This month's Atlantic carried an article by Molly Ball wondering if President Obama's electoral success at this formative time for millennials is going to cement the generation as Democratic voters for the rest of our lives.
"The Americans who came of age under FDR leaned more Democratic than the electorate as a whole for the rest of their voting lives. Many of today's oldest voters — who broke for Mitt Romney by a wider margin than any other age group — cast their first, formative ballots in the Eisenhower years … The Americans who entered the electorate during [the Reagan era] have remained disproportionately loyal to the GOP compared with voters overall."
My first thought was that if the U.S. still has these two shitty parties by the time I'm 50, there's no way I'll be living here. The next was that each of these three politicians experienced far more electoral success than Obama, and thus may not be comparable in terms of epochal groundswells. The lowest percentage of the Electoral College vote each of those presidents received was 81% for FDR, 83% for Ike, and 90% for Reagan. Obama's highest was 67%. He is a transformational figure in many ways, but he presides over a far more divided country than any of those men.
It seems foolish to predict our voting habits now. American political entities are at the outset of a very significant reorientation that could last the majority of millennials' working lives. Just as the Democratic stranglehold on the South was wrenched free over the course of decades, so could we find Obama supporters voting Republican in the future under the same beliefs they possess today.
There have been many articles on this site urging the GOP to return to its classical liberal roots. I believe the future of that party lies somewhere in such a reversion to Lincolnesque Republicanism. But what about the left?
George Will said it thus late last year: "Through all of American history, our politics has been about allocating abundance. Now, we’re allocating scarcity." In recent decades, the two-party system has functioned via a natural, binary fiscal relation: Republicans have wanted lower taxes and spending, Democrats have wanted more. As Will points out, spending was a good fulcrum when growth hovered around 5% like it did for the five years leading up to Johnson's War on Poverty legislation. In leaner times like ours, with government power and liabilities at unprecedented size, the left cannot continue to stand solely for the same solutions it once did. The party that once achieved its priorities through tax increases, hiked social spending, and big legislation, needs to change.
As a self-styled moderate progressive, I take umbrage at the typical Republican smear of "tax-and-spend liberals." To me, progressivism is about being open to new solutions, not married to the status quo out of fear or pessimism or bigotry like the right too often is.
Yet taxing and spending is exactly the goal of a group with the gall to name themselves the House Progressive Caucus, whose budget proposes $5.7 trillion in tax increases and $3 trillion more spending. While I'm confident that Pelosi and Co. align closer to what I consider to be the government's role than Mitch McConnell, do they really think almost six trillion dollars in additional taxes are going to solve education and endemic poverty? The left is notoriously bad at framing the debate, but if the word "progress" comes to euphemize confiscatory taxes and bloated spending, which it is doing, they're going to be abandoned by me and anyone like me. Wouldn't be the first time.
I have nothing against the concept of revenue increases or social spending, but if existing solutions are not working, progressives need to be prepared to progress on to other ideas. In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama proposed a freeze on government spending. Mostly cosmetic though the proposal was, it was lucid of Obama to seize on the momentum of lighter, smarter government. Senior Democrats were angry that pet social programs would be left vulnerable, but might it also have had something to do with a certain stodginess vis-à-vis spending? Might it have something to do with the same recalcitrance that keeps GOP troglodytes from budging on revenue? The next wave of liberal leaders needs to embrace the direction the President has tentatively hinted at: less legal clutter, more efficient government.
Elizabeth Warren offered a vision for such progress. In a 2012 interview with Ezra Klein, she bemoaned the complexity of regulatory law from a liberal perspective, as opposed to a business-first perspective: "No financial institutions want a simple Volcker rule. They want layers and layers of complexity because it’s in complexity that there are loopholes … The big push I made at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was simple rules." Regulatory simplicity from a liberal! After a health-care bill that stands taller than most NBA centers, where else is there to progress to but simplicity?
The reason it rings hollow that millennials are so easily predicted as lifelong Democrats, even more than the extreme political division of Obama’s America, is the fact that we're not typically brand-loyal. In their youth, my parents watched people proudly proceed along the GM product line as their status heightened, from Chevys to Oldsmobiles to a Cadillac if you were lucky. The closest thing to brand loyalty millennials recognize is Apple, and watch how long that lasts if something else becomes cool.
The same is true in politics. At a moment when party lines are being redrawn, millennials expect our relatively austere sensibilities to be reflected in Washington. I think we have enough innate cynicism about American politics that we wouldn't hesitate switching if it made sense. I expect the Republicans to morph into a more inclusive personal liberty party in the coming decades, but sparing another 180° revolution like the Southern Democrats', the GOP will continue to represent primarily the monied class. Those of us who are not satisfied with elitism as a political priority need an alternative on the mainstream left, but the departure from tradition promised by the "progressive" label needs to happen.