As Congress returns from its holiday vacation, it and President Barack Obama need to address a number of challenges facing the country from health care reform to jobs and what strategy to pursue in Afghanistan. How the Democratic leadership deals with these issues may well determine the future loyalty of an entire generation of new voters, and with it the future of the Democratic Party.
A recent study by two economists, Paola Giuliano and Antonio Spilembergo, entitled “Growing Up in a Recession,” suggests that experiencing an economic recession during the impressionable ages of 18-25 can have lifelong effects on a person’s attitude toward government and its role in the economy.The Democratic Party’s most enthusiastic and loyal new constituency, Millennials (born 1982- 2003), have had their young lives thoroughly disrupted by the current economic downturn. With their level of unemployment exceeding 25%, what is for other generations a Great Recession is for Millennials their very own Great Depression. Such an experience is likely, according to the new study, to increase Millennial support for policies that favor government redistribution of income and other liberal economic ideas.
However, Giuliano and Spilembergo also demonstrate that this same experience often makes young people less trusting of government institutions. Conservative columnist, Ross Douthat suggested recently that the difference between the Democratic New Deal loyalties of the GI Generation that came of age during the Great Depression and the greater Republican orientation of Generation X that experienced Jimmy Carter’s stagflation economy in the 1970s is the degree to which government dealt effectively with the economic crisis of their youth. “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.”
This raises the stakes for what Congress does in the next six months to new heights. Millennials, more than one-third of whom lack health insurance, will be watching closely to see if their needs are addressed in the final version of health care reform, something Millennials support to a far greater extent than any other generation. Of course, failure to pass meaningful reform may well deal a death knell to the emerging Democratic majority that the Obama campaign created last year.
But Millennials care even more about jobs and the health of the economy. A recent poll by Harvard's Institute of Politics found that the economy is unquestionably young people's leading concern, with 48 percent of respondents saying it was their top national priority. (That was more than twice the number of those who rated health care their top priority, 21 percent,with the war garnering mention by 10 percent of respondents.)With record unemployment among members of this generation, any jobs package the Congress puts forward must specifically meet the concerns and needs of Millennials. In particular, Congress must deal with the high cost of education,something Millennials still see as the ticket to future economic success; the lack of job opportunities even at the intern level for those just entering the work force; and the lack of access to fundamental job skills training that community colleges can provide to those ready to go to work soon.
While the Democratic leadership often believes that s today’s youth thinks about issues of war and peace in the same reflexive way that young Baby Boomers did four decades ago, Millennials are more likely to want to understand the mission and strategy for success in Afghanistan before making up their mind on whether or not to support a deepening American involvement in that conflict. With Millennials providing the overwhelming majority of front line troops, however Congress chooses to pay for that campaign, it must ensure that those who do go to fight are better equipped than the military force George W. Bush initially sent to Iraq.
The effectiveness of any legislation Congress adopts over the next six months will not be known for years but the way Congressional Democrats approach their policy decisions will be clear enough to Millennials. The stakes are large and will have long-reaching impact. If the decisions are made by cutting deals with special interest groups, none of which represent this generation and its financial concerns, or by compromising Millennial principles of equity and social justice, members of the generation are likely to sit out the 2010 midterm elections and wait for their favorite messenger, Barack Obama, to return to the ballot in 2012 before making their future preferences known. If that happens, the results in the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey last month will only be a prelude for a much bigger Democratic disaster next November. ) If, instead, Democratic leaders take off their generational blinders and recognize that the base of their party is now made up of an overlapping core of Millennials, minorities, and women and respond accordingly, they will help to solidify the Democratic loyalties of America’s largest generation for decades to come.