Generational replacement and the leftward shift of the Democrats

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 early 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.

13 thoughts on “Generational replacement and the leftward shift of the Democrats

  1. I think your arithmetic’s a bit out on people under 65. Someone who turns 65 this year was born in 1956 and would have been 18 in 1974. The youngest Americans to vote for or against Reagan’s re-election in 1984 would be about 55 now.

  2. My own observations are in Australia. It may be that when we are teenagers we see older “generations”, and younger “generations”(?), with a laser focus. This was brought home to me in my thirty-f0ur years of teaching and/or tutoring teenagers. One of my students came up to me and said candidly: “You know the problem with all adults? They don’t smile often enough.”
    I also remember the American youths of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Watch the movie “WoodstocK”, made during this cult music festival in August of 1969. Held on a dairy farm some 65 km southwest of the town by that name, it was overwhelmed by people coming from New York in their thousands. They were supposed to be the “flower power” people from the Age of Aquarius. But when you look at who is filmed in the crowd this generalization does not stack up to close analysis. . They were all middle class twenty-somethings, mainly white, who were trying to be tolerant of what they heard on stage. Not just the music but all the public statements by the musicians like Joan Baez. and Arlo Guthrie. There were anti-Vietnam war songs, anti-establishment songs but also some country and western songs and even an environmental activists song by Canned Heat entitle “Going Up the Country”. Jimi Hendrix played the American national anthem like it had never been performed before nor since.
    Some of the “young Americans” at Woodstock in 1969, were the same ones who had early begun to riot on university campuses around the northern sates of the USA and in California. Their “sit-ins” and chants became news items all over the world where there was access to a TV set. One critic tried to dismiss this youthful activism as a weak attempt to appear cool to the opposite sex. But the police response was usually so harsh you doubt anyone would do it if they were not fully committed to “the cause”.
    That was the USA, or certain parts of the USA in the “Vietnam War period”. I went to university in Australia! Yes we had our state premier tell his driver to “Run over the Ba***rds” when university students protested around his car at their university. But mainly university campuses in the 1970s were pretty tame and largely conservative. The only political activism I actually witness happened in my first year at university when the President of the ACTU, Bob Hawke, came to talk in the UNSW Roundhouse. Most males of my age were keen for Gough Withlam to win the 1972 General Election. But it had little to do with our leftists views (non existent in most cases). Yes I hung around the Marxists as they made fun of the Stalinist and argued with the Leninist; but our group was tiny compared to the 18 000 students at UNSW in my day.
    As a teenager I noticed that adults were largely conservative and pro military right up until 1972. We had all got together with our parents in 1966 to chant “ALL THE WAY WITH LBJ”.
    As I got older the lines between generations blurred. For thirty-four years i had to communicate with school students between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Yes they changed, but then so did I change especially after the Olympics in Sydney in 2000.
    Now as an older man I see people older and younger with similar attitudes and values. But I no longer see them with the eyes of a teenager. Since I retired in 2011, I have not been able to use the ‘laser focus’ of my students. John Quiggin is right to cast doubt on the idea of a “generation gap”.

  3. I’d dispute that the Clintons are viewed with affection, at least by the younger left. Bill’s been under increased scrutiny for his inappropriate relationship with Lewinski, and Hillary, fairly or unfairly, is resented for failing to defeat Trump. Combine that with an overall dislike of neoliberalism and Bill in particular is not looked on very fondly.

  4. Overall, very good. I like the discussion and I think it is accurate. In reference to “the transition from education to employment” could it also be noted that this is the transition to household formation. Here, by household formation, I mean household formation by a couple intending to take a mortgage or long term lease and make a life together and also intending in many, not all, cases to have and raise children (by any of birth, surrogacy or adoption). I don’t mean the formation of student and unemployed households which are seen by most (not all) as an interim arrangement. I admit this definition follows our current cultural bias for nuclear families.

    By the above definition, household formation numbers are down and household formation is being delayed, delaying in turn financial, accommodation and emotional security plus the having and rearing of children. In many cases, full maturation as an independent (of parents) adult is being delayed to the developmental detriment and career development detriment of said adults. Having to look after your children is a great maturation pressure (with adequate supports of course) and practical training in considering the needs of others IF society gives the person a secure job or other income plus of course educational and developmental help to get there. Some of our young adults are being kept somewhat juvenile by these pressures which are not in complete etiology their fault (or we can say they of endogenous origin if one wants to avoid faulting and blaming individuals).

    I think it is critically important to give young, adult people full chances to become financially independent and emotionally independent of parents in seeking new adult friends and partners thus developing further and away from parents. This is a necessary, or at least highly desirable, personal stage of development. Denying young adults these life chances with a failed political economy system is bad for them and society at large.

  5. Seconded on Dan’s Q points about the Clintons. But I’d add that the left’s distaste for H. is based on more than just failing to beat Trump, including that she voted for the Iraq war, and is widely seen as a shill of the neoliberal lobbying-financial complex (so to speak). Not as roundly despised as Blair appears to be, but in the same vicinity

    One quibble I’d quib, in the second para of the excerpt: arguably generation-talk isn’t nonsense. It makes *sense* and, indeed, it’s because it makes intuitive sense that it’s so widespread, not to mention easy for lazy commentators to generate. It’s not nonsense, but it *is* specious rubbish, claptrap, and horseshit

  6. BTW, given your jeremiads against generationism, you might enjoy (film theorist) David Bordwell’s jeremiads against what he calls ‘reflectionism’ in art criticism, i.e. the practice of reading artworks as ‘reflecting’ some kind of Zeitgeist. His complaints about reflectionist readings, which appear often in popular media, are quite similar to yours about generational ‘analysis’ e.g. ‘These ideas enjoy an astonishing popularity. They are staples of movie journalism. The trouble is that they don’t hold up.’

  7. A very insightful article John on the US. Its interesting to reflect on the differences and similarities in the Australian story. Craig Emerson has some similarities to Rahn Emmanuel but the differences are interesting – particularly where Emerson has ended up. And who is the best Australian comparator for Laurie Summers? David Morgan? Ken Henry? We already know who the Antipodean Krugman is!

  8. @Jones – agreed on the sources of the left’s dislike of Hillary. I mentioned failing to beat Trump since that’s idiosyncratic to Hillary, while being a pro-war Wall Street hack (and to add to your list while tying back to The West Wing, pro-deregulation) is a broad trend of Clintonist neoliberals.

  9. hmmm,

    the big one (for me) is the change over point reached when children learned and used computers at school.

    for the first time ever, parents and older relatives had to ask those younger than them for lessons.

    cyber natives are new.

  10. “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.”
    It also had the Enron collapse which brought to light the corrupted accounting practices used by major corporations.

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