at National Journal
An August national survey of nearly 3,300 Americans between the ages 18 and 85, conducted by research company Frank N. Magid Associates, details the current composition of the two major political party coalitions that are more distinct from one another than at any other time in the past 50 years--perhaps even since the Great Depression.
In many democracies, political parties represent particular interests: labor or business, specific religions, ethnicities, or regions. In the United States, with its continental dimensions, varied population, and a constitutional system designed to disperse governing power, political parties are historically, and still remain, coalitions of various social groups. No party monopolizes the members of any one demographic, and each party contains at least some representation from all segments of the population.
Once formed, the party coalitions have staying power. During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt assembled the New Deal coalition comprised of Southern whites; the "Greatest Generation" children of Eastern and Southern European immigrants; white workers; and urban blacks. This coalition dominated U.S. electoral politics for four decades and restructured public policy domestically, transforming public economic policy from laissez faire to governmental activism; and internationally, moving the nation’s foreign policy from isolationism to interventionism.
But as new generations with new concerns emerged in the midst of the racial and lifestyle changes of the 1960s, the New Deal coalition fell apart. It was supplanted by a Republican coalition that increasingly added two former components of the Democratic coalition—the white South and working-class whites—to the upper-income white residents of suburbs and small towns outside of the South that had been the core of the GOP in the previous era. The new Republican coalition dominated national elections almost as long and shaped public policy almost as profoundly as had the New Deal coalition that it superseded.
But these party coalitions are formed in a nation with a constantly changing economy, political process, and demographic makeup and, consequently, are not permanent. The Magid display very clearly the sharp differences between today’s party coalitions.
The majority of voters who identify with or lean to the Republican Party are males and members of America’s two oldest generations—baby boomers, those in their 50s to mid-60s; and silents or seniors--who together make up 53 percent of Republicans.
The GOP coalition is almost entirely white (81 percent). It is disproportionately southern (38 percent of all Republicans and 41 percent of strong Republican identifiers) and 40 percent reside in small towns and rural areas. Two-thirds of Republicans are married, and three-quarters are Christian; only 7 percent are unaffiliated with any faith. A third of all GOP identifiers and 42 percent of strong Republicans attend religious services at least weekly. And, not surprisingly, 56 percent of all Republicans and 68 percent of strong Republican identifiers are self-professed conservatives.
The Democratic coalition is far different. A majority of Democratic identifiers are women and from the country’s two youngest generations—Millennials, voters in their 20s; and Generation X, people in their 30s and 40s, who in total make up 57 percent of Democrats. Forty-one percent of all Democrats and 45 percent of strong Democrats are nonwhite with about equal numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics.
Nearly half of Democrats live in the Northeast and West, and a disproportionately large number—70 percent—live in big cities or suburbs. Just half are married. Only 57 percent are Christian, and about one in five are either of non-Christian denominations or unaffiliated with any faith. Just 21 percent of Democrats attend a religious service weekly. Slightly more, 24 percent, never do.
The Democratic coalition is, however, more diverse ideologically than the Republican: While a plurality, 42 percent, are either self-identified liberals or progressives, nearly as many, 35 percent, say they are politically moderate.
The United States is undergoing major demographic, economic, and societal changes that have led to this new alignment and will continue to shape the two parties' coalitions. Some of the change—the Great Recession, the deepest and longest economic downturn since the 1930s—was severe and occurred almost overnight.
Other changes, among them the transformation of the nation from a white to nonwhite majority, the emergence of America’s largest and most diverse generation, the Millennials, and a makeover of the U.S. economy, are taking place more slowly, but equally profoundly.
To hold together and expand their coalitions, both parties will need to formulate a new “civic ethos” that addresses the fundamental question of what the size and scope of government should be in this new era.
Both President Obama and Mitt Romney recognize this and have used their respective party’s conventions to articulate distinctly different visions and values that they believe should shape and guide America’s politics and government in the coming years.
The party that enunciates this new civic ethos in a way that enables it to build a majority electoral and governing coalition is likely to dominate U.S. politics for the next four or five decades.
at Politico/The Arena
In this week’s Newsweek, Paul Begala suggests that the 2012 presidential election will be decided by “swing voters” in six battleground states — Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, New Mexico, and Colorado. But his definition of such voters is so out of synch with reputable polling data that the wiliest of Democratic political operatives must have been trying to fake out Republican readers of this piece rather than reveal the real Obama campaign strategy to Newsweek’s readers.
Begala identifies 916,643 “swing voters” as the 2% of the electorate in each of the six states who have not yet decided how to vote. He makes it clear that his pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, will spend $2,181.87 to reach and presumably persuade each of the decisive voters, which is undoubtedly true. But then he gives a head fake to anyone trying to divine the super PAC’s real intentions by saying these undecided voters are disproportionately women, young voters, and Latino. Although it is true that these demographic groups are usually considered to be the most open to commercial advertising, there is little evidence in recent survey data that the relatively few “swing voters” within the electorate come primarily from these demographic groups.
For instance, the most recent Pew Research Center national survey provides analysts with an operational definition that Begala could have used. Using their data, “swing voters” would be comprised of either those who prefer a candidate other than Barack Obama or Mitt Romney; or those who say they are now undecided in the presidential election; or those who refused to answer the vote intention question. By this definition, “swing voters” comprise 6% of the total electorate in the Pew data. Contrary to Begala’s description, men (7%) and women (6%) are equally likely to be in this category. Older people are far more often “swing voters” than are younger members of the electorate. Among Baby Boomers (those 50-64), 9% are “swing voters,” while within the “Silent Generation” (those 65 years old and over), 7% meet this definition. By contrast, among Millennials (those 18-29), just 1% would be considered a “swing voter.” According to Pew’s results, older white folks of either sex (but especially older white women) are most likely to be “swing voters,” rather than young minorities. In fact, in the Pew survey, Millennials preferred Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by a 1.65:1 margin (61% to 37%) — by far the biggest spread between the two candidates within any age cohort.
One can only assume Begala described swing voters in the way that he did to trick Republicans into wasting their money on ads designed to persuade the least likely to be persuaded demographic groups. If Republicans fall for his head fake, the Obama campaign will run right past them and stuff the ball into the basket for a clear victory in November.
One of the distinctive traits of Millennials (born roughly 1982-2003) is a constant feeling of being pressured. Thanks to their parents setting high expectations for them, Millennials consider life a series of hoops to be jumped through.
At each stage of their young lives, from kindergarten to college, the pressure to succeed has made them a risk averse, anxious generation, even as they remain optimistic about their ultimate success.
As a result, almost half of Millennials (45%) report feeling nervous due to stress at least monthly, and more than half (52%) say that their stress levels have increased over the last five years. But Millennials are also demonstrating a much healthier approach to dealing with this problem than older generations, reinforcing their reputation as the best-behaved American generation in decades.
Stress Response From Different Generations
The latest report from the American Psychological Association on Stress in America reveals very distinctive patterns in how different generations handle stress.
It explains that Boomers and senior citizens are much more likely than Millennials to “get in touch with their inner self” in order to deal with stress, either through prayer, or reading, or telling others their feelings rather than “keeping them bottled up” inside.
Meanwhile, members of Generation X, which is generally the most stressed generation of all, tend to engage in the most self-destructive behaviors when under stress. They are twice as likely as Millennials to say they deal with stress by smoking and twice as likely as Boomers to say they use alcohol.
Millennials, on the other hand, are more likely than any other generation to deal with stress using non-traditional means. Sixty percent say they listen to music to relieve stress, while less than half of older generations do so. Under stress, almost half (44%) of Millennials play video games or surf the Net. The only generation that comes close to Millennials in the use of these techniques is Generation X (36%). Millennials are also twice as likely as other generations to do yoga or meditate to try and relieve stress.
Some of the differences in how generations think about stress is a reflection of their age, rather than their generational type. As people get older, for instance, their assessment of their stress levels declines. Members of the Silent Generation, now over 65, report lower stress levels than any other generation.
Boomers’ assessment of their stress levels has declined steadily over the last five years, from an average score of 6.5 on a 10-point scale in 2007 to only 4.9 last year.
At the same time, Millennials’ perception of how stressed they are as compared to what they believe would be a healthy level of stress is almost as high as their stressed-out Generation X older siblings.
There are also clear age differences in how well people deal with stress. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that adults under 30, the current age bracket of Millennials, are twice as likely to consider suicide as those over 30. While only 1 percent of Millennials actually kill themselves, their rate of suicide is still five times greater than older generations.
Similarly, the problem of binge drinking is much more prevalent among those between the ages of 18 and 25 than it is among older members of the population, predominantly because the perception that such behavior carries great risk goes up dramatically for those 26 and older.
Still, these types of destructive behavior occur less frequently among Millennials than they did within older generations when those older generations were the age that Millennials are today.
The Bottom Line
In some ways, stress is like the weather—everyone talks about it but few do anything about it.
Only 32 percent of Millennials think they are very good or excellent at managing stress, numbers roughly comparable to other generations. The provision of Obamacare to keep those under 26 on their parents’ health insurance should make it easier for Millennials to gain treatment for the most serious effects of feeling pressured.
But having been taught since they were toddlers always to do their best in order to succeed, Millennials will have to develop lifelong healthy habits to deal with the stress they feel. When they do, they will look back with satisfaction on having thrived in the hyperactive world they helped create.
With President Obama’s speech in Osawatomie, Kansas channeling Teddy Roosevelt and decrying the growing economic inequality and lack of upward mobility in America, the issue has finally arrived at the center of this year’s campaign debates. While most discussions of this growing inequality focus on the gap between America’s poorest and richest citizens, a recent report by the Pew Foundation highlights how the same economic trends over the last two and a half decades have also widened the wealth gap between the oldest and youngest Americans to the highest levels in history.
In a time of great political unrest and economic anxiety, this inter-generational wealth gap has the potential to throw gasoline on an already white hot fire. Only by understanding the sources of this increasing disparity can the country develop policies that will help to close the gap and create a fairer, less economically stratified society.
Drawing on data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), Pew documents the tectonic shifts that have occurred in households’ net worth based upon age between 1985 and 2009. During this time, the average net worth of households headed by those under 35 fell from $11,521 to just $3,662, a drop of 68%. During the same period, the net wealth of households, as measured by adding up the value of all assets owned minus liabilities such as mortgages or credit card debt associated with those assets, headed by those over 65 increased by 42%, from $120,457 to $170,494 (all figures are expressed in 2010 dollars).
Of course younger households have always been less wealthy than older ones, since the heads of those households haven’t had a lifetime to acquire wealth. In 1984, this effect of age on household wealth meant that senior citizen households had, on average, ten times the wealth of those headed by people younger than 35. However, the enormous generational shift in household wealth that occurred in the intervening twenty-five years meant that, by 2009, the net worth of senior citizen households was 47 times greater than younger households. The resulting disparities in economic well-being are reflected in each generation’s perception of its own economic situation.
Those Americans over 65 in 2009 are members of what generational historians call the Silent Generation. Only 25% of Silents expressed any dissatisfaction with their personal financial situation that year, a percentage that did not increase in the next two years of the Great Recession.
By contrast, 36% of people under 35 in 2009 – mostly members of the Millennial Generation – expressed dissatisfaction with their individual finances in 2009, a number that rose to 39% in 2011. But the biggest jump in dissatisfaction with personal finances between 2009 and 2011 occurred among the next older cohort, who are considered to be members of Generation X. In 2009, only 30% of Xers felt dissatisfied, a number that shot up to 42% in 2011. Finally, 32% of the Baby Boom generation, born from 1946 to 1964 and approaching their retirement years in 2009, were dissatisfied with their personal financial situation, a number that rose only to 39% by 2011.
One of the reasons behind this disparity of financial and economic concern among generations lies with the different impact the nation’s housing market has had on each generation between 1985 and 2009. The great housing price collapse that began in 2008 had little impact on Millennials, only 18% of whom currently own their own home. By comparison, 57% of Gen Xers own their own home. Three-fourths of them bought after 2000 when housing prices began to soar. As a result, about one in five members of Gen X now say their home mortgage is under water, with the balance owed greater than the value of the house. By comparison, only 13% of Boomers and a miniscule 4% of Silents, most of whom bought homes well before the crash, report having under water mortgages. In fact, if it weren’t for the overall rise in housing prices since 1984 that Silents were able to take advantage of, that generation’s net worth would have fallen by a third in the twenty-five years since, instead of rising by 42%. Clearly, to improve Gen X’s attitudes toward the economy and reduce the inter-generational wealth gap, something must be done to fix the nation’s housing market.
For older generations – Boomers facing retirement and Silents already enjoying their new life – housing is not an especially large concern. Retirement savings based on stock market valuations and/or interest rates and the certainty of pension payments are clearly a much bigger issue with these generations. Almost two-thirds of Boomers believe they may have to defer their retirement beyond 65 because of the decline in their savings and net worth, with about one in four now expecting to work until at least 70. While the stock market has almost fully recovered from the 2008 crash, for those counting on a more interest-oriented set of retirement payouts from bonds or CDs, years of rock bottom interest rates, designed by the Federal Reserve to stimulate the housing market and help the economy recover, have made these investments problematic at best. In some ways, economic policies that are designed to help Gen X with their housing challenges offer older generations scant comfort, and in certain instances actually exacerbate their concerns over their personal finances.
Millennials diminished sense of economic opportunity remains focused almost entirely on the job market. About two-thirds of Millennials are employed but only slightly half of those are working full-time. Almost two-thirds of Millennials without a job are looking for work. Unemployment among 16-24 year olds rose to 19.1% by the fourth quarter of 2009, a full eight points higher than in 2007 before the crash. For all other generations, unemployment has gone up on average by only 5 points during the same time period. It seems too obvious to be worth stating, but the best way to increase Millennials’ wealth is to create an economy where they can all find jobs.
Anxiety that the nation’s economy is only working for the wealthiest drives much of the overall feeling of fear, uncertainty and doubt that pervades the nation’s political debate. But an examination of household wealth suggests the remedy to this disease varies by generation.
Senior citizens turned out in record numbers in the 2010 election to decry the policies of the Obama administration, but it would appear from both the economic and attitudinal data that most of them are more interested in fighting to hang on to what they have or in resisting other societal changes than in expressing any dissatisfaction with their own personal financial situation. Boomers complain about what has happened to their plans for retirement, but it is hard to see how fixing entitlements by raising the retirement age, or cutting the overly generous pensions of public employees will do anything to impact their own retirement prospects directly. To really close the generational wealth gap, policies should be adopted which raise the economic well being of America’s two youngest generations, rather than focusing on those who are already relatively better off.
To bring up the least wealthy of the nation’s households to levels closer to those more fortunate would require taking much more aggressive steps than Washington has so far been willing to consider. This might require expanding the scope and size of government, something older generations especially are steadfastly resisting. This inter-generational debate over the nation’s “civic ethos,” driven by the differing economic circumstances of each generation, will be and ought to be the fundamental issue of the campaign – precisely where President Obama’s speech in Osawatomie, Kansas placed it.