Young and Old in an Epoch-Defining Election

by Neil H. Buchanan

The most obvious cleavages in this ugly election are along dimensions of race, gender, religion, and education.  The most consequential divide, however, might be between young and old.

This election is not a choice between two candidates whose impact would be modest or who would focus only on nearer-term matters.  The consequences of next Tuesday's vote will be enormous immediately and will reverberate for decades, which means that young people need to pay special attention.  They will, after all, be stuck with the results of Tuesday's vote for many more years than the rest of us.

In my most recent column, I argued that even young people who view Hillary Clinton as un-cool can and should view this election not merely as a vote against Donald Trump but as a vote for their own futures.  Not only can young people's votes speak for their own interests through the end of this century, but they are also the best proxies to vote for the interests of generations yet unborn, stretching infinitely into the future.

In large part, of course, voting against Trump should be based on the unique threat that he represents in a very immediate sense.  The things that make him different from what Republicans stood for prior to 2016, in degree and kind, ought to be enough to motivate anyone to get out and vote for Clinton.

Mass deportations and building border walls, for example, would have an immediate impact that should concern nearly everyone, not just young people.  The possibility of starting wars and destroying relationships with our allies could have consequences in three months or three years.  And Trump's willingness to rely on open bigotry for political gain harms us all every day.

The cliche that every election is "the most important election of our lives" is based on the simple fact that there are no do-overs in history.  Electing Al Gore instead of George Bush in 2000 would have changed everything.  If Dewey really had defeated Truman in 1948, history would necessarily have played out differently.

This year's election is much more consequential than that.  As I argue in my column, this is the rare election that can seriously be described as epoch-defining.

The stakes in this election are so large and so obvious, and the paths on which the country and the world would proceed are so radically different, that the Clinton/Trump choice cannot merely be equated with, say, the choice between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in 1996.  This is much bigger.

In many important ways, this election's uniqueness is not actually a matter of Trump's awfulness.  Contrary to what I wrote above, this might be a time when we actually have the chance at a do-over, to change the course that U.S. politics has been on for more than a generation.

I noted in yesterday's column that I cast my first vote in 1980, and I argued that this year's election presents today's first-time voters with the opportunity not only to define the future but to reject the political reality that took hold when Ronald Reagan won that long-ago election.

As I wrote: "If young people want to know when the bad trends started that have led to all of the problems that millennials rightly complain about today, it really can be traced to" the 1980 election.  "This is when the tide turned."

This is surely counterintuitive to many young people, who have grown up hearing what a great president Reagan was.  Anyone who watches Republican politicians in any forum for any amount of time would be led to think that Reagan was in the category of Washington, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts.  Wishful thinking and convenient amnesia are powerful things.

My point, however, has nothing to do with the after-the-fact idolization of one man.  The 1980 election truly was a historic turning point.  A small number of people are surely happy with where the country has gone in the years since then, but nearly all important trends took a decidedly ugly turn from that point onward, especially on matters that today's young people care about.

No one would say that the world before 1980 was a utopia, of course.  What we can say is that, on many issues, the trends were moving in the right direction.  Progress against racism and sexism had slowed since the political progress of the 1960's, but the backlash would only take hold during Reagan's presidency.  Similarly, we were still in the era when major environmental legislation was being passed and enforced.

Because I am an economist, however, I tend to focus on the fact that 1980 was the point at which income inequality began its relentless assault on Americans' lives.  Prior to 1980, there was a reliable connection between the growth of the overall economy and increases in the incomes of all Americans.  Prosperity for one was prosperity for all.

Perversely, however, although Reagan famously followed the John F. Kennedy dictum that "a rising tide lifts all boats," when president, Reagan was the avatar of a political tide -- what is sometimes called movement conservatism -- that turned him into a liar.

Adjusted for inflation, the vast majority of Americans today are struggling simply to prevent their living standards from declining below 1980's levels.  This was, moreover, not at all a coincidence.

The conservative movement has always been focused on shifting power in favor of industrialists and financiers, allowing them to keep a growing share of the fruits of their workers' efforts.  Also, starting in the 1980's, workplace safety protections were relaxed and enforcement was gutted, further shifting burdens onto workers.

Early in his presidency, Reagan very publicly busted the air-traffic controllers' union, and soon the rout was on.  It is no small irony that many of the victims of that very bad turn in American economic history are now rallying around Trump, who has focused not on making their lives better but instead has promised to bring back jobs that can never be brought back while engaging in classic divide-and-conquer tactics.

And to add insult to injury, Trump's economic policy is focused on providing yet another round of huge tax cuts for the wealthy.  Here, he really has shown himself to be in league with movement conservatives, including his promise to repeal the estate tax.  There is a reason that almost all Republicans have stuck with Trump, despite his many provocations.

Interestingly, the post-1980 era was for a long time defined by Democrats trying to me-too their way back into power.  Although Bill Clinton's presidency saw the only brief span in which the non-rich made actual economic progress, he and his cohorts were devotees of what can only be called Reagan Lite: hostile to workers' rights, ending "welfare as we know it," abandoning public investment in favor of short-term budget cutting, and (perhaps most disastrously) embracing financial deregulation.

The young voters (and others) who worry that Hillary Clinton might still be committed to the destructive neoliberalism of her husband's administration, therefore, do not have to look far to find examples of policy errors in the 1990's.  When Democrats act like Republicans, Republicans win.

But the simple fact is that the 2016 election presents young people with a stark choice.  Putting all of Trump's uniquely scary traits aside (if you can), what you have is a person who would accelerate all of the policy mistakes of movement conservatism -- especially in those areas that matter most to young people.

On the other side, we have Hillary Clinton, who has adopted policy positions that reject the mistakes of the 1990's, and who presents us with the real possibility of a Democratic president who would work to help struggling Americans.  She would try to increase the minimum wage, make college more affordable, fight discrimination in the workplace, and much more.  (The more Republicans there are in Congress, of course, the more success they will have in stopping progress.)

It does not, however, begin and end with economics.  People are finally starting to think about the possibility of Trump and Senate Republicans filling Supreme Court vacancies.  It is worth remembering that movement conservatism has already delivered democracy-threatening decisions, such as the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013's Shelby County v. Holder as well as the infamous Citizens United decision.

Meanwhile, as the planet becomes hotter and changes in weather patterns threaten life on earth as we know it, Trump joins movement conservatives in doing everything possible to deny the problem and make false claims that addressing climate change is merely "job-killing" political correctness.

As a middle-aged voter, all of these things worry me.  But they should terrify younger people.  Fortunately, young voters (with an assist from the rest of us) can guarantee that 1980's mistake can finally be corrected.  At the very least, we can come together to stop things from getting much, more worse.