Originally published in Politico
Barack Obama’s election was supposed to consolidate the millennial generation, 18-29 year olds, as a current and future element of the Democratic base. It was an article of faith among Democrats that Obama’s multi-cultural persona, his cool, and his persistent outreach to millenials are a far stronger draw than a Republican Party whose leaders are older, duller, and, according to liberals, absorbed with the idea of recreating America along pre Mad Men, circa 1950s lines.
Reality has proved more complex. While Obama has steadily led Mitt Romney with 18 to 29 year olds by a comfortable double digit margin, in every published sample, Gallup late last year placed Obama’s approval rating with millenials below 50 percent, only marginally greater than his overall totals. Given that a third of the age group is composed of Hispanics and blacks who are dramatically more supportive of Obama, it follows that his approval with white millenials is no better than the low forties. Not a disaster, but not a precursor of a realignment that will shape inclinations for a generation.
The most striking data, though, is not in the Obama numbers, but in a surprising set of results buried in the details of a 2000 plus person sample of young adults by Harvard’s Institute of Politics last December. (Harvard conducted the survey; the survey is not of Harvard students). It seems that the supposedly left leaning millenials tilt to the right on the entitlement debate that may dominate the decade after the Great Recession. 78 percent of them have doubts that Social Security will be able to meet its benefit promises, while 56 percent favor revamping the entitlement to permit re-investments of their FICA contributions into private accounts.
This is a mindset at odds with the liberal orthodoxy that entitlements are a moral commitment that can’t be altered, and a sympathetic identification with what has heretofore been one of the most maligned Republican policy proposals in the last decade. It also suggests that Republican proposals to partly privatize Medicare, and to means test its benefits, could resonate.
The predictable response is that young adults are simply too detached from the plight of old age to make icons out of the Great Society entitlement structure, and that as their parents decline, their own obligations will push them back toward the left. Maybe; but it is just as likely that they are discomfited by the prospect of leveraging one class of workers to subsidize another class of retirees; and that they sense that Medicare and Social Security are exactly that kind of redistribution and not the “pay as you go” devices that Democrats tout.
It would be a ground-breaking thing, and a destabilizing thing for the left, if the generation energized by Obama distrusts Democrats on the core issue of inter-generational fairness. It’s also a window into the fact that not all of our current inequities are rooted in the concentration of wealth in a narrow tax bracket, or even in the chasm between effort and reward in the modern labor market. Some of that inequity is based on the perishable value of promises government makes and can’t plausibly keep, and the certainty that the aftermath of the broken promises will do damage in an unequal, unfair manner.
It’s dumb politics and bad policy for a Republican to run on the idea that government ought to get out of the social insurance business. But the politics of entitlement reform may be about to shift, and so might an edge that Democrats used to think they would own.