Most political analysis of America’s awful economy focuses on whether it will doom President Obama’s reelection or cause Congress to turn toward one party or the other. These are important questions, but we should really be looking at the deeper problems with which whoever wins in 2012 will have to deal.
Not to depress you, but our economic troubles are likely to continue for many years — a decade or more. At the current rate of job growth (averaging 90,000 new jobs per month over the last six months), 14 million Americans will remain permanently unemployed. The consensus estimate is that at least 90,000 new jobs are needed just to keep up with the growth of the labor force. Even if we get back to a normal rate of 200,000 new jobs per month, unemployment will stay high for at least ten years. Years of high unemployment will likely result in a vicious cycle, as relatively lower spending by the middle-class further slows job growth.
This, in turn, could make political compromise even more elusive than it is now, as remarkable as that may seem. In past years, politics has been greased by the expectation of better times to come – not only more personal consumption but also upward mobility through good schools, access to college, better jobs, improved infrastructure. It’s been a virtuous cycle: When the economy grows, the wealthy more easily accept a smaller share of the gains because they still came out ahead of where they were before. And everyone more willingly pays taxes to finance public provision because they share in the overall economic gains.
Now the grease is gone. Fully two-thirds of Americans recently polled by the Wall Street Journal say they aren’t confident life for their children’s generation will be better than it’s been for them. The last time our hopes for a better life were dashed so profoundly was during the Great Depression.
But here’s what might be considered the good news. Rather than ushering in an era of political paralysis, the Great Depression of the 1930s changed American politics altogether — realigning the major parties, creating new coalitions, and yielding new solutions. Prolonged economic distress of a decade or more could have the same effect this time around.
What might the new politics look like? The nation is polarizing in three distinct ways, and any or all of could generate new political alignments.
A vast gulf separates Tea Party Republicans from the inchoate Wall Street Occupiers. The former disdain government; the latter hate Wall Street and big corporations. The Tea Party is well organized and generously financed; Occupiers are relentlessly disorganized and underfunded. And if the events of the last two weeks are any guide, Occupiers probably won’t be able to literally occupy public areas indefinitely; they’ll have to move from occupying locations to organizing around issues.
But the two overlap in an important way that provides a clue to the first characteristic of the new politics. Both movements are doggedly anti-establishment — distrusting politically powerful and privileged elites and the institutions those elites inhabit.
There’s little difference, after all, between the right’s depiction of a “chablis-drinking, Brie-eating” establishment and the left’s perception of a rich one percent who fly to the Hamptons in private jets.
In political terms, both sides are deeply suspicious of the Federal Reserve and want it to be more transparent and accountable. Both are committed to ending “corporate welfare” — special tax breaks and subsidies for specific industries or companies. And for both, Washington’s original sin was the bailing out of Wall Street.
Mere mention the bailout at any Tea Party meet-in or Occupier teach-in elicits similar jeers. The first expression of Tea Party power was the Utah Tea Party’s rejection of conservative Republican senator Robert Bennett because of his vote for the bailout. At the Republican state convention, which ultimately led to the election of Senator Mike Lee, the crowd repeatedly shouted “TARP! TARP! TARP!” The Occupiers, too, began on Wall Street.
The historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote a famous essay about the recurring strain of, as he put it, a “paranoid style in American politics” — an underlying readiness among average voters to see conspiracies among powerful elites supposedly plotting against them. He noted that the paranoia arises during periods of economic stress.
But the web of interconnections linking Washington and Wall Street over the last decade or so — involving campaign contributions, revolving doors, and secret deals — has been so tight as to suggest that this newer anti-establishment activism is based on at least a kernel of truth.
Economic stresses caused Americans to turn inward during the Great Depression, and we’re seeing the same drift this time around. Republican fulminations against the “cult of multiculturalism” are meeting similar sentiments in traditional Democratic precincts — especially when it comes to undocumented immigrants. Alabama and Arizona have spearheaded especially vicious laws, yet polls show increasing percentages of voters across America objecting to giving the children of illegal immigrants access to state-supported services.
Meanwhile, Americans are turning against global trade. Notwithstanding new trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia, only a minority of Americans now believes trade agreements benefit the U.S. economy. A growing percentage also want the U.S. out of the World Trade Organization. China has emerged as a special bogeyman. The Democratic-controlled Senate recently passing a bill to punish China for under-valuing its currency, but China-bashing is becoming bipartisan. Mitt Romney accuses former U.S. leaders of having “been played like a fiddle by the Chinese.”
Neither immigration, nor trade, nor China’s currency manipulation is the cause of America’s high unemployment. All three predated the crash of 2008, before which unemployment was only 5 percent. Yet the current drift toward isolationism is not entirely irrational. As hundreds of millions of workers in emerging economies — especially in Asia — continue to enter the global workforce with steadily-improving skills and higher productivity, more and more Americans are losing ground. Meanwhile, immigration and trade are boons to top executives and professionals who gain access to cheaper labor and larger markets for their own skills and insights.
A third division likely to widen if the economy remains bad runs along a demographic fault-line. Many aging boomers whose nest eggs have turned the size of humming-bird eggs are understandably anxious about their retirement, while America’s young — whose skins are more likely than those of boomer retirees to be brown or black — face years of joblessness.
The jobless rate among people under 25 is already over 17 percent. For young people of color it’s above 20 percent. For young college grads — who assumed a bachelors’ degree was a ticket to upward mobility — unemployment has reached 10 percent. Yet these percentages are likely to rise if boomers decide they can’t afford to retire, and thereby block the jobs pipeline for younger people seeking employment.
Old and young will also find themselves increasingly at odds over public spending. In many communities retirees already resist property tax hikes to pay for local schools. Expect that resistance to grow as boomers have to live on fixed incomes smaller than they expected, and a new wave of young people swarm into the nation’s educational systems. The federal budget will also be a scene of generational conflict. Medicare and Social Security, the two giant entitlement programs for seniors that cost more than $1 trillion a year and account for about a third of the federal budget, will be traded off against programs that benefit the young: Title I funding for low-income school-age students; Head Start; food stamps; child nutrition; children’s health; and vaccines. It’s likely that Medicaid — Medicare’s poor stepchild, half of whose recipients are children — will also be on the cutting board.
After the enactment of Medicare in 1965, poverty among the elderly declined markedly. But poverty among America’s children continues to rise. Yet children don’t have nearly as effective a lobbying presence in Washington. AARP spent $9.7 million on lobbying during first six months of this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. By contrast, the Children’s Defense Fund spent just $48,245 last year. Yet because the future lies with the young and with an increasingly diverse America, politicians and parties looking toward the longer term will have to take heed.
How our political parties and leaders will cope with these three fault lines is far from clear, partly because the lines don’t all move in same direction. Young Americans tend to be more anti-establishment than older Americans, for example, but are also more open to other nations and cultures. By the same token, a generational war over the budget might be avoided if anti-establishment movements succeed in reducing corporate welfare, raising taxes on the rich, and limiting Wall Street’s rapacious hold over economic decision making.
What seems certain, however, is that continued high unemployment coupled with slow or no growth will create a new political landscape. This will pose a special challenge — and opportunity. If our political leaders don’t manage the new dividing lines effectively they could invite a politics of resentment that scapegoats certain groups while avoiding the hard work of setting priorities and making difficult choices.
On the other hand, if political leaders take advantage of the energies and possibilities this new landscape offers, they could usher in an era in which the fruits of growth are more widely shared: between elites and everyone else; between the beneficiaries of globalization and those most burdened by it; and between older Americans and young. This itself could reignite a virtuous cycle — a broad-based prosperity that not only generates more demand for goods and services and therefore more jobs, but also a more inclusive and generous politics.
There is a precedent for the second alternative. The structural reforms begun in the depression decade of the 1930s generated just this kind of virtuous cycle in the three decades after World War II. And in devising and implementing these reforms, the Democratic Party came to represent Americans with little power relative to the financial and business elites that had dominated the country before the great crash of 1929. That political realignment was the most profound and successful of the twentieth century.
Will it happen again? At this point, both parties are doing remarkably little given the gravity of the continuing jobs depression and the widening gap of income and wealth. Taming the budget deficit is the only significant issue anyone in Washington seems willing to raise yet Congress seems incapable of achieving any significant progress on this. And the budget itself is only indirectly related to the deeper questions of how to restart economic growth, how much of that growth should be allocated to public goods such as the environment or education, and how the benefits of that growth are to be shared.
Political elites are worried about thunder on the right and the left, but they show scant understanding of what these growing anti-establishment forces signify. Meanwhile, the nation drifts.