A Generation in the Balance
Do downturns create Democrats? The Great Depression certainly did: The generation that came of age in the 1930s has cleaved to the Democratic Party like no population before or since. And it makes intuitive sense that experiencing a recession at a formative age could inspire lifelong sympathy for the party of the welfare state and lifelong suspicion toward the party of free markets.
In a recent paper, “Growing Up In a Recession,” Paola Giuliano, an assistant professor of economics at U.C.L.A., and Antonio Spilimbergo, an economist at the International Monetary Fund, offer statistics to back this intuition up. Looking at over 40 years of survey data, the authors report that Americans who experienced “macroeconomic shocks” between the ages of 18 and 25 were more worried about poverty and inequality across their voting lives, and more skeptical about the wisdom of the market.
These findings track with the results of the 2008 election, when a cratering economy helped Barack Obama win an extraordinary landslide among young and first-time voters. And they provide grist for the liberal hope that the rising generation will prove as enduringly Democratic as that of their Depression-era grandparents, with George W. Bush playing Herbert Hoover to Obama’s F.D.R.
But the study shouldn’t make liberals too cocky. The authors find that growing up in a recession can encourage conservative instincts as well. Downturns make young voters distrustful of unfettered capitalism, yes. But they also make them less confident in the federal government.
This finding may explain why recent recessions have actually ended up pushing America rightward. The stagflation of the 1970s, for instance, and the hapless liberal response, helped usher in Ronald Reagan’s revolution. (The cohort that grew up with Reagan is the most staunchly Republican in modern history.) The slump of the early 1990s bolstered Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign — but it also gave a boost to the fiscally conservative populism of Ross Perot, and then to the Republican wave of 1994.
Recessions, it seems, only benefit liberals when an activist government is perceived to have answers to the crisis. When liberal interventions seem to be effective, a downturn can help midwife an enduring Democratic majority. But if they don’t seem to be working — or worse, if they seem to be working for insiders and favored constituencies, rather than for the common man — then suspicion of state power can trump disillusionment with free markets.
Among voters at large, that’s what seems to be happening at the moment. Nothing the government has done across the last 12 months has inspired much public confidence. Of the billions poured out in bailouts and stimulus, a substantial share has gone to privileged insiders and liberal interest groups — Wall Street bankers, auto unions, public-sector employees. Beltway Democrats have spent months laboring on an enormous health care bill that feels irrelevant, at best, to the continuing unemployment crisis. And Obama and his advisers overpromised on the stimulus package, whose economic boost, while real, remains imperceptible to a nation coping with a double-digit jobless rate.
Meanwhile, the regions hardest hit by the current downturn are places where liberals have dominated for generations, and where government is overextended already. (Of the 10 “States in Fiscal Peril” featured in a recent Pew report, nine went for Barack Obama in 2008.) Even if the residents of California or New Jersey or Illinois wanted further expansions of government, there isn’t any revenue to finance them.
So voters are turning rightward instead. In New Jersey, a recent Quinnipiac poll found that 61 percent of voters favored laying off state workers to reduce the current budget shortfall; only 23 percent favored raising taxes instead. Nationally, the percentage of Americans who say that government is doing “too much” hit a 10-year peak this fall. In 2007, 69 percent of the public said that government should guarantee universal health care; now that number is down to 47 percent.
The silver lining for liberals, though, is that this rightward turn hasn’t touched younger voters yet. With 18- to 29-year-olds, Democratic identification remains high, and Obama’s approval ratings are still up over 60 percent.
This suggests that a Depression-style realignment, in which today’s youthful “Obama Democrats” are still voting for hope and change (and grumbling about George W. Bush) in 2050 and beyond, remains within the Democratic Party’s grasp.
But even the young will need to see results eventually. And the more that Democrats flail in the present, the more likely it becomes that the Great Recession will be remembered as the time when liberalism let the future slip away.