measures) peaked around 1980 this prospect is a grim reality. The boom in ‘deaths of despair’ is one outcome of this process. The result among Democrats [I plan to talk about Republicans in a later section] has been an abandonment of the 1990s rhetoric about ‘rising tides life all boats’, along with the implicit assumption that rising tides are generated by the gravitational pull of the free market.

A striking illustration of the shift is the ostracism of Rahm Emanuel, a special advisor to the Clintons, then Obama’s chief of staff and later Mayor of Chicago. Josh Lyman, arguably the central character in The West Wing, is generally assumed to have been modelled on Emanuel. While the Clintons and Obama continue to command plenty of affection and support, Emanuel is an outcast in today’s Democratic Party, whose attempts to secure a position in the Biden Administration were met with furious opposition.

This is not because Emanuel has changed his views, but because he has stuck to the same positions he held 20 or 30 years ago: close to big business, a promoter of the 1994 crime bill, hostile to teachers unions, and contemptuous of ‘liberal theology’. By contrast, Joe Biden, who shared many of the same positions then, has shifted left along with the party as a whole.

[As with all generalizations, there are many exceptions. As the saying has it, the exceptions prove (that is, test) the rule. So it’s worth looking at older Democrats who might seem to be counterexamples. The simplest case is that of Bernie Sanders, born in 1941. He is someone, like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, who formed leftwing views in the 1960s and has stuck to them. More interesting is Elizabeth Warren, who underwent a substantial change in her views as a result of her research on bankruptcy – a rare and admirable example of responding to evidence. Finally, President Joe Biden appears as someone committed to being a centrist Democrat, and following the centre of the Democratic party wherever it leads him.