Friday, March 11, 2011

Walker Awakens a Sleeping Giant

The use of a legislative maneuver by Republicans in Wisconsin to accomplish Governor Scott Walker's efforts to strip state employees of their collective bargaining rights may have caught Democrats by surprise, but the ultimate result of the actions of Walker and his GOP allies may have been to awaken a sleeping giant.

For the first time in decades, driven by the emergence of the Millennial Generation, the nation's youngest politically active generation (born 1982-2003), the public is as positive about labor unions as it is about business corporations. Pew research findings show that, in the private sector, Millennials side with unions over business in disputes by 51% to 37% and, in the public sector, favor unions over government by a 56% to 32%. These attitudes are reflected in recent surveys showing that both within Wisconsin and across the nation Americans favor the public employee unions in their dispute with the governor. In fact, largely due to defections from Republican union members, one recent survey suggested that Walker would lose a reelection vote to his 2010 Democratic opponent if a new election were to be held today.

In a recent Pew survey, nearly equal numbers of Americans were favorable toward labor (45%) and business (47%). This is in sharp contrast to the Reagan-Gingrich era of the 1980s and 1990s when the public was more positive about business than about labor by margins of around 15 percentage points. The Millennial Generation accounts for almost all of the narrowing of this gap. Millennials are positive about labor unions by a 2:1 margin (58% favorable to 29% unfavorable). The young cohort is far less positive about business corporations (49% favorable to 43% unfavorable). Although in the wake of the Great Recession, older generations are less positive toward business than they were a decade or two ago, they are still narrowly more favorable toward corporations (46% each favorable and unfavorable) than toward labor (42% favorable to 44% unfavorable).

The Millennials' endorsement of labor unions does not simply stem from a supposed tendency of young people to always support the underdog or liberal causes. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, youthful members of the individualistic and entrepreneurial Generation X (born 1965-1981), and a key Ronald Reagan support group, usually tilted toward management in its disputes with labor. Rather, the Millennial Generation has positive impressions of labor unions because it is what generational theorists have labeled a "civic generation." Civic generations, like the Millennials and the GI or Greatest Generation are characterized by their group-orientation, their tendency to build, reform, and utilize societal institutions, and their belief in cooperative approaches to accomplish their own and the nation's goals.

At around 95 million, the Millennial Generation is the largest in U.S. history, but its full force has yet to be felt. In 2008, when Millennials preferred Barack Obama over John McCain by a 66% to 32% margin and accounted for 80% of the president's popular vote margin, they comprised less than one fifth (17%) of the electorate. In 2012, when Obama runs for reelection, Millennials will account for about a quarter (24%) of those eligible to vote. In 2020, when the youngest Millennials reach voting age the generation will comprise more than a third (36%) of American adults.

As we point out in our upcoming book, Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America, with numbers like these the emerging generation is about to reshape all aspects of national life, including the relative positions of labor and management in the U.S. economy and American politics. The last time a civic generation so thoroughly dominated American society, as the Millennials are about to, was in the 1930s when the GI Generation, whose numbers were equal to those of the two preceding generations combined, spearheaded labor's drive to organize the nation's industrial workforce. They were so successful that more than a third of all American workers were union members by the mid-1950s. In the decades after it fought and defeated the Axis in World War II, the GI Generation assumed positions of power and thoroughly shaped the nation's institutions, just as Millennials will do in the years to come.

In the Millennial era that lays ahead, public opinion and governmental policy will be more sympathetic to labor than they have been at any time since the GI Generation ran things. Given the preference of many Millennials for public and governmental service, public employee unions should find fertile ground for organizing and for maintaining public support for a level playing field between workers and employers. That is why Governor Walker's battle in Wisconsin and similar efforts in other states over the ability of workers to organize are likely, in the end, to fail and why the decades ahead are likely to be better for organized labor than the previous few decades have been.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Millennial Mosaic

Esperanza Spaulding photo by Andrea Mancini.

Esperanza Spalding, winner of the best new artist award at this year’s Grammies, personifies the ethnic trends reshaping America. She is a fresh-faced 27-year old jazz bassist whose very name portrays her mixed ethnic and racial heritage as the daughter of an African-American father and a Hispanic, Welsh, Native American mother. Spalding first gained her deep interest in music watching French-born Chinese American classical cellist Yo Yo Ma on “Sesame Street,” a TV program that has perhaps contributed to ethnic acculturation in the U.S. as much as any other institution. Spalding’s formal musical training was originally classical, but at age 15 she decided that her passion was jazz, itself a quintessentially American 20th Century fusion of black rhythms and the melodies of European immigrants.

The United States has gradually been becoming more diverse for decades, but Esperanza Spalding’s Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003) is most radically altering the nature of that diversity. The entirely senior citizen Silent Generation (born 1925-1945) is 90% white. Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) and Generation X (born 1965-1981) are a bit more diverse: 17% and 25% non-white respectively. In contrast, four in ten adult Millennials are either African-American, Hispanic, Asian, or of mixed race. Among all Millennials of high school age or younger, about half now come from what was once called a minority group. Moreover, according to the 2009 Census population estimates, the under 18 population of Arizona, California, Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas is majority-minority with Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Jersey, and New York poised on the brink of that benchmark.

In 2008 the Census Bureau made these demographic trends “official” by forecasting that the United States will become a majority-minority country around 2040. By 2050, with an estimated 46% of the population, non-Hispanic whites will still remain the country’s single largest racial group, but Hispanics (30%), African-Americans (15%) and Asians (9%) will together comprise a majority of the U.S. population.

Generational theory, first developed by William Strauss and Neil Howe, offers important historical insights on what this new majority-minority America might look like. As we point out in our forthcoming book, Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America, we are in the midst of what Strauss and Howe have defined as a “fourth turning.” These periods have invariably been associated with the most intense social and political stress in US history: the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression. Civic generations, heavily populated by the children of large waves of immigrants, are more ethnically diverse than older generations, contributing to the ethnic and racial tensions that have existed during each of these time periods. At the same time, because civic generations are comprised of group- and team-oriented, conventional and institution building individuals, ethnic absorption and acculturation also increases during and just after fourth turnings as each civic generation matures. This is in sharp contrast to “idealist” generations, such as the Baby Boomers, that reject the mainstream culture and often form movements promoting ethnic separatism.

Ethnic tensions during previous similar generational changes rivaled those the country is experiencing today. In the run-up to the Civil War, the rabidly anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic American or Know-Nothing Party captured close to a quarter of the national popular vote in the 1856 presidential election,and more than a third of the vote that year in all of the states that eventually comprised the Confederacy. In the 1930s, as the civic GI Generation children of the Eastern, Central, and Southern Europeans who comprised America’s last previous great wave of immigrants came of age to help elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, his most virulent opponents claimed that the president was really a Jew named “Rosenfeld” and derided his program as the “Jew Deal.”

We see similar language in today’s discourse, at least on the fringes. Some extreme opponents of President Barack Obama accuse him of being foreign-born and a crypto-Muslim. In a more obscure way, if one searches Google for the seemingly innocuous phrase, “US majority nonwhite 2040,” two of the first three listings are from racist groups decrying this change and the third is from a liberal group advising the need to “understand” the fears of white people in a rapidly changing America.

Fortunately civic generation Millennials have many characteristics that lead to ethnic acculturation and absorption The Civil War generation was critical to absorbing the Irish into the American mainstream, in part through the role played by Irish detachments in the Union Army, something that helped the Irish overcome the charge that they were an alien Papist force set on undermining a free Protestant nation. Similarly, the GI Generation’s Poles, Italians, and Jews became acculturated during and after World War II, in part through their service in the armed forces or in the domestic war effort. In sharp contrast to the anti-Semitic charges leveled against FDR, commentators on all sides of the political spectrum describe America as a “Judeo-Christian Nation.” Foods like bagels and pizza, once available only in urban ethnic enclaves, became commonplace, sold by pizza chains started by Irishmen and Greeks, or bagels marketed by brands such as Pepperidge Farm.

In the current fourth turning, America’s newest ethnic minorities will also become acculturated and, in turn, shape the nation’s culture. A 2007 Pew survey indicates that while only 23% of first generation Hispanics speaks English “very well,” that percentage rises to 88% among those in the second generation and 94% within the third. At the same time, researchers at the University of California-Irvine and Princeton found that Latinos tend to “lose” their Spanish the longer they are in this country. This research indicates that although first generation Hispanics bring Spanish with them, by the second generation only a third of Latinos speak Spanish “very well.” By the third generation, that number drops to 17% among those with three or four foreign-born grandparents and to only 5% among those with just one or two foreign-born grandparents.

And, so as the United States endures the tensions and rancor of another generational fourth turning, it is important to realize that this too shall pass. Millennials will, as have other civic generations before them, redefine what it means to be an American in ways both more diverse and inclusive than older generations may be able to imagine or appreciate.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Victory for Egypt's Leaderless Revolution

As jubilant young Egyptians danced in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, celebrating the departure of their 82 year old former president, American television commentators immediately began discussing two issues that seemed to them to be of greatest importance: who were the leaders of the uprising and how did they use social media to bring down the reign of a thirty-year dictatorship? In doing so, they revealed the same type of inter-generational misunderstandings that cost Hosni Mubarak his presidency.

The revolution was successful because it had no leaders, only coordinators of bottom up energy. Its use of social media was brilliantly conceived to meld online organizing with offline action, not supplant it. The inability of older generations to understand the power of this new form of leadership among Egypt’s, and ultimately the world’s, young people suggests there will be many more such surprises in the future, both at home and abroad.

One of the first celebrities to emerge from the uprising, Wael Ghonim, made this point as emphatically as he could to CNN in the midst of the celebrations. “I am not a leader. The leaders are in Tahrir Square.” Not to be dissuaded, the interviewer then asked him if he was planning on entering politics. Ghonim wisely responded that all he wanted to do was go back to work for Google and some day meet Mark Zuckerberg, whose creation had enabled the activists to gain support for their revolution. That answer of course set off another media frenzy, especially on Twitter, about how this was only the first of many Facebook revolutions to come. It may be, but only if other young people read Ghonim’s promised new book, Revolution 2.0, and learn the organizational lessons it promises to teach.

This group of Egyptian under-thirty organizers learned an important lesson from the failure of their fellow generation’s protest in Iran. That uprising was shut down by Iran’s secret police, who used the protesters’ tweets and Facebook messages as a primary source of information on who should be arrested and imprisoned. In Egypt, the roughly one dozen technologically sophisticated middle class young organizers assumed the police were monitoring their communications and deliberately sent them scurrying to false protest locations, announced on their Facebook sites, even as selected members of their group were sent quietly into poorer neighborhoods to organize the groups who were ultimately successful in taking over Tahrir square.

All of these plans for offline action were hatched in secretive, in person meetings, many in the homes of their loving parents. In the same way that the 2008 Obama campaign used a social media site to provide a way for millions of its American Millennial Generation supporters to organize the on-the-ground voter interactions that propelled it to victory, these young Egyptians knew both the value and the limitations of social networking technology to effect huge social change.

Since 2008, these organizational lessons have been available to older leaders willing to see beyond their own generation’s perceptions of what it takes to lead change, but few have absorbed them. Malcom Gladwell continues to belittle the power of social media to create tipping points, as if demonstrating in the streets like it was still the 1960s is the only tactic to bring about change with any value. His fellow Boomer, Tom Friedman, who had previously mislabeled American Millennials as “Generation Q[uiet],” was hobnobbing with other clueless elites in Davos when the Egyptian revolution broke out and was completely surprised by events in the region of the world where he first developed his reputation as an astute observer. And of course the most obviously out-of-touch older leaders were President Mubarak and his sidekick, Vice President Omar Suleiman, who continued, right up to the day they lost power, to underestimate the ability of the youth of their country to channel the pent up desire of the Egyptian people for freedom and a new way of life.

It’s not surprising that the facility of young people in using new technology is the first thing older generations notice and comment upon when talking about “kids today.” Many older people, however, fail to look beyond those surface behaviors to the deeper values that now animate young people around the world. The belief of the emerging generation in democratic values, in the ability of people to govern themselves, free from dictation from above, and in the power of individual initiative to inspire collective action on behalf of the community’s greater good, determine the way young people use technology, not the other way around. All of those attitudes and values were in clear evidence in Egypt over the last few weeks, reminding those clinging to power and outdated perceptions of how to hold onto it, that a new generation has arrived. Like their civic-oriented counterparts in America eight decades ago, this century’s emerging generation has a “rendezvous with destiny” and will lead the world in entirely new ways into a new era.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why Most Americans Are Both Liberal and Conservative

American politics is consumed by a bitter, at times violent, debate about the overall role of government and specific governmental programs.Pundits often frame this divide in terms of geography (red states versus blue states), ethnicity (Hispanics and blacks versus whites), class (rich versus poor), or age and gender. Those factors matter, but seeing polarization only in terms of group versus group misses an important paradox about Americans: Most of us have both deep conservative instincts and liberal instincts.

This personal inner conflict need not calcify our national divide. Instead, it could form the basis for a new and unifying consensus or civic ethos. To do this, though, our political leaders must build on the quintessentially American politics of today's Millennials (those born between 1982 and 2003), who prize individual initiative at the local level to achieve national goals.

Why we look left and right at the same time

American political opinion looks in two directions – both left and right, or liberal and conservative – at the same time. Social scientists Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril were the first to use survey research to describe and analyze this paradox of public opinion that has always shaped US politics.

In their book, "The Political Beliefs of Americans" (1967), they maintained that Americans consistently demonstrate a conflict between their general attitudes toward "the proper role and sphere of government," (which drove the big GOP gains last November) and their attitudes toward specific governmental programs (which helps explain broad American support for "big government" programs like Medicare).

According to Mr. Free and Mr. Cantril, most Americans have conservative attitudes concerning the size of government, and liberal beliefs in support of programs to protect themselves economically. This leads majorities to favor smaller government, individual initiative, and local control while endorsing major governmental programs ranging from Social Security to student grants and loans.

Tensions go back to our founding

This tension has always been a part of American politics. The US Constitution was itself the product of fierce debate in the wake of the failed Articles of Confederation. The ingenious solution the Founders gave us was both a strong central government and equally powerful guarantees of individual liberty embodied in the Bill of Rights. Notably, that solution was largely the product of that era's young adults, the so-called Republican Generation.

Still, the Constitution didn't settle the question of the government's role in the economy and personal welfare. That wasn't resolved, at least temporarily, until the Great Depression, when Americans gave their strong support to FDR's New Deal programs. Again, it was that period's young adults – the "greatest generation" – that led the new consensus.

Small government, big programs

Such consensus, of course, doesn't erase our conflicting convictions. Even in the depths of the Great Depression, Gallup revealed this conflict between the public's programmatic liberalism and conservative ideology. On the one hand, large majorities believed that the government should provide free medical care to the poor (76 percent), extend long-term, low-interest loans to farmers (73 percent), and implement the newly created Social Security program (64 percent). By contrast, only a minority wanted the government to take over railroads (29 percent) and banks (42 percent), or limit private fortunes (42 percent).

In 1964, as President Johnson was announcing his Great Society initiatives, Free and Cantril, using the results of commissioned Gallup polls, determined that within the electorate, ideological conservatives outnumbered liberals by more than 3 to 1 (50 percent to 16 percent). But in those very same surveys, support for liberal government programs exceeded conservative opposition by a ratio of 4.6 to 1 (65 percent to 14 percent).

Using data from four of the Political Values and Core Attitudes surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center over the past two decades, we confirmed their research. Across four Pew surveys, from 1987 to 2009, ideological conservatives outnumbered liberals by a ratio of 3.5 to 1, but liberal supporters of specific programs outnumbered conservative opponents by a 2.2 to 1 margin.

In every Pew survey, there were always more conservatives than liberals regarding the overall role of government and a greater number of liberals than conservatives in support of programs designed to promote equality and economic well-being. In effect, the United States is neither a center-right nor a center-left nation; it is, and always has been, both at the same time.

Not surprisingly, voters who identify as Republicans have tended toward the conservative side of these two tendencies. And Democratic identifiers have leaned toward the liberal side. Although the gap between the identifiers of the two parties has widened recently, during most of the time since Free and Cantril first published their findings, the greatest number of both Democratic and Republican identifiers, as well as independents, has been ideologically conservative and programmatically liberal.

Moderates driven out

Today, driven by more liberal attitudes among the Democrats' young Millennial Generation and minority supporters, and the more conservative beliefs of the Republicans' older, white base, the leadership of the two parties is more polarized than at any time since the Great Depression.

For the first time ever, among Democrats in the House of Representatives, the liberal Congressional Progressive Caucus contains more members than the moderate New Democrats and conservative Blue Dogs combined.

Across the aisle, few congressional Republicans are willing to call themselves moderates, and liberals, once a meaningful bloc in the GOP, have entirely disappeared.

Despite these divisions, the leaders of each party must find a way to work together to synthesize both strands of America's political DNA – a belief in the importance of a strong national community and equality of opportunity as well as a strong desire to limit government's encroachment on individual liberty – into a new civic ethos that is broadly acceptable to most Americans.

Millennials can foster a new consensus

The belief of America's youngest adult generation, Millennials, in the efficacy of individual initiative at the local level to achieve national goals provides a basis for just such a solution. To once again bind the wounds of internal discord, our political leaders should adopt this approach and successfully appeal to the ideological conservatism and programmatic liberalism of the American people.

(This article appeared originally in the Christian Science Monitor)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Which Deficits Do Millennials Care About?

The nation’s capitol is abuzz with talk about deficits. The Republican co-chairman of the President’s Deficit Reduction Commission, Alan Simpson, a member of the aging Silent Generation (born 1925-1945), began the debate by lecturing his younger Baby Boomer (1946-1964) colleagues about the need for their generation, labeled by Simpson the “greediest generation,” to finally face up to their lifelong avoidance of responsibility and agree to painful reductions in their future retirement benefits and current tax preferences. The generation gap that has separated Boomers from their elders for decades appeared to be almost as wide today as it was in the 1960s.
The Commission’s confrontational conversation was all about money, devoid of any discussion about what kind of country America should become. By contrast, the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network,a think tank run by and for Millennials, released an equally important document, a Blueprint for the Millennial America.In stark contrast with the zero sum proposals being tossed around by older generations, the Blueprint’s focus was on America’s civic deficit-- the imbalance between what we need to do as a nation and the investments we are willing to make to retain our global leadership. The group launched its Think 2040 project, this past March, in order to “leverage our unique generational characteristics, transform our communities nationwide, and redefine the American dream,” in the words of its national director, Hilary Doe. Their vision, generated in a year-long discussion with over two thousand Millennials, focused on what type of country America’s youngest generation (born 1982-2003) wanted to inherit when it takes over the reins of power in 2040.
The participants envisioned an America “that continues to be a model for the world in terms of innovation, productivity, and strength… [and] a moral leader as well.” They wanted America to live by three core values: “a deeply held concern for equity, respect for the individual and society, and a belief in community empowerment and self-determination.” Together, these values, and the group’s vision, paint a picture that “uniquely represents the world Millennials aspire to create: more accessible, more equitable, more community-driven, more entrepreneurial, more inclusive, and better prepared to tackle the long-term challenges our country faces.”
Participants were appalled at the inequities of the country’s current educational system, “the foundation of our economy and democracy,” and placed its reform at the top of their list of priorities. They committed to changing the system’s unequal outcomes, but didn’t want American schools to “lose their essential creativity and civic function in an effort to meet federally mandated standards.” Rather, as part of their generation’s focus on acting locally to implement national goals, they favored “an eclectic mix of federal incentives and local power and creativity to revitalize American education.”
The Millennials who participated in Think 2040 approached America’s environmental problems with the same values that informed their broader vision. Because they believed that “environmental challenges fundamentally alter the texture of communities,” they proposed solutions that respected “the needs of America’s communities,” so that no one would be asked to “make sacrifices without fully considering the cost to communities across the United States.” To accomplish this goal, which clearly reflects the unique sensibilities of Millennials, the report prioritized the development and usage of renewable sources of energy above all other environmental solutions. The participants argued that “creating a thriving domestic market for renewable sources of energy, fostering a strong green-jobs sector, and achieving energy independence….was essential for the long-term health of the country’s environment and its economy,” as well as “maintaining national and global security and preserving biodiversity.”
Just as, after World War II, the previous civic generation, Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation, created “a system of global cooperation to promote human rights, poverty reduction, and conflict resolution,” these globally minded Millennials shared “an overwhelming belief that it is the moral duty of the United States to reduce global conflict by reinvigorating international institutions.” They pointed out that “the rise of genocide in the 20th century has led to a fundamentally different conception of America’s international responsibility,” to guide the country’s foreign policy. In their Millennial America, the United States would work “with its allies across the globe to promote sustainable development, capacity building, and community ownership, instead of invading and occupying enemy territory,” and use “defense, diplomacy, and development as equal pillars of U.S. foreign policy.”
At home, Think 2040 participants wanted “to build an American economy that supports and rewards creativity, ingenuity, and personal determination to succeed,” leading them to endorse banking reform, infrastructure investment, and turning the nation’s social safety net into a “trampoline.” Their government social safety trampoline would “lower barriers to entrepreneurship, enable workers to rebound in times of need, and combat intergenerational poverty by allowing children the opportunity to succeed regardless of their family challenges,” in order to produce an economy with greater upward mobility.
Exemplifying their generation’s penchant for combining high ideals with pragmatic solutions, the Blueprint’s action plan suggested Millennials “demand change, but act locally. Work to combat challenges, but do so from within the system. Create change, but not just through protest….What allows us, as communities, to overcome obstacles ... is collaborative action.” The report emphasized the need not only for high levels of civic engagement by the generation, but the need for reforms in the political system to reduce the role of money in elections creating “a more open, accountable, and democratic electoral system.”
Doe is confident of her generation’s ability to effect the changes the Blueprint advocates because “our shared experiences have made us socially empathetic, tolerant, informed, collaborative, engaged, innovative, entrepreneurial, effective problem solvers both capable and willing to work together to overcome the challenges that we face.” Unlike older generations that are ready to engage in pitch fork battles to protect their own perquisites and power, Millennials consistently look for win-win solutions to the challenges the country confronts. Perhaps, if more decision-makers in Washington listen to the voices of this generation so eloquently captured in the Blueprint, they will find a vision for the future that can point to a way out of the partisan gridlock that continues to poison U.S. politics as it has for decades.
Rather than judging the value of deficit reduction and other policy proposals based on the number of oxen they gore, we should judge each one by how much it contributes to building the kind of America we want our children and our children’s children to inherit. Based on that criterion, the Blueprint for the Millennial America sets a high bar for the rest of the country to jump over.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Will Ideology or Pragmatism Rule American Politics?

Now that the dust from the midterm elections has settled, America remains just as divided as before on what type of governing approach it favors. As the LA Times’ Gregory Rodriguez, points out, if the United States “was a cartoon character, it would be a cheerful fellow with his head in the clouds and his feet planted squarely on the ground.”

To win the support of the public, America’s next governing consensus must encompass the nation’s highest ideals, while presenting realistic solutions to today’s challenges. In the short run, the ideological orientation of each party’s congressional representation will push both parties toward their ideological poles. Flush with victory, top House Republicans and strategists said, they saw “little distinction between incumbent members and those who would be joining them as freshman…both benefited from the Tea Party activism that helped them trounce Democrats” and said that “the support deserved to be rewarded”. Congressional Democrats, especially in the U.S. House of Representatives, are also more ideologically uniform than previously. Virtually all of the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (75 of 79) were reelected in 2010, as were a clear majority (40 of 68) of the centrist New Democrats. By contrast, a majority of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition (29 of 54) were either defeated or saw their open seats won by Republicans. Together, these changes meant that, for the first time since these organizations were formed in the 1990s, the Congressional Progressive Caucus was larger than the Blue Dogs and New Democrats combined.

The magnitude of the Republican victory was impressive, but constituted more of a continuation of the type of partisan political volatility the country experiences during periods of great generational change than a massive shift of America to the GOP and conservatism. A Pew survey taken just before the election indicated that the distribution of party identification within the electorate was little different in 2010 (49% Democratic to 39% Republican) than it was in either 2008 (51% to 36%) or 2006 (47% to 38%), two years in which Democrats won sweeping victories at the polls.

Nor did Election Day exit polls show a clear endorsement of GOP positions on key issues. Only half of the voters (48%) called for repeal of the Democratic healthcare reform law. About the same number (47%) wanted the law left as is or even expanded. Only four in ten voters (39%) favored extending the Bush-era tax cuts to all Americans, including those with incomes greater than $250,000. By contrast, a majority endorsed either the Obama administration’s position of extending the tax cuts to only those with incomes below that level (37%), or the even more liberal position of letting the tax cuts expire for everyone (15%).

Moreover, exit polls indicated that although the Democrats lost some ground among almost all demographics, the composition of the two party’s coalitions remained largely unchanged. The votes of Millennials (55% Democratic to 42% Republican), African-Americans (90% to 9%), and Hispanics (64% to 34%) were only slightly altered from what they had been in 2006 and 2008. The Northeast (53% to 45%), the West (49% to 48%), and the nation’s cities (56% to 41%) provided a firewall that helped the Democrats retain control of the Senate.

The GOP did strengthen its position within its core constituencies, winning solidly among men (56% Republican to 42% Democratic), as well as in the South, in rural areas, and among senior citizens, all of which voted Republican by about 1.5:1 margins. The Republicans were also able to split the women’s vote which they had lost in previous elections, primarily due to massive support from female senior citizens who voted 57% to 41% in favor of the GOP, even as younger women retained their Democratic allegiance. Geographically, Republican gains came predominantly in the Great Lakes watershed where the GOP won at least 25 new House seats, or about 40 percent of their pickups.

The Republicans also made major gains in America’s suburbs, where the greatest number of Americans of all ethnicities and generations, including Democratic-leaning Millennials, African-Americans, and Hispanics, now live. Obama narrowly won the suburbs, 50% to 48%. In 2010, the GOP carried them even more decisively, 55% to 42%. Democratic losses in the suburbs were particularly great among white voters who had not completed college and were among those who had been most hurt by the Great Recession. The party able to win over suburban voters with a message that is both ideologically and pragmatically appealing will gain the strategic high ground in the battle over the nation’s political direction in 2012 and beyond.

One of the reasons for this shift in the makeup of the 2010 electorate was a drop in the contribution from Millennials. Turnout among those 18 to 29 years of age was comparable to previous midterm elections: 23 percent of all Millennials eligible to vote did so, slightly more than in 2002 but a point less than the 24 percent turnout in the 2006 midterm elections. Those Millennials that did vote preferred Democratic candidates in almost all contested elections and approved of Barack Obama’s handling of his job as president by a 60% to 40% margin. In contrast to all other generations, Millennials remain overwhelmingly Democratic and liberal in their political orientation.

If the 2008 election was a victory for young Millennials, the 2010 midterms represented a triumph for senior citizens. A big part of the increase in votes for Republican candidates was inspired by the Tea Party movement’s older supporters. A solid plurality (40%) of 2010 voters claimed to be Tea Party supporters and nearly nine in ten (87%) of them voted for Republican house candidates. The GOP’s clear emphasis on ideological themes, built around concerns about the nature and scope of government, inspired its frightened and frustrated base to turn out in record numbers to prevent what it perceived to be a dangerous drift toward liberal hegemony.

In the end, however, most of those who voted in 2010 had little good to say about either party. Almost identical majorities among those who voted had an unfavorable opinion of the Democratic and Republican Parties. Reflecting the opinions of some of their Tea Party supporters, even one-fourth of Republican voters expressed a negative perception of the GOP

So, in spite of the internal structural forces impelling both the Democrats and Republicans toward ideological uniformity, the new ruling party will be the one that most effectively integrates their party’s ideology with the country’s demands for solutions that work. That party will need to appeal both to those who embrace the ideals of individual freedom but also understand the need for a pragmatic program of collective action, integrating national purpose with individual choice. Shaped by some of the most profound demographic changes in American history, the key to future success for both the Democrats and Republicans will lie in synthesizing these two strands of America’s political DNA. The party that most effectively accomplishes that goal will be the dominant political force in the Millennial Era for the next four decades.

Friday, October 22, 2010

America's a Different Country

With less than two weeks to go in the unpredictable 2010 elections, many pundits have been left scratching their heads and admitting that they really have no idea how this election is going to turn out. Nate Silver, today’s most careful analyst of election statistics and forecasting, examined a variety of indicators and concluded that there were more closely contested and hard-to-predict congressional races this election than ever before. The biggest reason for this uncertainty is that America’s electorate is changing as fast as the country’s demographic and generational characteristics are, challenging old assumptions about how politics works in America.

In 1965 the nation was 89% white and 11% black, about the same as it had been during the previous century. Since then, high levels of Asian and Latin immigration have produced an America today which is 66% white and 33% “people of color,” a tripling of the minority population in only four decades. Remarkably, 10% of Americans are of Mexican descent and about 5% of the electorate speaks primarily Spanish. For the first time in US history a president of mixed race, who considers himself to be African-American, resides in the White House.

The second big demographic change is the emergence of the largest, most diverse generation in American history, one which will dominate the political and cultural life of 21st century America as much as the Boomers did in the late 20th century. The Millennial Generation, born from 1982-2003, is sometimes condescendingly referred to as the “youth vote,” but it should be more accurately recognized as the biggest and most important new voting cohort in America. There are about 95 million Millennials, about half of whom are now of voting age. One out of four eligible voters in 2012 will come from this generation and more than one out of three voters will be Millennials in 2020.

Every two years the percentage of non-whites, along with Millennials, in the American electorate is increasing. Non-whites will grow from 33% of the population today to 50% by 2042. As these populations grow, a new political reality will take hold in areas altered by their increased participation, especially in the Southwest and coastal areas of the country. The power of these population shifts to upend conventional political wisdom was demonstrated by Barack Obama’s victories over heavily favored establishment candidates in both the Democratic primary and the general election in 2008.

These demographic transformations are changing the political loyalties and beliefs of the American electorate. Democrats now have their largest lead in national party identification since the early 1960s. In a recent Pew survey, only 15% of Americans claimed to be completely unaffiliated independent voters, while about half (48%) identify with the Democratic Party and 37% with the Republican Party. By contrast, in 1994, the last time in which a newly elected Democratic president faced a midterm election against an aroused GOP, the two parties were tied in party identification at 44% each. This Democratic advantage is due in large part to Millennials and Hispanics who identify as Democrats by a 2:1 margin over Republicans.

Survey data also shows that most Americans continue to favor using government to address their economic concerns and societal challenges. This summer, in a survey conducted for the progressive think tank, NDN, a clear majority (54% vs. 31%) of Americans favored a government that actively tries to solve societal and economic problems rather than one that takes a hands-off approach--numbers virtually unchanged since Barack Obama’s inauguration. More recently, only 29% of those surveyed this fall told Pew they wanted all of the Bush-era tax cuts to remain in place, while a majority (57%) preferred either that those on the wealthy should be allowed to expire or that all of the Bush tax cuts should end. Forty percent of adults told an Associated Press survey they didn’t think the new health care law went far enough, while only 20% felt the federal government shouldn’t be involved in healthcare at all. These pro-government attitudes are likely to grow as more and more Millennials enter the electorate. By a 60% to 36% margin the generation favors a bigger government providing more services over a smaller government providing fewer services.

Rather than being surprised every two years by the changing politics of a nation altered by a rapidly changing demography, pundits would be wiser to anticipate that American politics is going to keep changing and evolving every two years, and will never again look like the politics of the 20th century. In the shorter run, the operative question in this year’s midterm elections is the extent to which the major components of the 21st century American electorate make their presence felt at the polls in November. President Obama, who is concentrating his final campaigning efforts on college campuses and minority neighborhoods, clearly recognizes the challenge—but also the rare opportunity—presented by the 21st century electorate. His success in energizing these newest members of the Democratic Party’s base will determine the still uncertain outcome of the midterm elections. But the longer term direction of American politics will clearly continue to be driven by the demographic and generational changes now sweeping the country.