This February, America will crown its professional football champion, name the best of the previous year’s movies, and begin to set the direction of its presidential politics. In what might be a mixed metaphor, voters in both parties seem torn between the desire to overturn the system that gave us The Big Short or to throw a long pass in one last desperate attempt to win the game within the existing rules. In trying to sort through which of these strategies they want to pursue, voters are demonstrating, once again, the power of a dynamic that has animated American politics since the country’s founding.
In their 1968 seminal work, The Political Beliefs of Americans, Gallup pollsters Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril were the first to describe and analyze the central paradox of public opinion that underpins U.S. politics. They used survey data to show that Americans are ideologically conservative and operationally (or programmatically) liberal at one and the same time. Indeed, more often than not, this conflict exists within the same individual. At its core, the dichotomy in attitudes features a generalized rejection of a large federal role in the economy, with a simultaneous endorsement of specific governmental programs. It is neatly illustrated by a Tea Party supporter demonstrating at a rally advocating small government but, also, warning elected officials not to “mess with my Medicare.”
But every eighty years the consensus on how to reconcile these two apparently political polar opposites breaks down, leading to the type of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) about the country’s future that characterizes this year’s presidential primary campaign. The underlying cause of this lack of agreement is a shift in the electorate from the dominance of an aging generation, such as today’s Boomers or the Civil War era Transcendentals, focused on ideology to the emergence of a new, soon-to-be-dominant, large, young generation of more civic-minded voters, such as today’s under-35 Millennials, who are the political descendants of the GI Generation that provided support for FDR’s New Deal. Almost like clockwork, this generational shift forces the political establishment to change the fundamental relationship between the government and its citizens, but only after a decisive political victory makes the desired new civic ethos clear to both victors and vanquished.
Free and Cantril’s dynamic is most easily seen in the two-person Democratic contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who are almost personal caricatures of a programmatic (and pragmatic) policy wonk and an ideological zealot. Bernie Sanders portrays himself as an unreconstructed “Democratic Socialist” whose ideology runs counter to the more mainstream notion of limiting federal power. So, it is not surprising he draws most of his support from Millennials, the political heirs of the G.I. Generation.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is all about building on President Obama’s programmatic and progressively-oriented policies, especially the signature achievement: the Affordable Care Act. The ACA is the embodiment of a new civic ethos that simultaneously gives the federal government more power while placing new responsibilities on individuals and giving states and the private sector a new role in making it all work. In contrast to Sanders, her appeal among Democrats is to older generations who are more concerned about “realistic solutions” than ideology.
The picture is cloudier on the Republican side, not just because of the multiplicity of candidates, but also because the constituencies within that party are not as ideologically aligned as they once were. The rise of Donald Trump is fueled by the same anger at the Wall Street shenanigans exposed in the movie The Big Short that has given wings to Bernie Sanders upstart campaign. But Trump’s appeal is almost devoid of ideology. Instead, to the extent it’s about specific policies, its focus is on such things as stopping immigrants at the borders, creating manufacturing jobs, expanding the country’s national defense, and economic protectionism. Contrary to the desire of the ideologically-focused editors of the National Review, Trump’s programs would actually give his presidency unprecedented powers to change the country’s direction and expand the role of the federal government. It is no wonder that Trump wins much of his support from blue collar Republicans who used to vote Democratic and who both are hurting economically and describe themselves as political moderates rather than conservatives.
Standing in steadfast opposition to Trump’s heretical views is Ted Cruz, whose candidacy is all about ideological purity. He draws much of his support from ideologically motivated constituencies, such as Evangelicals and Tea Party enthusiasts. In Iowa at least, that base combined with a well-organized ground game was enough to win, but only because there was a third force in the party to keep the race fluid.
The other programmatic constituency in the Republican Party has traditionally been its business wing, which has focused on reducing the regulatory reach of the federal government and lowering corporate tax burdens. That segment of the party is not known for its zeal for the more ideological social issues that have come to dominate the party’s platform. But, as Jeb Bush’s faltering campaign can attest, fewer and fewer Republican voters respond to this type of appeal. Instead, as the candidacy of Marco Rubio, and even Speaker Paul Ryan’s policy ideas suggest, younger Republican voters might respond more favorably to a policy agenda that deals with Millennial concerns over inequality and tolerance, while still retaining the party’s traditional appeal for doing so through limited government. Whether there are enough such voters who will participate in the rest of the Republican caucuses and primaries to make Rubio a winner remains to be seen.
By the end of this decade, one out of three eligible voters will be Millennials, a demographic fact that makes it impossible for either political party to stick with what has worked in the past and still succeed. American history teaches us that when such a powerful new generation arises, one party discovers a way to resolve the enduring paradox of American political thought in a way that appeals to this new constituency. Lincoln’s Republican Party and FDR’s New Deal Democratic Party are examples of the rewards that await such a campaign. In a year of political surprises, finding a candidate who can articulate a new civic ethos that wins majority support from the American electorate would be the ultimate “long bomb”—a Hail Mary pass for the ages. Hopefully, this month the country will not only celebrate a championship football team and stellar entertainment, but find the person who can articulate a new consensus on how to resolve the enduring challenge of American democracy for the next eight decades.