Generational replacement and the leftward shift of the Democrats

by John Quiggin on April 17, 2021

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 https://psychology.wikia.org/wiki/Silent_Generation] http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,856950,00.html

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.

{ 49 comments }

1

marcel proust 04.17.21 at 1:56 am

No one under 65 today was an adult during the chaotic years of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Oh yeah? Says you. I turned 64 a couple of months ago, graduated from college in 1978, first “real” job a few months thereafter, etc., etc. May I suggest that you use a different cut-off, say 70? (Unless by “adult” you mean 25 or 30)

2

Dilbert dogcart 04.17.21 at 2:22 am

“lifts” all boats
Those with a sound hull that is. If yours has a hole you are gonna get wet.

3

Alan White 04.17.21 at 2:34 am

“No one under 65 today was an adult during the chaotic years of the 1970s and early 1980s.”

Did you mean 55? Clearly many were adults in that period by any measure who were my generational cohorts by age (I’m 68).

These generational distinctions seem to be a US/Euro popular culture thing and a strong function of the developments of media as influence on that culture probably from the inception of silent movies forward. Your intriguing West Wing mirror reflects that.

4

john burke 04.17.21 at 5:08 am

This: “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 ” feels off. I don’t have statistics at hand to test it, but surely Kevin Phillips’ emerging Republican majority wasn’t a sign of popular contentment but rather of racist resentment after 1964.

5

nastywoman 04.17.21 at 5:26 am

I hope you are aware that this reads a little bit like saying something and then arguing against it –
as – yes –
it’s differently ”trending” -(whatever) – in different generations –
with the exception of ”different dudes” -(one example Biden) who have learned something and now try ”to trend” the new stuff they have learned from ”teh younger generation” – and that includes dog training –
if you know what I mean?

6

John Quiggin 04.17.21 at 5:46 am

@1 & @3 A semi-typo. I started with early 70s, then went back and extended it but didn’t change the age group. I’ll get this right. Thanks for catching it.

@4 I haven’t read the book for a long time, but I think it was about Nixon’s Southern strategy, when Southern whites shifted from D to R. As I said, most of the time, race, gender and class are more important than age cohort.

7

nastywoman 04.17.21 at 6:13 am

and I should have mentioned that IT has and had a lot to do with ”traveling” and all of these new informations one gets by traveling -(instead just reading about it)
And so when it was tremendously trending that as an American – the trendy thing you do is travelling around the world – and you come to countries – where your (new) friend didn’t or don’t have to pay for their Education – or so much for their Universal Health care –

You might say too?

”Wow that’s really… cool”
AND
”I want that too”
and then you travel back to America and you tell your parents and even Biden – and then Biden also might say:

”Wow that’s cool – let’s try that here too…

8

J-D 04.17.21 at 6:49 am

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.

From the point of view of effective marketing strategies, the most important characteristic of people is how much money they have to spend; effective ways of marketing to rich people are different from effective ways of marketing to poor people. The lives of rich people are different from the lives of poor people; money makes a lot of difference. But a lot of rich people are reticent to acknowledge this, and so are a lot of marketers. Pretending that you can reduce people to the year they were born is one way of disguising the fact that what you’re really mostly reducing them to is their wallets. In this respect, those charlatans Strauss and Howe are doing the devil’s work.

9

nobody 04.17.21 at 7:09 am

An additional layer to this is the hardening of attitudes among younger Democrats makes them less inclined to give conservatives the benefit of the doubt. Older, establishment, Democrats are completely willing to give conservatives everything they ask for in the name of bipartisanship. In contrast, younger Democrats (quite rightly) recognize that the GOP is an autocratic movement that sent an armed mob to kill Democratic congresspeople are much less shy about telling the GOP where to stuff its desire for kleptocracy with neoliberal characteristics.

In the longer term, however, Republican attacks on American democracy[1] are such that the policy preferences of younger Democrats are unlikely to be relevant. By the time younger Democrats take control of the party, the GOP will have seized enough control over the political process to keep the Democratic Party out of power permanently. The shape of US politics from there is much more likely to be defined by decay, despotism, and (possibly genocidal) violence rather than by disputes over economic policy.

[1] Republican autocratic entrenchment, it must be noted, is something the Democratic establishment has been unwilling to treat as the existential threat to the Democratic Party that it is. In this, establishment Democrats have more in common with the GOP than the younger members of their own party.

10

derrida derider 04.17.21 at 7:46 am

This is VERY US-centric. Sure, that’s where the ideologies, the inequalities, the wage stagnation, the politics that you discuss are all most sharply marked. But unless you are making a commercial decision to go after the US market only (USanians often seem to think they’re the only country in the world) I think you need to distinguish US specific points from more general points about modern developed countries. The US experience is not universal.

Also, I think you have to acknowledge and explain somewhere that, whatever the arguments about their social and economic effects in developed coutries, on the record globalisation, finance capitalism and even neoliberalism have on balance massively benefited many of the world’s poor. It is not as clear as we lefties would like that the Washington Consensus was wrong; surely you are old enough to remember when many, many poor countries had populations that were actually starving – that only happens where there’s civil war now.

11

Tim Worstall 04.17.21 at 8:59 am

“No one under 65 today was an adult during the chaotic years of the 1970s and early 1980s. ”

Well, yes. It’s possible to mutter that old saw about financial markets. That the disaster will only repeat itself when the people who remember it last time around have just retired.

So, the joys of strong union power – just as a simple example – are coming back into fashion as those Brits who recall 3 day weeks, perhaps that glorious year of 1976 when the country was as equal as it ever has been, are fading over the hill.

It is the same point you’re making about generations and formative experiences of course, just leading to a slightly different conclusion.

Soon enough those who saw, first hand, the disaster of Gosplan style government direction of the economy will also be passing out of that sphere of political influence. Which is a joy to look forward to, isn’t it?

12

john burke 04.17.21 at 2:44 pm

“@4 I haven’t read the book for a long time, but I think it was about Nixon’s Southern strategy, when Southern whites shifted from D to R. As I said, most of the time, race, gender and class are more important than age cohort.”

No argument. I was reacting to what seemed to be an explanation of the D-to-R shift as an effect of postwar prosperity rather than of post-1964 racist resistance–and probably also of the erosion of that postwar prosperity. Not a matter of generations, but timing is important, and I think the D-to-R timing supports the second explanation better than it does the first.

13

Bob Savage 04.17.21 at 2:56 pm

Not so much a comment as a question. What are the political consequences of the staggering concentration of wealth and consequent inequality that we have witnessed over the past 40 or so years especially viewed through the lens of generational transfers of wealth. It seems to me we are entrenching inherited wealth and I view that as sclerotic at best. I imagine there are historical precedents to this.

14

J, not that one 04.17.21 at 4:28 pm

Since at least 1960, it seems to me, generations’ self-image follows a narrative about teenagers raised in families are like, how education transforms them, and how “real life” sorts them. This narrative shifts as generational change occurs, and both get more complicated, to the point where both seem essentially rhetorical to me now. Though that may just be a middle aged reaction on the order of “get off my lawn” (being just a few years too old to see truth as linguistic, myself—it will be interesting to see how long this idea retains its hold as “left” after earnest and striving undergraduates are taught it over several decades—the reverse, maybe, of the leftward drift of support for globalization and neoliberalism).

15

John Quiggin 04.18.21 at 12:22 am

@1BTW, I am 65 and entered the workforce in 1978, almost identical to your case. So I should have caught my own slipup

@11 I plan to make that point. We need to pay attention to what went wrong in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as why the neoliberal response was such a disaster. Aim is to avoid the cycles of error you mention

16

John Quiggin 04.18.21 at 12:24 am

@13 Just a few years before that, I think. Teenagers were invented in the early 1950s.
This source quotes J Edgar Hoover in 1953, just as the term was coming into common use https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2018/02/brief-history-teenagers/

I talked about this back in 2000 https://www.dropbox.com/s/4txb45t6ed8qnu8/Generations%200006?dl=0

As far as the role of younger age-groups is concerned, nothing much has changed since the discovery, or invention, of the teenager in the 1950s. The discovery resulted primarily from the arrival of near-universal high-school education, which suddenly created a uniform mass experience, with an associated set of common rituals.

17

rdbrown 04.18.21 at 12:56 am

Coincidentally at Stumbling and MumblingOn generational difference

Napoleon, then, was correct: “to understand the man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty.” Napoleon

Of course, not all 50-somethings share the formative experiences of my youth. David Cameron and Boris Johnson are around my age. But the 1980 recession looked very different from Eton than it did from a single-parent terraced house in inner-city Leicester. Napoleon’s point still holds. Class matters, as well as age.

We could extend the point. One reason for the generational divide over Brexit is that older folk who came to maturity before we joined the EU have the impression that we can do well outside the EU, whilst younger folk who have known nothing but EU membership see no reason to rock the boat.

18

Patrick 04.18.21 at 6:24 am

I doubt this narrative. I think that, much like the radicalization of conservatives, the radicalization of liberals is driven by the development of a media bubble. Not by real life experience, but rather by the lens through which that real life experience is framed by people mostly disconnected from the real life experiences they claim to have had.

19

Chris Bertram 04.18.21 at 7:36 am

I don’t know if this shows up in the data, John, but one relevant thing may be that people “come of age” at different times. When I was 16-18, the dominant image in the UK was of a Labour government in hock to the trade unions, mismanaging the economy and also introducing austerity measures. But the brutal deindustrialization didn’t come until the 80s under Thatcher and the Tories with their experiment in monetarism and public spending cuts. I stayed in education until 1984, and my perception was of cuts hitting higher ed and of a rather unfriendly job market. Someone born in the same year as me who hit the job market in 74-76, is going to have very different perceptions of how things were and who was to blame.

20

J-D 04.18.21 at 9:17 am

21

nastywoman 04.18.21 at 10:08 am

@nobody9
”By the time younger Democrats take control of the party, the GOP will have seized enough control over the political process to keep the Democratic Party out of power permanently”.

are you sure?
As I had my trip to ”teh homeland” now delayed three – times and I finally want to fly on Wednesday –

You think I shouldn’t? – as I really don’t want to fly to a country where the GOP will have seized enough control over the political process – as some of my (very progressive) friend just have ”seized enough control over the political process” and I really don’t like the GOP…

OR
are you a –
”nobody”?

22

Jonathan Monroe 04.18.21 at 1:25 pm

One interesting thing about the Reagan/Thatcher era “shift to the right” in both the UK and the US is that it didn’t involve a comparable shift in voter beliefs. (In contrast, I agree with JQ and most of the commentators that the current shift to the left does involve dead righties being replaced by 18-year old lefties)

In the US, the Southern Strategy wasn’t about turning left-wing voters into conservative voters – it was about turning southern conservative Democrats who were already comfortable voting for Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond into southern conservative Republicans. The centre-right + right was always a majority in America, the Republicans just needed to hold their coalition together, which Nixon and later Reagan did.

In the UK, Thatcher (and Major, although he did it on a higher-than-usual turnout) won with the same 42-44% of the vote that the Conservatives had been losing with in the 1960’s – what changed is that the British left became (and still are) completely unable to hold their coalition together.

23

Lee Arnold 04.18.21 at 1:42 pm

The increasing rapidity of technological, economic and social change since the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago has exhibited generational concomitants due to new careers beginning, adaptations & adoptions, successes and victimizations. The mass media has identified this generational process at least since the 1920’s Jazz Age. What hasn’t changed since then are the faulty institutional dynamics of finance capitalism and its deathdance with the two major blankslate alternatives, communism and fascism. This became evermore apparent with the recent financial crash and increasing inequality in the developed countries. Now a thousand podcasts, YouTubes and substacks are exploding with gaseous reiterations, reinventing the wheel from all sides. But the comprehensive synthesis of political economy has not much improved beyond the early institutionalists, in particular WC Mitchell & JR Commons.

We are going to need BOTH markets and social welfare institutions. Markets for the freedoms of choice and innovation, and for the dynamics of self-interest, profit, competition, allocation and substitution. Social welfare institutions for the freedoms of time and attention, and for the dynamics of reciprocity, altruism, risk protection, social growth and ecological preservation. BOTH markets and social welfare institutions save costs thus cause growth in different, complementary and necessary ways. BOTH have natural and endemic failures of different kinds; they both need fixing all the time.

Political parties that reject neoliberalism (defined as “everything should be marketized;” “the market is the best information processor”) and wrap their heads around the necessary co-equal combination of markets and social welfare institutions — and reiterate the need for BOTH in each and every sentence of rhetoric they utter — are the ones that will suceed.

24

John Quiggin 04.18.21 at 6:56 pm

@Chris A good point, which I was thinking about but couldn’t express well. I might put it into a footnote.

25

anon/portly 04.19.21 at 2:58 am

Perhaps a complication of this narrative is that it’s the voters who’ve been doing the best – upper middle-class whites – who’ve been moving left the most. This is the group Warren did well with in 2020, also I think Sanders in 2016, also the group most responsible for Biden outperforming Clinton against Trump.

26

N 04.19.21 at 5:00 am

The two Pew reports below from a few years ago do a nice job illustrating the differences between generation/cohort effects and time effects. For instance, their graph of attitudes towards same-sex marriage divided by generation illustrates nicely how overall variation in attitudes are about equally due to generational differences and attitude change within generations over time. Marijuana, by contrast, is less generational and more something that changed equally for everyone over time. And on the other hand, religiosity, marriage, and to a lesser degree partisan affiliation, appear to be more generational (ie, fixed for an individual and more a function of when they were born) and less likely to change within an individual over time.

So “largely a matter of generational replacement” is probably putting it too strongly. Depending on the attitude, changes in ideological distributions over time may be due to different mixes of generational replacement and within-generation attitudinal shifts.

https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2015/09/03/the-whys-and-hows-of-generations-research/
https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/07/09/the-politics-of-american-generations-how-age-affects-attitudes-and-voting-behavior/

27

bt 04.19.21 at 6:33 am

I’m at the tail of the boomers, born in 1960. Here’s my story.

I’ve never identified with the boomers at all. Their fantastic achievements and activism were already pretty stale in my youth, though it was clear that much fun was had. I grew up with stagflation, the (1st) Arab oil crisis, gas lines, the Iran hostage debacle, and de-industrialization, all of which combined to give us Reagan and the modern GOP, whose policies have made almost everything worse since then.

From my perch, Viet Nam is not what killed American prosperity of the post WW2 era, it was the toxic brew of a changing oil-baswed economy crashing into the toxic situation in the Middle East. This was the fulcrum that broke that system. We’ve been stuck in that zone ever since. Christ, Biden is gonna pull the troops out of Iraq AFTER 20 YEARS and it’s controversial? We are still living in that world that I grew up in, and it’s not the Summer of Love. It sucks.

Needless to say, I have no love for any of our “Friends” in the Middle East, not the Israelis, not the Saudis, not the Egyptians. We’ve been played by all of them and I’m sad for all the death and destruction America has been party to there. I feel that for most of my adult life our country has lived in a tortured state with these people. It’s been really harmful to the USA. I know we don’t have clean hands – look at what we’ve done to Iran – it’s not a surprise they don’t like us. I feel like we just need to quit them all, but we can’t.

I’m not sure how that fits into the leftward shift. But the times really do shape who you are and the things that happen when you are a young adult are very strongly remembered indeed.

28

Alex SL 04.19.21 at 7:11 am

nobody,

Regarding your footnote, the problem seems to be the human tendency to focus more on how you get ahead inside your organisation rather than on how to get the entire organisation ahead. A politician may not actually care about the threat that their party will never again win an election as long as the donations keep flowing and a cushy corporate contract beckons after leaving office.

derrida derider,

Not sure if it is that US-centric. Although individual elections and faces differ, the fact is that deregulation, privatisation, and wage suppression have wreaked havoc across most of the “Western” countries since c. late 70s/early 80s.

I am a 44 year old German living in Australia, and I cannot remember things ever getting better since I become politically aware, new shiny gadgets aside. Increasing precarisation of the workforce is a constant background noise, interest rates tend towards zero as wealth is unable to find any profitable investment beyond buying commodities and infalting the next bubble, and here in Australia the gulf between large numbers of people owning 2-3 investment properties and even larger numbers of people being increasingly unable to even afford rent is painfully obvious. I have never seen any reason to become more economically conservative than I was as a teenager, although supposedly that is the fate of all who mature.

I am also fairly certain that the majority view in my and younger generations is far to the left of political mainstream, whose position is largely informed by well-off, socially conservative, and reliably voting retirees. The question is if generational shits will ultimately matter, because the wealth of those retirees will ultimately be inherited by the next lot.

Jonathan Monroe,

I was shocked recently to realise that Thatcher had only ever got that little of the vote, given how fundamentally she then went on to change UK politics. The UK electoral system really is bananas, but not all other countries have that excuse. Pretty much all “Western” democracies currently face the problem of a block of c. 40% people voting the traditional centre-right party no matter what it does, even if it nominates a bag of potatoes as its top candidate or has been blatantly captured by the far right. Mass media in the hands of the modern Hugenbergs helps with that, and not sure what anyone can do about it.

29

J-D 04.19.21 at 11:07 am

Pretty much all “Western” democracies currently face the problem of a block of c. 40% people voting the traditional centre-right party no matter what it does …

Hmm. Which countries do you count as Western democracies, which do you count as the traditional centre-right parties, and how much checking of the figures have you done? I don’t know, but let’s look at some data without knowing the answers to those questions.

In Japan, the Jiyu Minshuto consistently receives under 40% of the PR votes; in the plurality voting for single-member constituencies, it generally gets over 40% of the vote but fell below that mark in 1996 and again in 2009.

In Germany, the combined vote for the ‘Union’ parties (CDU and CSU) has fluctuated around the 40% mark: often over it, sometimes somewhat under it.

In the UK, the vote for the Conservatives was well below 40% in 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010, and 2015.

In French presidential elections, the variously named Gaullist predecessors of the Republicans (as they are currently known) have not scored anywhere close to 40% of the vote in the first round since 1969 (but could naturally do better in the second-round two-candidate run-off, if they got into it). In legislative elections they have not been close to 40% in the first round since 1968, and in the second round have been well under that mark more often than over it.

In Italy, no single party has reached 40% of the vote since 1958.

In Spain, the PP has exceeded 40% of the vote only in 2000 and in 2011 and has often been well under that mark.

In Canada, there was a time when the Conservatives might get over 40% of the vote, but in recent elections they have fluctuated between slightly under 40% and well under 40%.

In Australia, the combination of the Liberals and the Nationals consistently receives over 40% of the primary vote (falling a fraction below that in 1998).

In the Netherlands, none of the existing parties has ever received over 40% of the vote; none has received over 30% of the vote since 1989.

Well, that’s nine examples: is that a fair test of the generalisation?

30

Lee Arnold 04.19.21 at 1:17 pm

John you write, “The leftward shift of the Democratic party is largely a matter of generational replacement.”

I think it is because the longer-than-a-generation arc of market fundamentalism, also known as neoliberalism (defined once again as: “everything should be marketized” because of the delusion that “the market is the best information processor”) has temporarily declined as the reigning ideological frontispiece of mainstream economics. “Temporarily” because it’s not dead yet, hoping for a revival just as soon as there is a generation that isn’t suffering the aftermath of the financial crash and can turn themselves behaviorally indifferent to inequality.

Economists seem to be touchy on the subject of their previous surrender but there is no denying that the Hayekian bafflegab, ushered along by heaping doses of Milton Friedman’s disingenuous cheerleading, became the public face of economics on the newspaper editorial pages and network TV commentators starting in the 1970’s, and John Kenneth Galbraith showed that any economist who opposed it would become a lonely quaint ineffective dismissed voice. Consequently more than a few of the 1960’s peace & love generation were soon primed to agree with “Get government off our backs!,” Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan, and in the 1990’s maybe 3/4s of the Democrats climbed aboard under Clinton.

The story, taken only that far, already shows our endemic conditions of: 1. generational change, 2. every generation’s limits in attention and cognition, and 3. malpractice and intellectual incompetence in the public presentational side of the economics community.

Today we must add: 4. a rightwing wrongfooted by the financial crash, thus 5. opening a public window for leftward correction no matter the age of the leftward advocate, but –and this is a very big but– 6. we have a new, further and perhaps permanent loss of authoritative legitimacy in the social media cacophony. Leftward gains could easily be lost in the next calamity, overwhelmed again by disingenuity.

So number 6 puzzles me. A better economics might emerge, if the mainstream profession weren’t tribalists and if they could find a comprehensive intellectual framwork. Two big ifs. But then, how will ANY attempt at creating factual authority fare in this new media age? Maybe the internet and social media now command a general confusion solely because they are new and shiny, but soon they will be regarded generally as just another tarnished old thing, mostly full of repetition and misleading information, sound and fury signifying nothing. Or maybe the siloed tribes will harden into heatseeking political parties, so that the final internet information authority is actually decided in the election voting booth.

In a democracy new leaders must arise from the demos, a fact the 1960’s protestors largely derided and forgot. Now the Millennials are frustrated and overwhemed: the economy hurts them and they need to find solid facts in an information cesspool. At the same time it may be that social media returns us all to the condition that authority in the political economy is simply determined by orators, a fact the ancients believed.

31

Tm 04.19.21 at 6:04 pm

Jonathan 22 makes an interesting point:
„ In the UK, Thatcher (and Major, although he did it on a higher-than-usual turnout) won with the same 42-44% of the vote that the Conservatives had been losing with in the 1960’s – what changed is that the British left became (and still are) completely unable to hold their coalition together.“

A similar observation holds for Germany. The Christian Democrats, the party of Adenauer and Kohl, received between 44 and 49% of votes between 1961 and 1990, without much fluctuation. In that period, the government changed from center-right to social-liberal (1969) back to center-right (1982) solely in response to the small liberal party FDP changing sides. The 1998 election, won decisively by an SPD-Greens alliance led by Schroeder, was the first time that an incumbent Federal government was unseated by an election defeat.
(Many readers will recall that Schroeder’s government was a disappointment for the left.)

32

J, not that one 04.19.21 at 7:10 pm

@16

I think though it’s probably in the 60s that teenagers were seen as other than “playing at childish versions of adult sexuality, etc., but with historically low levels of rights for their age” or “already permanently off the track and showing early signs of new types of criminality.” Both of those assumed a temporary stage on a normal path to an adulthood that would be the same as their parents’. It wasn’t until the 60s that it seemed obvious that normal 19 year olds would be on a path that led somewhere different from their parents’ lives, and better.

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John Quiggin 04.20.21 at 11:04 am

bt, like me you’re in Generation Jones. No war but an economic crisis to meet us leaving school

34

John Quiggin 04.20.21 at 11:08 am

J @ 32 The 50s Blackboard Jungle, Rebel w/o a Cause, West Side Story etc

35

J, not that one 04.20.21 at 1:43 pm

Bye Bye Birdie

36

Barry 04.20.21 at 2:01 pm

This a great discussion, John! Some of this may be repetitious, but:

1) The rise of the GOP was a matter of a major Democratic bloc – White Southerners – shifting parties, followed by a shift of those who were ‘anti-anti-racist’. It clearly was in full swing as of 1964, when a white South which had been Dem since there was a Dem party changed.

2) Generations are of course crap. I was born in 1960, so an theoretical a (white male) Boomer. My teens were the mid-late 1970’s, so more in common with early Gen X. If I had graduated from college on time, I’d have graduated in 1982, into the teeth of the worst slump since the Great Depression in the USA. I was in the Army at the time, and the change in recruits was dramatic, due to economics.

3) N, thank you for the Pew reports.

4) rdbrown, I think that another reason for the generational differences about Brexit is that the older are losing not that much, while the youth have had the next 60 years of their lives truncated. They went from being able to live, work, marry and retire in 28 countries to 1.

5) I’m amazed at the diffidence of the older Dem establishment, since the GOP’s actions cut very directly at their power. If it were old-style politics, the other party directly cutting out one’s own voters would be recognized as the direct threat that it was.

6) Tim, have you not noticed that yelling ‘Commie! Go back to Russia!’ isn’t working as well?

37

Barry 04.20.21 at 3:49 pm

Additionally, the idea that financial crashes appear when the people who lived through them as adults retire doesn’t match the recent data we have in the USA.

In the USA we had the Savings and Loan crisis, the Dot-com crash and the Great Financial Crash all in just over 20 years. There was some learning; I’ve heard that Texas rel-regulated some real estate matters after the S&L crash, and that this helped in ’08.

But it looks like a general tendency of cash-flush unregulated markets seeking higher gains, when there are several layers of actors involved.

38

J-D 04.21.21 at 12:17 am

In a democracy new leaders must arise from the demos …

The meaning of that is obscure in the absence of illustrative examples.

39

Tim Worstall 04.21.21 at 8:51 am

“Additionally, the idea that financial crashes appear when the people who lived through them as adults retire doesn’t match the recent data we have in the USA.”

The contention is that the same financial market problem recurs when the people who worked through the last iteration of that same mistake retire.

It’s entirely agreed that there are many possible mistakes to make. Financial markets will continue to make new ones. It’s that the old ones only come back when the institutional knowledge has retired.

S&L, dotcom and GFC are all different mistakes.

40

Lee Arnold 04.21.21 at 12:06 pm

J-D #38: “The meaning of that is obscure in the absence of illustrative examples.”

It is the tautologically-expressed premise of the following dependent clause. Together they allude to the fact that many of the best political and sociological minds forged in the 1960’s shunned democracy’s necessary requirement that they enter electoral politics to become leaders. This attitude is still with us today. At the time it was often buttressed with vaguely Marxian juvenilia about the endemic epistemological condition of “alienation,” thus the blankslate need to “Smash The System.” But even far beyond the intellectuals, the counterculture’s explosive cleavage with the previous status quo included frequent insistence that voting is irrelevant, and if you tried the normal route to legitimate political authority, you would become “co-opted” by The System, also known as The Establishment. “Joining the Establishment” was bad. Also you would have to take a urine test.

41

steven t johnson 04.21.21 at 3:10 pm

In a democracy, new leaders arise by inheritance. One of the currently most “powerful” politicians is Joe Manchin. Manchin is from an old political family. His uncle was State Treasurer, for one thing. He was a part of an embarrassing large loss of state funds in obscure deals in finance (along with a fellow named Margolin.) The old NatWest scandal from Margaret Thatcher days played a role.

The other WV senator is the daughter of a governor, Arch Moore. Moore was merely indicted, which doesn’t count. The story of thousands of dollars in cash in Moore’s desk drawer I suppose merely proves he was a successful man, with agency. (Agency is the summum bonum in an astonishingly wide array of value systems, including some that deem themselves very woke indeed.)

Descending to the depths, the House of Representatives, one of WV’s is a Carol Miller. She is the daughter of an Ohio politician, one time Representative himself. She is doubly qualified by being married to the owner of a large automobile dealership. Out of state people moving in and getting elected is a noble tradition. Another WV representative, Alex Mooney, began his career running in Maryland. Current Attorney General Patrick Morrissey began by running in New Jersey. Of course, the famous example is Jay Rockefeller who moved to WV instead of Arkansas, or maybe Puerto Rico.

Formation of a new democratic leadership is also achieved by selection by an informal council of the natural leaders (as they see it,) who groom candidates. This can be an intensive process, like the men who put Reagan on his path. Special relationships with the some of the largest owners in any given state, like the Waltons and Perdues in Arkansas can be helpful.

Even a healthy friendship with, say, Coca-Cola, can matter too. Selection by the wealthy of course can be more market oriented, conducted under auspices of political professionals with mailing lists who use them in primary campaigns.

And of course, the advertising purchased by the wealthy has a great deal of influence on what’s deemed suitable, regardless of mere ratings or readership. Thus, a Trump is suitable for playing up as a contender, while a Sanders, is not.

Marxist fears of being coopted or fears of a drug test don’t seem to be so very important to me. A democracy is one where property is protected, which means that those who own property are protected against a mere numerical majority (as John Calhoun called it.)

42

J, not that one 04.21.21 at 4:58 pm

“Soon enough those who saw, first hand, the disaster of Gosplan style government direction of the economy will also be passing out of that sphere of political influence.”

So will people who are aware that that is a possible style of government, much less a “left” one. I’m not aware of any political movement that’s pushing for anything remotely like that.

43

J-D 04.22.21 at 12:21 am

Together they allude to the fact that many of the best political and sociological minds forged in the 1960’s shunned democracy’s necessary requirement that they enter electoral politics to become leaders.

I’m curious to know whom you’re thinking of.

But even far beyond the intellectuals, the counterculture’s explosive cleavage with the previous status quo included frequent insistence that voting is irrelevant, …

There I feel as if I get you. I’ve encountered instances of people insisting that voting is irrelevant, and I agree with your implicit evaluation. Participation in electoral politics is not the only effective technique for achieving change, but it’s certainly one of them, and in-principle rejection of it is a mistake.

44

Fake Dave 04.22.21 at 12:33 am

We definitely have to separate generational zeitgeist from emerging power blocs and from actual demographic aggregations. Much of the recent “wokeness” is actually people finally digesting ideas from the 80s. Judith Butler and Michel Foucault are not millennials but many of us had to read them for school.

The people who were opposing the 70s-90s neo-liberal turn obviously lost the political battles of their day, but became hip with the people who taught the next generation. The modern right wing meme of “cultural marxism” is based on the idea that the “anti-establishment” thinkers of old have become the new dogma and ushered in a sort of cultural revolution toward intersectional identity and “safe spaces” and away from cold scientific reason.

This seems like an obvious overreaction, but its just a link in the chain of them. The post-stucturalists, post-modernists, and extreme cultural relativists were overreacting to the cold bloodedness of the economic rationalists, behaviorists etc. who were overreacting to what they saw as misguided bleeding heart reformism. You can draw the line back from there with each genation of ideas sowing the seeds of its own antithesis.

It may be best to think of generational coalitions, rather political generations. Anyone at any age can shift political parties and (less frequently) ideologies, but the genealogy of ideas helps influence when a political generation “comes of age.” New ideas gestate in the background for years or decades, but only “take off” when existing ideologies lose their functionality (granting legitimacy to political leaders) and leave a power vacuum. “New ideas” can actually be quite old as long as they seem novel to enough voters, which is why old-young Bernie Sanders style coalitions may actually be the standard for birthing “new” ideologies that only comes of age when their old standard bearers have moved on.

45

Nathanael 04.22.21 at 5:26 am

Worth noting that the Republican attempt to end democracy in the US is doomed — too large a supermajority of the people are fed up with it. It can’t be done with the shrinking, aging, incompetent minority they have. They could put the country into a position where the Republicans have to be ousted violently, but if they did, they would be ousted.

46

Barry 04.22.21 at 12:27 pm

Tim: “The contention is that the same financial market problem recurs when the people who worked through the last iteration of that same mistake retire.

It’s entirely agreed that there are many possible mistakes to make. Financial markets will continue to make new ones. It’s that the old ones only come back when the institutional knowledge has retired.

S&L, dotcom and GFC are all different mistakes.”

The S&L crisis was blown up by people making loans on properties with inflated prices, on the grounds that they could flip those loans.

Same for the Dotcom crash, but based on stocks with massive prices and no profits.

Same for the Great Financial Crash.

The underlying factors are strikingly similar.

47

Lee Arnold 04.22.21 at 12:47 pm

J-D #43: “curious to know whom you’re thinking of.”

Specifically antiwar organizers from the 1960’s whom I came to know personally in the late 1970’s. They were intellectually brilliant; completely practical & dedicated — yet eschewed personal involvement in electoral politics. To be sure there are some famous names from the civil rights & antiwar movements who later became nationally-known politicians. But it seems to me that on the whole the showings from this cohort were rather weak in the ’70’s, helping to create a vacuum into which flowed the Mont Pelerin and other rightwing thinktank propaganda, then into which flooded the Reaganites.

48

J-D 04.23.21 at 7:21 am

Specifically antiwar organizers from the 1960’s whom I came to know personally in the late 1970’s.

Perhaps you can’t now remember their names; perhaps you would prefer not to mention their names; perhaps they’re not well-known enough for me to find out anything about them even if you did mention the names. Still, I remain curious.

49

bt 04.24.21 at 3:57 am

JQ:

Generation Jones!

I had no idea that was a thing and that I was a club member. Just loving it.

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